Outside, the Napa Valley vineyards are absorbing the last twenty minutes of winter sun. Inside, at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) in St. Helena, California, Dr. Walter Willett taps on the microphone. A hundred or so corporate chefs and food service executives from little ventures like Applebee’s (serves over xx meals a day), Dunkin’ Donuts, (tkt customers a day), Panera Bread Company (tk meals a day), and McDonald’s (trillions of hamburgers sold!), are holding their collective breath. Willett, chairman of the Nutrition Department at the Harvard School of Public Health, the g-force behind the nationwide banning of transfats, best-selling author, and one of the most cited scientists in history, shares the “Nutritional Wish List” of policy recommendations he has prepared for President Obama.
Willett, a benign presence with a handlebar mustache and twinkly blues, has a habit of saying very scary things in a calm monotone. When he says that, “We are at the end of increasing longevity in the US,” for example, or, “In ten years, in terms of obesity, Massachusetts will look like Mississippi,” everyone nods sleepily. But when he says, “ an unregulated market is doing to human health what is has done to the US economy,” people in the room wake up. “What! Is he talking about more regulation for the restaurant industry?” worries a product development VP from McDonalds sitting next to me. Willett expands, “Regulations for the food industry are like toxins: too much is bad, a little can be good.” Yes, he is thinking about suggesting a regulation mirroring the new law in the U.K., to mandate a salt reduction of by 20% in all packaged and processed foods to the Obama administration, (Look out for reduced sodium soups, crackers, bread and cookies, salad dressings etc)—and suggesting leveling a national tax of as much as 18% on sugared sodas and candy. “We need economic levers to keep the public from making bad food choices.” Willett says. The conference is off and running. The 100-plus “operators”, the people who work for the companies that serve 95% of the meals Americans eat outside of the home, will spend the next three days listening hard. When Willett’s Harvard Medical School colleague David Ludwig MD calls diet sodas, “a gateway drug,” the audience winces.
The CIA and HSPH jointly sponsor this invitation only, Worlds of Health Flavors Conference twice annually. It’s a top ticket for corporate chefs, top nutritionists, physicians, research scientists, and cookbook authors Three days of cutting edge science and a serious discussion of food strategies to get America healthier. Three years ago, when Willett first lectured this group about transfats, (labeling them as “nutritional poison,”) few of the attendees would have expected that by 2009 a label of “New! Trans-fat Free!” would the biggest selling proposition in the food industry. Today, as Willett speaks, the chefs’ ears are cocked, awaiting this year’s crusade. Willett is a figure of reverence. He also makes food service operators anxious. This is a tough year economically. Change is expensive in the food business. As chef Greg Schweizer, former Executive VP of Menu Development at Applebee’s informs, “A menu or ingredient change for us means communicating to 50,000 line positions in over 100 locations, all of them suffering financially.” Estimates are that the switch to trans-fat free recipes cost major food suppliers over a billion dollars. Today, business is bad enough without spending money on nutritional improvements. But chefs are people who like to feed people and feed them well. Even bottom-line pressured chefs care about serving food that makes you healthier.
The code word at the CIA is “Stealth Health,” an under-the-radar effort to: reduce the salt in your food; shut off the sugar; substitute good fats like olive and canola oil, nuts and avocados, for bad fats like butter, corn oil and animal fat; sneak whole grains in to your diet, and turn the trickle of fresh fruits and vegetables that Americans eat into a torrent; ––all without your noticing. The challenge is to make “healthy food that doesn’t taste like ‘health food’,” says Stan Frankenthaler, Executive Chef of Dunkin’ Brands, (the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin & Robbins).
The Better for You option
The chefs talk about their takeaways from the conference. “Almost everyone now has better for you options on their menus. It’s part of our response to Dr. Willett, to the obesity crisis, and to serving what the customer wants,” says Chris Gatto, Vice President of Food and Beverage at Uno Chicago Grille. “What we learn at Napa goes right into new product development. We’re not going mess around with our sacred signature deep-dish pizza, but we feel the pressure to offer more healthy options to the guest, like our brown rice with mango and craisins, and our new soup—beef barley with wheat berries. A couple of years ago, people had never heard of wheat berries. Now, they say, ‘Wow, that sounds good’.” At Dunkin Brands, Stan Frankenthaler takes the scientific data from this meeting and brings it “straight to our Culinology team—the group at Dunkin’ that brings together nutritional scientists, chefs, and product development people. And then we begin.” Applebee’s Schweizer says that Applebee’s now buys, “millions of pounds of salad greens, a major change in our menu.”
But change doesn’t come quickly for the big guys. Mark Graham, a product development consultant for Starbucks puts the issue in perspective. “Even when we are ready to introduce a better for you option, we have to find the supply chain that will support it. We don’t yet have all the vendors that can support new, healthier menu offerings. For example, when we introduced a new product at Starbucks, an apple cherry muffin, we had to find enough product to bake 23 million organic apple cherry muffins. That’s a lot of organic dried cherries to source.” Tom Gumpel, Vice President for Bakery Development at Panera Bread worries about the salt issue. “As a chef, it really has me worried. For the food service, tuning off transfats was like flipping a light switch. But when you take 20% of the salt out of bread, bakery items and soup—we sell 90 million pounds of soup a year! ––without affecting texture and taste, that’s a tough trick. “ Gumpel, who used to be a dean at the CIA has a love hate relationship with the conference. “My biggest takeaway is sadness. It’s all great information, but how long is it going to take to trickle down to the average American?”