The rumor that health food is a fad has been put to rest. Customers are demanding it and the industry is reacting, and savvy operators are proving that healthy menu items can be as varied as the imagination.
Bruce Haskell, associate director, university housing at 46,000-student Michigan State University in East Lansing, says healthy is in the eye of the beholder.
“You can ask 20 students what they would consider healthy, and I'll bet they can tell you quickly what is not, but really can’t peg what is,” Haskell says. For example, he notes, the old guidelines for protein lumped red meat, poultry, fish and beans together, but these foods have different kinds of fats. There is mounting evidence that replacing red meat with a combination of fish, poultry, beans and nuts offers numerous health benefits.
“All foods can be part of a healthy lifestyle,” Haskell says. “Proper portions, consistent combinations of proteins, fruits, veggies, starches and fat can be beneficial.”
Guidelines now emphasize as little as possible intake of trans fats and limited saturated fat. The latest advice recommends getting between 20% and 35% of daily calories from fats. Good sources of healthy unsaturated fats include olive, canola, soy, sunflower, peanut, other vegetable oils, nuts, avocadoes and fatty fish such as salmon.
“We have an obligation to provide healthy options, but it is still a customer’s choice to take advantage of those choices,” Haskell says.
The body needs carbohydrates, or starches, mainly for energy. It is now recommended that the best sources of carbohydrates are whole grains such as oatmeal, whole-wheat bread and brown rice.
“Our experience is that most students equate fresh with healthy,” Haskell says. “Fresh fruits, vegetables and items prepared in front of them like stir-fry are the most common.”
A diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits leads to many benefits by adding valuable vitamins and nutrients as well as fiber to the body.
“Locally produced fruits and vegetables contribute to a healthier impression,” Haskell says. “It also helps to have nutritional data available, definitions as to what proper portions truly are and an unlimited meal plan that allows for smaller, more frequent meals.”
At 30,000-student Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Director of Dining Services Dean Wright is excited about a new healthy item.
“We serve many foods in different locations, but something new for us is a fruit wrap,” Wright says. “This is seasonal fresh fruit with a raspberry cream cheese spread in a whole-grain tortilla.”
As a healthful cooking approach, BYU uses a tandoori oven, which is a large clay pot that generates a dry heat at high temperatures to produce foods with a very crisp outer layer without sacrificing internal moistness.
“The oven gives us the opportunity to offer the fried food appeal without using oil,” Wright says. “We promote using as much fresh food as possible and more grains, such as steel-cut oatmeal. But portion-control education is also a part of it.”
Scott Snyder, executive chef at 138-bed Ephrata Community Hospital in Ephrata, Pa., has introduced healthier food choices to his nearly 500 daily patient and cafeteria customers by treating everyone similarly.
“We call it healthy but flavorful across the board,” Snyder says. The idea is to sell the same meal to the low-sodium dieter, to the cardiac condition customer and to the visitor who has no dietary restrictions.
“Our big sellers are beef tips and mushrooms over noodles and our homemade pot pies,” he says. Synder uses fresh roasted chicken off the bone, fresh carrots, celery, onion and fresh stock.
Snyder has had less success with his pastry chef, citing the fact that baking is more scientific and recipes are more difficult to alter.
“We do typical [gelatins], carrot cake and shoofly pie, but they’re not generally healthy,” he says. “To address the health issue, we intend to create more individual desserts.”
Gabriel Gomez, executive chef at UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, said he has customers from all continents, which presents a big challenge.
“We offer one vegetarian dish on every single station,” Gomez said.
In the deli, they offer a grilled vegetarian sandwich on whole-wheat focaccia with marinated grilled eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini and roasted red bell peppers, only one of the healthy sandwiches offered every day.
“On the hot entrée line we offer a healthy vegetarian dish every day,” he said. “On Monday, we offer a vegetarian rebollita; Tuesday an eggplant moussaka; Wednesday chiles rellenos with homemade roasted tomato sauce; Thursday a vegetarian green bean curry; and Friday a stir-fry tofu.”
At Highmark in Pittsburgh, Lenny DeMartino, general manager for Parkhurst Dining Services, uses Parkhurst’s Hemisflavors program to promote healthy dining. Hemisflavors is a menu program that features foods from around the world.
“Rather than cut out all the fat, we’ll focus on healthier, plant-based oils,” DeMartino says. “We’re also planning to use fresh herbs and spices in place of salt and more grains and fibers.”
And that’s not all, adds Highmark’s executive chef, Tim Fetter.
“We put twists on old classics, such as chicken parmesan or chicken marsala. By putting in grilled chicken for the fried or sautéed versions, we can cut a lot of the fat and calories,” Fetter says. “We offer a lot of grains and fresh fruits and vegetables when the season permits. We try to avoid using too many processed ingredients to make dishes healthier. Some of our popular healthier items are made-to-order stir-fry, grilled chicken with fresh fruit salsa, multiple varieties of lean roasted pork loin or pork loin chops.”
Providing nutrition information helps customers make better diet choices.
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has been recognized locally for its Be Fit program, which promotes employee health and fitness. The ten-week program is based on a healthy competition among six teams of 25 employees each to make a serious commitment to be fit by eating healthy foods and incorporating exercise into their routines.
