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Italy the ‘Wellness Nation’: a global reference point for a healthy and sustainable lifestyle

Article - October 28, 2016

Italy is one of a handful of places on the planet where living the good life is not just a pleasant reverie or wistful state of mind. All you have to do is keep on watching what you eat, perform regular exercise, avoid stress and enjoy the occasional glass of prosecco to make sure that it is a long life as well

As ancient as the civilizations that once flourished along its shores the Mediterranean diet calls for timeless ingredients such as fish, pulses and grains, fruit, fresh vegetables and olive oil. Moderate amounts of meat and dairy products are usually allowed, only sparingly. Dishes are generally served with a variety of spicy condiments and are accompanied by wine. But the ingredients that matter most are the ones you won’t find in the recipe books. Mediterranean style nutrition habits promote social integration by lending itself to communal meals. It encourages sustainable farm cultivation techniques and sensible fishery management. Not least of its dividends are the kitchen skills acquired during its preparation.  

“Wellness is not about going to the gym three times per week for one hour. Instead, it has to do with good nutrition, a positive approach, and regular physical activity”

Nerio Alessandri, Founder, Technogym

For many, a healthy diet is a step in the right direction. For others, that step does not take you far enough past the point where wellness, as opposed to fitness, becomes the more relevant approach. In that respect, Nerio Alessandri is an energetic advocate for the comprehensive wellness program that he initiated throughout the Emilia Romagna region.

Wellness, Mr. Alessandri explains, is  an Italian lifestyle rooted in the philosophy of “Mens sana in corpore sano” – as sound a prescription now as it was 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome. “Without health, humanity isn’t sustainable,” he maintains. “Wellness is not about going to the gym three times per week for one hour. Instead, it has to do with good nutrition, a positive approach, and regular physical activity.”

Born with a passion for sport and trained as an industrial designer, it was probably inevitable that his success story should have somewhat Silicon Valley overtones. Mr Alessandri was just 22 years old when he founded his company Technogym in 1983, after working with his brother in their parents’ garage to create the prototypes for what became their line of high-end sports and exercise equipment.

“Our vision is to deliver the wellness solution, not just a machine,” he says. The first Wellness Institute began operating in Cesena in 2002, as a place to train trainers and teach them how to take full advantage of the state-of-the-art equipment that incorporates features like digital body monitoring, customized software applications and at home e-learning courses. From there it was a short step to the Wellness Village concept, in which individuals are put up in some of the fabulously opulent spas on the so-called Romagna Riviera for a period of supervised diet, exercise and relaxation therapy.

It has been estimated 35 million people in over 100 countries work out with Technogym gear on any given day. Mr. Alessandri’s firm supplies the UK Ministry of Defense and organizers of the last five Olympic Games as readily as it does cruise ships, assisted living facilities and rehab clinics.  He says, “Our corporate social responsibility is based on the promotion of the wellness lifestyle; it is in our DNA and business approach.”

Promoting the Mediterranean diet

Olive oil, fish, plenty of fresh or dried fruit and vegetables – the much applauded Mediterranean diet has been acknowledged as the gold standard for healthy living.

The pasta essential to many of the diet’s culinary permutations is likely to carry the name of Barilla, the family-owned business headquartered in Parma, Italy.  The vice chairman, Luca Barilla, notes that their products have the distinction of being the best seller not just in Italy (where they have a 25% of what can be imagined is a highly competitive home market) but also in the United States, where it controls a 30% share, and owns several factories in the Midwest where wheat and other ingredients are processed.

“There’s much more to it than merely profit,” Mr. Barilla says. “Everything related to sustainability, health, and nutrition comes first, as those are all factors shaping the well-being of communities all around the world.”

To underscore Barilla’s determination to encourage the practice of responsible cultivation and minimize its impact on the environment, the vice-chairman points to progress made to date in reducing water use, energy consumption (down 5% since 2010), and other factors. Most spectacularly, they found ways of slashing CO2 emissions by 23% – which is saying a lot, if you stop to think about the 1.8 million tons of pasta that emerge from its factories each year.

“We must raise awareness about the world’s nutritional and environmental problems and cannot be driven only by concerns about profit maximization,” insists Mr Barilla. By 2020, the  firm hopes to have strategic supply chains in place for all its essential raw materials  including  tomatoes, eggs and durum wheat that have been produced according to best standards and verified as agriculturally sustainable. In the interval, Barilla will press ahead with its priority concern.    

“It is essential for us to promote and act as ambassadors of the Mediterranean diet in the U.S., because Americans are increasingly interested in healthy food choices,” notes Mr. Barilla, and adds “The Mediterranean diet is the best in the world for two main reasons: it’s good for people and for the planet.”  

“There’s much more to it than merely profit. Everything related to sustainability, health, and nutrition comes first, as those are all factors shaping the well-being of communities all around the world”

Luca Barilla, Vice Chairman, Barilla

Rich biodiversity breeds food quality

The ability to produce some of the world’s most marvelous food and wine is not going to take you very far unless the products are successfully introduced, advertised and brought to market far from their place of origin. A globally recognized positive brand identity isn’t a bad idea either. Best of all is the innate talent needed to reinvent a routine action like shopping for groceries as an “experience” that will keep your customers coming back for more.

“Eataly was set up with two main objectives,” says Oscar Farinetti the founder of the chain of high-end restaurants, food and beverage counters and retail outlets that operate under that trademark. “First was to tell the rest of the world about Italy’s biodiversity. The second was to give Italians reasons to be proud, to make them want to stop complaining and start working on the beauty of our country.”

