Click Here to sign up for the SHAPE Newsletter!

Diabetes Awareness Month: Carb-Friendly Sides

Sysco Shape November 2013

Move over mashed potatoes and white rice.

Carbohydrates are a key part of many side dishes, but today’s restaurant consumers want more than the traditional offerings. Many diners are seeking something interesting and nutritious to complement the protein.

For diabetics, carbs are especially important because as more than 25 million diabetics in the U.S. know, diabetes is about more than sugar. Diabetics can help maintain healthy blood sugar levels by eating high quality carbs, which includes whole grains. In fact, not only diabetics but many other consumers who are interested in eating healthy foods seek these whole grains as a side in many restaurant meals.

That’s why in November, Diabetes Awareness Month, foodservice professionals might think about how to incorporate new side items to satisfy not only people with diabetes but also diners who generally want to eat healthful foods.

“In most cases, something that is healthy for everyone will be healthy for diabetics, and vice versa,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for The Whole Grains Council, a program of the nonprofit nutrition education group Oldways.

Harriman notes that there has been much research on why whole grains are beneficial not only to people with Type 1, Type 2, and pre-diabetes, but to everyone. Certain fibers such as barley and oat beta glucans (sugars) may slow digestion and carbohydrate absorption, which can help prevent spikes in blood sugar. Another grain, sorghum, has antioxidants and phenolics that inhibit protein glycation, which may be involved in diabetes and insulin resistance. Also, Harriman says, some studies indicate that whole grain rye and whole grain barley may be more effective in controlling blood sugar than whole grain wheat. Whole grains and a high fiber diet reduces inflammation, which is thought to be a factor in diabetes and many other chronic diseases.

Even though most consumers don’t read all the studies, many do understand that whole grains are packed with nutrition. Some restaurants have responded by offering brown rice as a substitute for white rice. That’s a positive step, Harriman says, and there are many more ways to offer whole grains to diners.

“Because whole grains have more taste and texture, they can contribute more to the overall balance of the meal,” she says. Think farro, quinoa, and different colored grains such as red rice and purple barley.

The Whole Grains Council offers recipes on its website. Chefs took notice and began asking the Boston-based group for recipes. “They would say to me, I don’t need a recipe for four, I need one for forty,” Harriman says. The group added recipes for foodservice, including dozens of cold and hot side dishes. Cold side dishes include Red Rice Salad with Apples; Cantaloupe, Cucumber and Wheat Berry Salad; Black Barley, Quinoa and Couscous Salad; and Farro and Roasted Pepper Salad. Hot side dishes include Wheat Berry and Wild Rice Pilaf; Quinoa with Avocado and Cilantro; Brown Rice, Corn and Zucchini Patties; and Wild Rice Cakes with Mushroom Sauce.

Chefs do have some challenges in offering whole grain side dishes. For some, it’s not simply a matter of multiplying the recipe by ten. The kitchen might need additional equipment to steam brown rice as well as white rice. Kitchen staff must know how to cook the grains properly.

Another issue is the higher food costs of certain grains. Some Asian and Mexican concepts and other restaurants have shown that consumers are often willing to pay more for a higher quality carb such as brown rice instead of white rice. Other grains are more expensive, but the gap is closing as more consumers ask for these grains. Of course proteins are expensive too, and Harriman says some chefs are offsetting the price of proteins by incorporating grains into the center of the plate. Instead of a meat-and-two-sides approach, many restaurants now offer a plate or a bowl of ingredients together. So they might serve, for example, Farro and Quinoa Veggie Slider, Korean Beef Barley Taco Salad, or Red Rice Crab Cakes.

Noncommercial foodservice operators are also offering more whole grains. Healthcare facilities and schools are especially interested in offering diabetes-friendly foods, and can do so easily with whole grain pasta salad, bell peppers stuffed with quinoa or amaranth, or by adding farro, wheat berries, spelt, or other grains to a leafy green salad.

Finally, the whole grains must be presented in a way that is positive. Diabetics and other consumers do not want to be reminded of what they cannot eat or what they should avoid. Instead they want to know what is flavorful or original about the meal. So a whole wheat penne or a quinoa with orange salad should be offered as one of many offerings, not the diabetes friendly or no-simple-sugars option.

“It all comes down to deliciousness,” Harriman says. “If you can have something that is delicious and nutritious for everyone, why would you not?”