Nutrition and Food Services plays its role in the Be Fit program by providing nutrition information. Caloric and saturated fat content is available for every food item sold. According to Director Susan Barraclough, R.D., the department is researching data to employ a three-color label system, using green, red and yellow. Green would stand for lower calories and less than 10% saturated fat, items such as fresh fruit, vegetables, grilled fish and chicken. Red will be the cautionary category, foods to eat only occasionally, like sugared beverages, cakes and fried foods. The majority of foods will be labeled yellow, foods to plan or think about, perhaps featuring fewer than 500 calories but more than 10% saturated fat. Portion sizes would also come into play.
“One slice of our whole-grain veggie pizza would be tagged green, but most people eat two slices, giving it a yellow tag,” says Barraclough.
When the hospital reorganized the food court recently, the focus became the visually stimulating salad bar.
“Salad bars can be misleading. Choices of high-fat, mayo-based items can lead to salads high in fat and calories,” Barraclough says. “We always offer four mixed salads, but two with olive oil-based dressings and whole grains that are high in fiber, like a wheatberry cranberry salad or a barley salad. There is cheese but also tofu and flaked tuna.”
Barraclough says it is important to offer sliced meat as well as the traditional casserole, quesadillas and panini sandwiches.
Liz Sullivan, system retail manager, Mount Carmel Health System in Columbus, Ohio, says the hospitals have begun a monthly special to highlight healthy foods. In January they chose breakfast items like low-fat, low-cholesterol egg sandwiches, yogurt parfaits with fresh fruit and granola, and oatmeal with pears, cranberries and walnuts with a touch of cinnamon. For Heart Month, they highlighted a recipe from the American Heart Association Cookbook and held a demonstration to show customers how to cook heart-healthy-meals with simple ingredients.
“In April, we prepared a teriyaki soy rice bowl that contained both tofu and edamame. Many of our customers had never tasted either of these soy-rich foods, but by offering them a taste of the dish we converted many skeptics to the great taste and nutritional value of soy,” Sullivan says.
After analyzing items, the department was able to provide nutritional information and Weight Watcher points as well as sharing healthy recipes and information along the specials.
No Meal Left Behind
To make healthy work, chef researches and wields formidable buying power.
Jorge Leon Collazo, executive chef for the New York City Department of Education’s Office of SchoolFood, is in charge of feeding the largest school district in the nation. The daunting task of bringing healthier food to students in the five boroughs is ongoing, but he has made inroads. He emphasizes buying power as the key to purchasing healthier ingredients and commodities.
“I spend a lot of time researching products, doing research and development with manufacturers and developing menus. We’re able to get some results because of our size.
We hired professional chefs from private industry and placed one in every borough. They’re doing training on cooking techniques, cooking skills and recipe implementation. We’re basically trying to, and being very successful at, changing the paradigm of a very large institutional system.
The first thing we had success with was salad bars in high schools and junior high schools. In the fall, we’re looking forward to changing our white-pasta products to whole-grain pasta products. Six years ago, we changed to all whole-wheat breads. Three years ago, I was successful at ridding the system of trans fat-laden oil.
We’ve implemented policies so we use no artificial ingredients, no artificial colors, no MSG, no BHA, no BHT, no sodium bromate and things like that. It’s an aggressive program, and we like to think of ourselves as kind of a leader in school business.
All these things have to be done in the context of a very narrow margin of costs. While we are large, it’s still very difficult. The child nutrition reauthorization is coming up and, frankly, districts are in need of new resources to carry out the goals the USDA and others would like to see occur.
We spend a tremendous amount of time and effort on resources and training our people. Sometimes we find that we’re going too fast, that the industry hasn’t caught up yet, so in those cases we have to back off a little bit.
We always student test. We’ll go with about 350 kids, and we ask for a 75% approval rating for any new product. The challenge is, you’re dealing with a generation of kids who’ve grown up in fast food restaurants. So it takes a lot more than one exposure to make these things acceptable.
There are different kinds of strategies when you are talking about different sized school districts. Certainly, a school district with 25,000 kids and above has a different strategy than say a small district in upstate New York. The problem for these folks, the smaller districts, is the way their finances are arranged; it makes it very difficult for them. All of their operating costs have to come out of their food budget or sales. A lot of them are dependent on à la carte sales. There’s no doubt when you start selling a healthier, leaner, cleaner item, your sales, in the beginning, are going to dip. You have to expect that until the kids get used to it.
Many of the small school districts operate separately, even though they may be close together. They’re all operating as little fiefdoms, without really cooperating and purchasing together. They are at a disadvantage.
We can talk about whole grains and added fiber and all those types of things, but in effect, at the end of the day, the way you handle your business has more to do with accessing healthier products. I suggest that these smaller districts band together and really think about what they want their manufacturers to provide.
We love to share information. We are very willing to share our specifications for the products that we’re using. We’ve already done the heavy lifting.
Districts need more resources from the government. We would love to see 35 cents more for a reimbursable meal. School districts aren’t funded to the extent that they need to be to meet the goals that have been set out for us. I call it ‘no meal left behind.’
We’re always looking for muffins with more fiber, more turkey products and a profile of minimally processed food. But it’s difficult; it’s tough. Minimally processed foods are just more expensive, but we’re headed in the right direction.”