The thing Italian food has going for it is, above all, geography, says Mr. Farinetti. “The only peninsula that runs north to south along a perfect latitude, surrounded by a ‘good’ sea. Sea breezes combine with equally benevolent winds from our mountains and hills to create a microclimate like no other. We are the most biodiverse country in the world, and we know how to express this in our food and wine.”

Today Eataly is present in Europe, the United States, Brazil, the Middle East, Turkey, Korea and Japan. As well as growing the Eataly presence in those markets, preparations are underway for opening branded foodie hot spots in Russia, Asia and Australia a few years down the road.

“‘Made in Italy’ is powerful because of our country’s ability to create extraordinary products,” Mr. Farinetti concludes.  “Simple tools are needed to make them readily identifiable and to raise awareness of the power of our unique biodiversity.”

A case study of Tuscany’s excellence: Il Borro

Amidst all the riches of Tuscany, the village of Il Borro is one of its less familiar treasures, a medieval town crowned by a 19th-century manor house that has been restored and furnished with unstinting taste and elegance to earn its place of distinction in the listings of Relais & Chateaux, the world famous catalogue of once-in-a-lifetime luxury lodgings.

“We live in a fantastic place with an incredible variety of culture, traditions and products,” says Salvatore Ferragamo who manages the complex owned by his family that comprises the hotel, spa, and two restaurants. Of course, there is a wine cellar -- this is Tuscany, after all -- to complement the superb cooking available at the Osteria del Borro.

The serenity and calm of the surrounding olive groves and vineyards make lingering in its three private gardens a constant temptation, but a choice of activities is available to the more energetic, who can opt for activities such as horseback trekking or mountain bikes. The less determinedly strenuous may prefer truffle hunting excursions, hands-on lessons revealing the secrets of Tuscan cookery, workshops observing how the local cheese is made, and of course, wine tasting sessions.

“We strive to maximize the peculiarities of our terroir and take advantage of its micro-climate, soils, and natural conditions to plant our vines,” Mr. Ferragamo assures his guests. “One of Italy’s competitive advantages is the care for the terroir and the implementation of sustainable practices that preserve the environment,” he says and adds that it is a philosophy,  not a marketing strategy, and as such, is not going to change any time soon.

Technogym’s Wellness Village

Enjoy the bubbles

The sound of corks popping in jubilant celebration could be fairly described as deafening when it was confirmed that Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, became the world’s number one best seller in its category in 2015, edging past the former title holder, champagne, as well as other rivals of long standing such as German sekt and Spanish cava.

That was good news indeed for the 12,000 grape growers who work the 20,000-acre terroir that stretches across nine provinces in the regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, which is the point of origin of the closely regulated process that turns out 355 million bottles of Prosecco each year to satisfy growing world demand for that casual yet elegant beverage.

Stefano Zanette, Chairman of the Prosecco DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) Consortium, mentions several factors that may be contributing to the drink’s newly-confirmed trendiness. “The fact that drinking prosecco has become fashionable has stirred significant interest in our companies, which means our identity as Italians is being recognized around the world,” he notes.

Mr. Zanette credits last year’s sharp upsurge in foreign demand with steepening the sales curve, as Prosecco continues to grow its presence on supermarket shelves in the U.K., U.S. and Germany. “We export as much as 70% of our production around the world,” he notes. “The U.S. is our second-best market. Expectations are that 2016 will confirm the trends that have emerged over the last few years.”

Asked to identify what sets Prosecco apart from other spumante-type wines, Mr. Zanette cites the “close relationship between the winegrower and the product and the attention and concern all those involved have for the environment. The winegrower lives on the land he cultivates. Remember that 50% of the winemaking industry in Italy is organized into small cooperatives,” he says.

“We are trying to export a whole lifestyle that can be summarized in a glass of Prosecco,” Mr. Zanette says  “We like to call it a “democratic luxury product” that can improve any moment of the day.”

Emilia Romagna: The Wellness region

Italians have staked their future on updating and consolidating the mechanisms of governance and empowering the public at the national, regional and municipal levels. The constitution is being amended. Key competencies such as energy policy, infrastructure and tourism are set to be ceded by the country’s 20 administrative regions to the central government. And all of Italy’s 120 provinces are to be abolished with a stroke of the pen, along with the redundant bureaucracies they maintained.

A reset of that magnitude is needed to facilitate a smooth transition to 21st century realities, says  Stefano Bonaccini, the president of  Italy’s northern Emilia Romagna region, who  recently  signed a €3 billion ($3.3 billion) deal to roll out broadband to all of Italy’s municipalities, schools, and industrial districts.

“Emilia Romagna is the country’s most digitalized region,” he points out. “It registered a record high in export volume with a  €55.3 billion ($61.6 billion) surplus and 6% year-on-year growth. This year’s growth is expected to be around 3-3.5%, which is lower but still  solid.

“Our region represents 15% of all national exports,” he adds. The region is famous for the variety and quality of its agro-food products, while  the ultra-high-end segment of the automotive industry is represented by global luxury brands such as Ferrari, Ducati, Maserati, and Lamborghini.

“We rank sixth in Europe on the index of foreign direct investment attractiveness,” concludes President Bonaccini. “Foreign companies appreciate our excellent infrastructure, the availability of extraordinarily skilled human capital that we support with constant training; and the incredible quality of life we can offer especially with regard to welfare, health, and education.”