It seems food researchers like to keep us guessing. One minute we’re told to stay away from butter, the next they advise us to toss the margarine ASAP. Red meat falls in and out of favor, and no one seems to know whether the salt shaker will kill us or not. To find out what food scientists have in store next, chefs and food service executives gathered in January at the Worlds of Healthy Flavors Conference in California’s Napa Valley.
The annual conference, sponsored jointly by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, was launched in September 2004 to help corporate and executive chefs in volume food-service operations learn more about healthy meal choices. During the conference’s two and a half days, nutritionists present the newest research, chefs demonstrate recipes that put their recommendations to delicious practice and purveyors show off health-conscious innovations. But above all, participants want to know: What, exactly, should we be eating?
Debating what food is healthy
The debate between scientists and the food-services community is lively but centers around the organizers’ goal of helping large-scale chefs and operators stem the tide of diet-related health problems that are afflicting the United States (and increasingly, the world). The objective is to champion health by promoting world cuisines and the wide range of ingredients, flavors and menu concepts. According to the National Restaurant Association, 45 percent of our food dollar is spent away from home, so this group really can have an impact on our population as a whole.
The conference has had some successes, most notably in the implementation of trans fat regulation. This was a big topic at earlier gatherings, with nutritionists presenting the latest data regarding trans fats, and the food-service industry trying to figure out how they were going to deal with the inevitable regulation that has since been implemented. Now the key issues scientists are talking about are “carbohydrate quality” (e.g., sugar-sweetened beverages and the refined carbohydrates that are driving our growing obesity epidemic), obesity, red meat consumption and sodium.
But findings and recommendations are always changing. This can be very confusing to the public, especially since the media often reports on these studies long before they have been peer reviewed and follow-up investigations have been completed. These premature studies are then taken up by food manufacturers, marketers and even government agencies. (Their hapless food pyramids often don’t reflect the best science at the time, and can do more harm than good.) So it was that for 20 years, fats were deemed the root of all dietary evils; marketers plastered packaging with low-fat claims while filling us up and taxing our insulin with vast amounts of useless, even harmful, carbohydrates. Now we’re fatter than ever, and now, as far as many of the scientists and doctors presenting at the Worlds of Healthy Flavors conference are concerned, saturated fat is “a non-issue.”
Dariush Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School) and assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, had this to say in his presentation, “Fats, Oils, and American Menus”:
“The saturated fat and total fat paradigm is wrong. Low HDL cholesterol is a risk factor for coronary heart disease, and saturated fat raises HDL cholesterol better than other fats and has no significant effect on heart disease events.” But he also said that we should be replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats because polyunsaturated fats — particularly omega-3s and omega-6s — reduce the risk for coronary heart disease. Confused? “A low carbohydrate vegetable pattern has consistently shown that healthy fats coming from plant sources can be beneficial…..Lower total fat in the diet has not been shown to lower obesity (because we are compensating by replacing the fats with low-quality carbohydrates), and using the percentage of calories in the diet from fat has proved to be un-useful.”
Now, if I worked for the National Beef Association I would certainly be spinning those words. However, I might not be too pleased about the findings presented by Lawrence Kushi, associate director for etiology and prevention research at Kaiser Permanente, whose research showed a direct link between red and processed meat consumption and rates of colorectal cancer, diabetes and mortality in men. Kushi’s message was echoed by every other scientist who presented at the conference: Plant-based diets promote good health. But they were all also urging us to eat more fish, especially oily fish (because of the omega-3s). Twice a week was the recommended frequency.
Salt in the scientists’ sights
The next big issue on the horizon? Sodium. New York City is already trying to limit the amount of salt allowed in food items sold in chain restaurants. Right now the USDA recommends that we consume no more than 2,500 mg of sodium per day, and all of the nutritionists I’ve talked to want the limit to be 1,500 mg per day (there are 1,325 mg of sodium in a teaspoon of salt). The food industry packs its food with sodium: 77 percent of the sodium in the American diet is added to foods during processing. Six percent is added by consumers while eating and only five percent is added during cooking. Since so many people eat their food away from home (the New York City Department of Health has data showing that one in four New Yorkers reports eating fast food on a typical day), putting a limit on sodium in prepared food could have a direct impact on public health.
As a cookbook author, the sodium recommendations make me nervous. What if you don’t eat much processed food? What if you and the people you are cooking for don’t have high blood pressure? Then is a limit of 1,500 mg per day warranted? Taste and tolerance for salt vary among people, but all good cooks know that no matter how well executed a dish is, for it to be really good, it needs to be properly seasoned. The wife of one of the presenters admitted to me that she loved to cook but her food didn’t taste good “because my husband won’t let me use salt.” I always teach my students to taste what they’re cooking; if they’ve succeeded with the dish, upon tasting it they should think “this is good,” and want to take another bite immediately. If it lacks something – if it doesn’t quite finish in the mouth, needs je ne sais quoi – nine times out of 10 it just needs a little salt. That’s what the ubiquitous recipe instruction “taste and adjust seasoning” is all about. If it tastes salty it’s been over-salted, and this is something that cannot be undone. If people who cook at home are made to fear salt the way they have been taught to fear fat, those of us who write good recipes are not going to look very good because all of the food that is cooked from our books will be under-seasoned.
The best advice I’ve heard about sensible eating comes not from a scientist, cook or chef, but from the journalist Michael Pollan — “Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.” No amount of science can alter the soundness of this simple mantra. My job as a recipe writer is to empower people to eat more food — mostly plants. And with a little salt, please.
Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine,” “Mediterranean Light,” “Provencal Light” and “Entertaining Light.”
Photo: Walter Willet, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, speaking at the Worlds of Healthy Flavors Conference in the Napa Valley last month. Credit: Culinary Institute of America/Kristen Lokey