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Inside the Ingredients

Health headlines can change as frequently as a seasonal menu. Nevertheless, Americans eat them up. To stay in touch with the latest research (and perhaps be a step ahead of your customers), here’s what’s happening withsome of the ingredients you purchase for your menu.

Blueberries rank high in antioxidant activity due to the presence of polyphenols, particularly anthocyanin (it gives berries their blue color). Recent studies reveal that polyphenols may protect against the age-related decline of brain function and could be useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and Parkinson’s disease. 

Cherries joined blueberries as a “superfood” a couple years ago. That means they offer health benefits beyond basic nutritional needs. Scientific evidence shows that tart cherries—available dried, frozen and as juice—have levels of antioxidants that may ease the pain of arthritis and gout and protect against heart disease and certain cancers. 

Grapes, also categorized as a “superfood,” are rich in plant compounds called phytonutrients. These include resveratrol, known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and flavonoids, which boast anti-clotting effects. Emerging research also links grapes to the prevention of the onset of Type 1 diabetes.  

Almonds help lower LDL cholesterol without contributing to weight gain, according to studies. Although relatively high in calories, women who ate 2 ounces (344 calories) of almonds every day for 10 weeks did not gain weight.  

Onions contain the peptide compound GPCS, which has been discovered to slow bone loss. In addition, neokestose—another compound found in onions—helps promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the bowel.  

Soy foods such as tofu, edamame and soy milk products have coronary benefits, including cholesterol-lowering properties. The isoflavones in soy can also reduce the risk of bone fractures in post-menopausal women. And the newest research shows that these isoflavones may be beneficial to asthma sufferers. 

Probiotic dairy products aid digestion from the addition of lactobacillus bacteria, which promote the growth of “good bacteria” in the body. Probiotic yogurt has been available for awhile, but DCI has just introduced a line of probiotic cheeses in mild cheddar and several jack varieties. 

Black cod, salmon, trout and other finfish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have long been known to protect against heart disease. More recent research shows that DHA, one of the omega-3s, helps promote and maintain healthy vision from birth through old age.

Mushrooms are a little-known source of vitamins. A serving of four to five ’shrooms delivers 4 percent of the daily value of vitamin D and is also a good source of the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid, as well as the minerals copper and selenium. 

To post or not to post

Legislation is pending that will require chain restaurants to post calorie information. The thinking goes like this: A patron realizes a cheeseburger has 990 calories and goes for a grilled chicken wrap instead. Is this the best way to get the health message across?

Not according to nutritionist Anita Jones, who partnered with the NRA to launch healthydiningfinder.com. The Web site provides nutrition information to help customers identify healthier items on restaurant menus, but it doesn’t scare them away from caloric choices. “It’s more productive to take a proactive approach and tell people what they should be eating—not what they should avoid,” says Jones. She advocates positive menu messages, boasting of items high in antioxidants or grains.

Another solution is Nutricate, a computerized system that prints nutrition info on a customer’s receipt. The software, now in use at two fast-casual concepts—Silvergreens and Extreme Pita—not only provides calorie, fat, carb and protein data for a menu item, it steers eaters toward healthier choices. “The bottom of the receipt might say ‘next time, order light mayonnaise and you’ll save 30 calories,’” explains Nutricate CEO Jay Ferro. “We give diners the tools to help them understand what they’re eating, placing accountability on the customer, not the operator.” Nutricate can also calculate data for health-promoting compounds, like beta carotene and fiber. 

Stir-fried to order

Freshness and portion control are the keys to healthful dining,” says Rob Flohr, VP of operations for Stir Crazy, a 12-unit concept out of Chicago. Guests choose from a market bar of 20 fresh-cut vegetables, an array of proteins and several house-made sauces to create their own stir-fry dishes. Since everything is cooked to order by the staff, it’s easy to adjust portion sizes, cut back on carbs, add more protein, decrease the cooking oil or substitute stock, reduce or eliminate sugar or salt and even steam the ingredients to save calories. Gluten-free and low-sodium seasonings and sauces are also available, as are both brown and white rice.

“We have the ability to adapt to any diet,” Flohr says. “Plus, we’re one of the ‘approved’ restaurants listed by the Celiac Disease Foundation.”

Stir Crazy’s mission is to empower guests to make the right choices from the inherently healthful ingredients and cooking methods offered. Even kids get into the act with the chain’s Small Fry menu. Employee education is also a priority—store managers, cooks and servers are all knowledgeable about nutrition issues so they can steer customers in the healthiest directions. 

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