Why this Mediterranean staple could help you live longer

The Telegraph

Why this Mediterranean staple could help you live longer

Abigail Buchanan – March 14, 2023

sofrito - Getty
sofrito – Getty

The latest study extolling the virtues of the Mediterranean diet has come this week from Newcastle University. Researchers studied data from 60,000 people, and found that eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, legumes, fish and olive oil, and very little red and processed meat, could significantly cut your dementia risk.

Along with this, they suggested that to maximise the benefits of the Med way of life, we should be having twice weekly servings of sofrito – a simple sauce made from just four or five ingredients, that is the bedrock of Mediterranean cuisine, used in sauces, soups and stews, and as a marinade for fish and meat. The ingredients vary slightly by region, but it always starts with a base of workaday staples: onions, tomatoes and olive oil. In Spain, it usually contains garlic and peppers, in Italy, celery and carrots.

Sofrito was also identified as a key component in the ‘perfect’ diet based on findings from an influential, long-running study conducted in Spain, which informed Newcastle University’s research. Its importance is “based around its ubiquity in Mediterranean cooking,” says Dr Oliver Shannon, a lecturer in human nutrition and ageing at Newcastle who led the recent study into diet and dementia risk. Few people got a ‘perfect’ diet score in the study, but “even one or two small changes to an individual’s diet could make a big difference.”

sofrito chopped vegetables - Getty
sofrito chopped vegetables – Getty

One of the crucial ingredients for brain health is plenty of olive oil, which is abundant in sofrito, and has a “healthy profile of fats –  mono and poly-unsaturated fatty acids,” says Shannon.

“It’s also rich in polyphenols, these ‘plant defence’ compounds that seem to be really good at protecting the body against oxidative stress. There’s some really good evidence now that that contributes to the cardiovascular and cognitive benefits of the Mediterranean diet.”

A diet that includes two dishes cooked with sofrito per week has broader health benefits, as it means that you’re cooking a healthy meal from scratch and not taking shortcuts or eating fast food, says nutritionist Jane Clarke. But the tomato base provides a specific brain boost.

sofrito - Getty
sofrito – Getty

“Tomatoes contain an antioxidant called lycopene that reduces what we call ‘free radical damage’ – the damage that the environment, our genes and lifestyle can have on our body – and reduces the risk of certain types of dementia,” she says. It’s lycopene that gives tomatoes their bright red colouring.

“What’s great about tomatoes is that the lycopene content increases and becomes more readily available to the body when it’s cooked. And you’ve lost the water so you’ve got a more concentrated source.”

Some suggest that cooking tomatoes with olive oil – as is often the case in a Mediterranean diet – further increases the concentration of this potent antioxidant. An Italian study showed that the absorption of lycopene was three times greater from cooked tomatoes in comparison to raw.

Onions and garlic get their smell from allicin, another anti-inflammatory ingredient, says Clarke. Plus, an Italian soffritto typically also contains carrots and celery. “Carrots contain beta-carotene, an antioxidant, and like the tomato, it’s more efficiently absorbed when it’s cooked,” she says. Beta-carotene, which is also present in tomatoes, helps support a healthy immune system.

sofrito - Getty
sofrito – Getty

The best news of all is that sofrito is the base of countless delicious dishes, from Spanish paella to a traditional Italian bolognese. It can also be used as a condiment. ‘We use it in many different dishes [but] you can have it as it is, with a fried egg on top, for example,’ says Jose Jara, the Spanish head chef of JOIA, an Iberian restaurant in Battersea, London. He regularly serves a sofrito sauce with tapas dishes.

Preparing sofrito is easy, but requires a fair amount of chopping to finely dice the ingredients and then a long, slow simmer. You can buy a frozen sofrito (or soffritto) base from supermarkets, or buy the ready-made sauce from Waitrose and Ocado.

However, it’s best homemade, and can be batch-cooked and stored in the freezer. ‘The base of [our] sofrito is olive oil, onion, red or green pepper, tomato, garlic and paprika,’ says Jara, although depending on who’s cooking it, they might add one or two extra ingredients, such as herbs.

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.