February 14-20, 2007

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Stealth Health

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

MANY OF US are sick and tired of being told what to eat. We're educated enough to understand that saturated and trans fats are harmful, that whole grains are beneficial and that we should be eating fruits and vegetables by the truckload—or at least in far greater quantities than we're doing now.

But when we dine out, it's tough to find dishes that fulfill these directives that we actually crave. Either we order the "healthy" items and feel deprived, or we indulge in the standard fare that's probably not very good for us. This dichotomy can drive an adventurous but health-conscious eater insane. Why do we have to choose between what's good for us and what tastes good when eating out?

Recently a group of seemingly diverse but like-minded professionals gathered in Napa to address this very question and to offer some hope. At the third annual Worlds of Healthy Flavors retreat at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), top nutrition scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health met with corporate chefs of several major restaurant chains and volume food-service companies to discuss this disconnect.

The scientists provided sobering data on soaring rates of obesity, cardiac disease and Type 2 diabetes but also provided insight into how we can reverse these trends using food that's readily available. Culinary experts from the CIA as well as foodie icons like Rick Bayless and Mollie Katzen were on hand to demonstrate how chefs who serve thousands of meals daily (we're not talking independent restaurants here, but major national chains, hotels, and colleges and universities) can rethink traditional meals to make them bold and exciting while improving their health profile enormously—all without making a big show of how much healthier the food is because we still equate healthy with tasteless and boring. The group termed this new approach "stealth health." In other words, if people don't know the new menu choices are better for them, they're actually more likely to enjoy the food—so long as it tastes great. And that's the key.

So how do you do this? Simple: restaurants that subscribe to this philosophy won't remove menu items that people love, but will provide more exciting choices with improved flavor profiles to tempt us in other directions. Corporate chefs and menu designers will begin to think about flavor first, borrowing techniques and ingredients from other cultures that make standard fare sing with fewer of the bad things (unhealthy oils, excess carbs, refined sugars) and more of the good (healthy oils, produce and whole grains). No one's going to complain so long as the food boasts knockout flavors and satisfies our need to feel indulged when we eat out.

Now I'm sure there are naysayers out there who will complain that it's nobody's job to keep you healthy but you, and if you want to keep downing your bacon double cheeseburgers and Big Gulps you should be able to—and you will. But there may soon come a day when the rest of us will be able to eat out—on the road, at an airport, in a hotel—without feeling that every choice on the menu is either a heart attack in waiting or a depressing "healthy" meal that tastes like crap.

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