(Dec. 23) Is it your responsibility as a restaurateur, chef or foodservice operator to make sure your customers eat what’s good for them?

After all, the surgeon general links obesity to 300,000 deaths and $117 billion in health care costs annually. The staggering statistics caused the president to launch a war on fat and call on Americans to get 30 minutes of exercise a day. And last summer a New York man sued four fast-food chains claiming they contributed to his health problems by selling fatty foods.

As obesity-related problems multiply, lawyers, nutrition experts and marketing officials planned to gather at Northeastern University in Boston to discuss potential legal strategies this fall.

Despite these ominous issues, industry experts concur that it’s up to individual consumers — not you — to choose between the 22-ounce T-bone steak with fries and the Caesar salad with low-fat dressing.

Fortunately for the foodservice industry, legal experts say there’s little likelihood that litigants will prevail against restaurants on the grounds that they serve fatty foods. And although recently passed Senate Bill 2821 calls for studies on ways to address obesity, it does not recommend any “fat taxes” on food or drinks. Several states were looking at proposals to tax certain “junk foods,” but as of late summer, none had come to fruition, says Allison Whitesides, federal lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C. “It’s something we would work hard to defeat,” she says.


WELCOME ABOARD

Whether it’s for altruistic reasons or to cash in on a trend, restaurants and foodservice operators are jumping on the healthy-eating bandwagon, introducing a plethora of healthful menu alternatives and revamping their food preparation methods.

Industry leaders say that, while consumers bear personal responsibility for maintaining their health, dining establishments and food preparers have a responsibility to offer healthful alternatives.

“I think restaurants have an obligation to offer half portions and healthy choices, but the consumer needs to moderate and police themselves,” says Joseph Shilling, dean of education for the Art Institute of New York City, New York.
Shilling, who also is a columnist and TV and radio host and personal chef to the rock group Boyz II Men, says he lost more than 250 pounds over 18 years after abandoning traditional fatty foods and embracing fresh ingredients.

Barbara Berry, vice president of programs for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del., says restaurants have a greater effect on the health of the public because people often dine out several times a week, not just on special occasions.

There are many things chefs can do to make their menu offerings both exciting and healthful, says Stephen Carlomusto, associate professor at Johnson & Wales University Hospitality College, Providence, R.I. The adage, “If it tastes good, it can’t be good for you,” is changing, he says.

SHOW AND TELL

Each of these culinary professionals offers ideas about how to enhance flavor while ensuring good nutrition.

Carlomusto suggests:

  • Replace fats and sugars with dried fruit, prune purees or raisin purees when baking.


  • Use tofu as a meat substitute, perhaps in a vegetable and tofu stir-fry.


  • Make a vegetable lasagna pizza using half mozzarella cheese and half grated tofu with whole grain wheat in the pizza dough.



Shilling says it’s important to:

  • Understand the seasons of the product you’re dealing with. Fresh fruits and vegetables in season not only are a healthful choice, but they generally are among the cheapest ingredients available.


  • Offer more moderate portions so diners feel full, not bloated, after they eat. The standard portion should be 6-7 ounces.


  • Understand seasoning and taste by becoming familiar with fresh herbs, possibly growing your own.



Berry with PBH calls for using more fruits and vegetables and suggests:

  • Make fruit and vegetable juices available throughout the day, not just for breakfast.


  • Try a variety of fruit-based smoothies.


  • Automatically include vegetables with entrees free of charge.


  • Offer a salad bar or at least salad options with interesting micro-greens and some of the new lettuce combinations.


  • Use creative fruit dishes for desserts instead of fat-laden cheesecake or chocolate fare.


  • Flag more healthful options to make nutritious choices easy for diners.



If you list nutrition information, consumers can make informed menu selections. While that may be easy for chains that offer a consistent, mass-produced menu, it’s more difficult for single eateries or small chains. Shilling says you risk making customers feel guilty if they decide to splurge for a special occasion but see the fat grams and calories enumerated on a menu.

An alternative is simply to mark healthful entrees. But don’t use the common heart symbol. “Use chef hats and show them we’re professionals, and we know how to cook.,” he says.

Kathleen Zelman, registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in Atlanta, suggests offering a low-fat version of your existing menu.

Use low-fat mayonnaise, substitute sorbets or low-fat frozen yogurt for ice cream, serve veggie burgers instead of hamburgers and provide fruit and vegetable side dishes as alternatives to french fries and coleslaw.

Shilling says a chef is a businessman as well as a food specialist, and it will pay off in the long run to offer your customers the healthier alternatives they want. Besides, he says, “You want them to eat healthy so they will live to keep coming back.”

HEALTHFUL ALTERNATIVES

Follow the trend among fast-food chains and foodservice operators to put something lighter on the menu.

McDonald’s Canada, Toronto, introduced a Lighter Choices Menu at its more than 1,200 locations. The menu includes a McVeggie Burger with 8.2 grams of fat and four new salads.

Kurtis Hooley, managing director of Hain Celestial, Vancouver, British Columbia, says the veggie burger is based on a product made by the firm’s Yves Veggie Cuisine division, which worked with McDonald’s to develop an exclusive flavor profile.

Although Hooley is optimistic that the veggie burger eventually will be introduced in the U.S., Julie Pottebaum, spokeswoman for McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill., says the company has no plans to do so at this time because there is not great demand for the item in the U.S.

Sodexho, a Gaithersburg, Md.-based foodservice company, is revamping its Wellness and You healthy food program for the 6,000 corporations, schools and hospitals the company serves throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Franceen Friefeld, a registered dietitian and national director of program development in the firm’s corporate services division, says Sodexho is working with PBH to improve education of its chefs, cooks and servers as well as its customers, and it is expanding its healthy alternative options.

The goal of the program is not just to ensure that customers have a choice of entrees that are low in fat and calories, but that they contain enough nutrients to get workers through the day. The program will teach operators and customers that, by incorporating more fresh produce into their meals, they’re already well on their way to creating a healthful offering.

“Take a sandwich, reduce the amount of meat, stuff it with fresh veggies, use whole grain bread, and all of a sudden the sandwich becomes healthier,” she says.

Burger King Corp., the Miami-based fast-food chain with more than 8,400 U.S. locations, introduced two salad selections this summer — chicken Caesar and a side garden salad. The chicken Caesar salad features a mix of romaine and iceberg lettuce topped with grilled chicken and Parmesan cheese. The green salad has romaine and iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cabbage and carrots and a choice of dressings, says Kim Miller, senior director of corporate communications. In March, the company introduced a flame-broiled veggie burger with 10 grams of fat or less.

Develop your own healthy alternatives by seeking out books and magazines and attending seminars on healthful eating, advises Zelman of the American Dietetic Association.

“It’s all out there,” she says. “It’s beholden on all of us to see what we can do to stem this epidemic tide of obesity.”