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The benefits of 'stealth health'

SHAPE December 2015

Chefs, restaurateurs quietly adjust recipes to accommodate consumers' health concerns.

As health-conscious Americans take a greater interest in the foods they consume, chefs and restaurateurs are seeking to address this trend by devising more nutritious menu selections that meet the demands of their customers.

However, while a growing number of consumers may be looking for more nutritious alternatives, menu items chiefly promoted as possessing a health halo can often frighten away customers who reflexively assume such items lack interest or flavor.

Consequently, chefs and operators face the challenge of developing menu items that are both healthful and flavorful, while convincing their customers that such dishes do not mean that they will have to sacrifice one for the other.

“It can be tough,” says Allison Righter, lecturing instructor — culinary science at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.  “You run the risk of turning customers off. So the food needs to taste great … and you need to make it sound delicious [on the menu].”

This movement toward “stealth health” is only expected to grow over time as Americans' interest in nutrition — particularly among millennials — continues to increase and restaurateurs strive to keep pace. The International Food Information Council Foundation's Food & Health Survey 2015 found that 48 percent of those individuals polled said they gave “a lot” of thought to the healthfulness of the foods and beverages they consume. A further 44 percent said they gave the topic “a little” thought.

Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association's What's Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast says 65 percent of all chefs polled for the annual study predict that nutrition will constitute a hot trend in the coming year.

The industry's implementation over the next 12 months of the long-awaited federal menu labeling regulations also will almost certainly prompt inquiries from customers as restaurants with 20 or more locations post calorie counts for standard menu items, observes Rachael Derr, culinary dietitian for Healthy Dining in San Diego. “It's bound to spark questions, so restaurateurs need to start paying attention,” she says.

Making changes gradually
However, culinarians need not make sweeping alterations in the way they develop and prepare food to accommodate these trends. In fact, the substitution of one ingredient for another — or even the simple reduction of some ingredients — often can improve the nutritional makeup of a particular item while still maintaining a desirable flavor profile.

While fat unquestionably adds flavor to a dish, nutritionists agree that Americans get too much fat in their diets. Blaire Newhard, also a culinary dietitian with Healthy Dining, points out, for example, that reducing the amount of cooking fat by a tablespoon in a recipe can cut 100 calories from the preparation. She also recommends reducing the amount of butter often employed by chefs to finish a sauce. “Fat often gets hidden in sauces, so you might want to reduce the dairy component,” she says.

Fruit or even pureed vegetables can be substituted for dairy products in sauces, experts say, thereby reducing the fat content and maintaining a creamy texture.

Americans also get too much sodium and sugar in their diet, so chefs are devising ways to cut down on both in recipes without compromising taste. Angela Ginn, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, advises that the use of flavorful ingredients like sriracha, lemon grass, chile peppers and spices and herbs to help offset the reduction of salt in recipes.

Newhard also suggests the use of citrus flavors or garlic or foods with umami — for instance, aged cheeses, mushrooms, seaweed and tomatoes — to help compensate for the decrease in salt.

Fruit and vegetable purees also can make a flavorful stand-in for sugar in dessert items together with such ingredients as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and vanilla.

Protein portion size
Many chefs are reducing the portion size of animal-based protein as a way of achieving a more nutrition-centric strategy. Experts advise cutting back on protein from an average 6 to 8 ounces down to 3 to 4 ounces. The CIA's Righter says Americans should take a page from other cuisines where smaller protein portions work in tandem with other healthful components like vegetables and whole grains. However, she adds, restaurateurs must be careful not to scare customers away by serving portions that are too small.

“We consume more meat than any other country,” she says. “We need to solve the problem of how can we cut back and still be satisfied?”

To help achieve that, some culinarians are exploring the blending of ground meat with vegetables or whole grains. Increasingly, chefs and restaurateurs are combining ground beef with chopped, sautéed mushrooms in burgers and even meatloaf, Righter says. Blending recipes often call for the substitution of anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of meat to sautéed mushrooms. “Many consumers like it,” she says. “The sautéed mushrooms contain umami and moisture, and enhance the flavor and texture.” Spinach is another vegetable that lends itself to blending, she says.

Blending doesn't stop with protein, either. For example, rather than serving a routine side dish of mashed potatoes, some chefs are mashing cauliflower in with the potatoes, which increases fiber content, decreases starch and adds flavor, Righter says.

Including whole grains
The inclusion of whole grains and beans also is gaining traction among chefs. Grains like barley, quinoa, corn, spelt and rye increase fiber and vitamins, and can help make diners feel fuller. Beans are also “fantastic,” says Derr. However, she advises chefs to use the dry variety because canned beans are high in sodium. “If you do use canned beans, rinse and drain them well — it will get rid of about 40 percent of the sodium.”

Plant-based protein like legumes are under-appreciated and under-consumed, says Righter. She recommends taking inspiration from global cuisines like Latin or Indian, which incorporate beans, lentils and nuts into the mix.

Experts also suggest that restaurants using iceberg lettuce might want to replace some of it with dark, leafy green vegetables like kale, romaine, spinach or arugula. “They're higher in iron and pack more nutrients,” says Newhard.

Meanwhile, as concerns about obesity and other health-related problems continue to increase, chefs and restaurateurs will need to become more mindful of health and wellness when developing recipes. “More and more, there has been an increase in the number of consumers who want healthier options,” Righter says. “The role chefs play in eating well is huge. The challenge is to make nutritious food taste better. It can't be boring. It must taste and sound delicious. ”


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