This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: What the grownups said to do

More than a few installments of this weekly report could have been written in seats far toward the back, where the bad kids hang. It intentionally shuns the somber philosophizing of eggheads, suits and NPR types to address the street issues of the business in a real-world way, cussing and spitting included.

So you can understand the shock of attending a brainy, button-down conference on nutrition principles this week at the Culinary Institute of America’s main campus. Co-hosted by Harvard University’s School of Public Health, the Menus of Change event was a heady look at how the foodservice industry should lead consumers toward healthier, more sustainable eating habits. If the League of Superheroes had a nutrition branch, it was probably in full attendance. There were more doctors, professors and book writers than you’d find in a good-sized university.  You definitely felt the pressure to crook a pinky while sipping your Illy coffee.

Yet this was no ivory-tower download, as the noticeable number of chains in attendance silently attested. The recommendations were practical and actionable—dramatic steps by chain-restaurant standards, to be sure, but all business-based and hence far from acts of charity.   The stated objective was nudging the nation toward more healthful and sustainable practices. The prescribed route was enhancing sales and profits while savoring the ancillary benefits of improving wellbeing and the health of the earth.

If operators don’t reach for that carrot, they may soon feel the prod of a stick, which was why the conference was structured as it was, explained CIA president Tim Ryan. “We wanted it to focus on business opportunity—business opportunity versus legislation,” he said. “America, it turns out, is much better at capitalism than we are at prohibition.”

Among the business prescriptions that snared the attention of chefs, foodservice operators and menu planners in attendance:

1. Meat fillers are now a good thing

If there was an overall gasp inducer from the three-day event, it was the support evident at all levels of the restaurant business for “plant-forward” dishes, where veggies supplant meat as the star of the plate.  Many (if not most) speakers noted the health benefits of lessening the consumption of protein, and red meat in particular. Others noted the planetary benefits of lessening CO2 production and water consumption by decreasing demand for large-scale cattle cultivation. And more than a few noted the powerful and immediate benefit of dramatically lowering food costs. 

The real wow was how loudly menu planners proclaimed the benefits on all three fronts—health, environment and cost savings—of cutting ground meats with vegetable-based mix-ins, from mushrooms to eggplant, black beans and nuts. The tactic of using extenders like that not only reduces the content of a meat with significant saturated fat, but also provides flavor, texture, moisture and novelty. To demonstrate the advantages, the agenda included a slider-fest where attendees could try a wide variety of meat-and-plant-based-extender blends.

The CIA also revealed that its new student-feeding facility, The Egg, will feature burgers consisting of up to three parts vegetable for two parts meat. The objective is showing young people that they can cut back on meat without losing flavor or satisfaction, and hence should consider cooking items that fit the bill.

2. The next kale or Brussels sprouts

It’s official: The two most buzzed-about healthful menu ingredients from recent years are now mainstream, said Arlin Wasserman, a principal with the consulting firm Changing Tastes and chairman of a steering group for the CIA’s Menus of Change initiative. So what’s the new “it” vegetable? That all depends on what evidence you evaluated.

Sophie Egan, one of the CIA’s nutrition experts, flat-out said it was the carrot, and indeed there was considerable conversation about the familiar root vegetable and the new favor it’s found in roasted form. But many of the cooking demos and lead-in presentations gave peas, particularly snow and snap peas, star billing.

And the dark horse may be the humble tomato, though gussied up through roasting, “blistering” or conversion into a relish like sofrito. It was cited several times as a menu element that can be preserved at the height of its growing season for use throughout the year.  Indeed, a Panera Bread Company representative referred to that chain’s sofrito as its secret flavor bomb.

3. It’s personal

A key motivator for making healthful menu changes can and should be the effect on your family, even if you don’t own the business that’s being redirected, several speakers agreed. Panera Bread Company CEO Ron Shaich was unabashed about his personal reasons for stripping artificial ingredients from the recipes of the public company he oversees. He explained that his mother had died of a heart attack, and that his two children often eat in Paneras. It is a point of validation, he said, that he’s doing the right thing for his teens and other kids. He urged the audience of foodservice operators to offer foods they’d be proud to serve at home.

A similar message was sounded by Franklin Becker, chef and co-owner of The Little Beet fast-casual concept in New York City. He was diagnosed with Type II diabetes in his 20s, his significant other is gluten-intolerant and his child is autistic. That factored into the menu of his concept, which is about to expand to 11 locations. There is no gluten, negligible added sugar and very little saturated fat in the dishes served by the brand.

4. Water gluttony is fast becoming the new social villainy

Water gluttony is fast becoming the new social villainy, supplanting shameful practices like serving GMOs or foods containing artificial trans fats. The key consideration isn’t how much water a restaurant uses, but how much water goes into the foods it serves, speakers agreed. They encouraged operators to press their suppliers for a gauge of how much water goes into their products, and to work toward bringing down that “water footprint.”

Some restaurants are striving to cut their usage through moves like putting a granite slab on tables so guests can rest their silverware there between courses instead of being provided with a clean fork or spoon. Less ware is used, so less has to be washed.

But the experts said steps like that are a Band-Aid. The most effective way for restaurants to address water conservation is by channeling pressure down the supply chain.

5. “Low fat” may be losing its magic

Consumers and regulators are awakening to a fact that nutritionists have known seemingly forever: Not all fats should be demonized. The polyunsaturated versions, like the oils in avocados or olives, can even be a health boon. Speakers attested that there could soon be an unbundling in the public mind of fats as a wholly bad thing, to be avoided at all costs.  Certainly regulatory bodies like the USDA are adopting that more-discriminating mindset.  A more nuanced approach to how fats are mentioned in a breakdown of menu-item ingredients may become the norm, they suggested.

Stay tuned for more coverage on Friday of the Menus of Change conference.

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