NEW YORK — Since many Americans consume about one-third of their calories away from home, it is believed that clearly labeling the calorie content of prepared foods will help consumers monitor their food choices and reduce the calories they consume at the point of purchase. Yet even as federal regulators push to enact menu labeling regulations, product developers and consumers are faced with understanding the evolutionary nature of nutrition science.
For example, clear declarations about the negative health effects of fat in the diet are evolving. Last summer, in a co-authored editorial, “Why is the federal government afraid of fat?” in The New York Times, doctors Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and David S. Ludwig, director of the Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, took aim at the federal government’s 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans with its focus on reducing total fat in the American diet to no more than 30% of daily calories.
“In place of fat, we were told to eat more carbohydrates,” the authors reported.
In reality, “this fear of fat also drives industry formulations, with heavy marketing of fat-reduced products of dubious health value.”
Mr. Mozaffarian and Mr. Ludwig go on to point to recent research including “large randomized trials in 2006 and 2013 (that) showed that a low-fat diet had no significant benefits for heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer risk, while a high-fat, Mediterranean-style diet rich in nuts or extra-virgin olive oil — exceeding 40% of calories in total fat — significantly reduced cardiovascular disease, diabetes and long-term weight gain.”
Most recently, for the first time in 35 years, members serving on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee have not recommended an upper limit on total fat.
The key takeaway from the op-ed is the authors’ contention that goes to the heart of the matter: “Cutting calories without improving food quality rarely produces long-term weight loss.”
That point is underscored again and again by numerous experts, most notably Greg Drescher, vice-president of strategic initiatives and industry leadership for the Culinary Institute of America. Mr. Drescher is interested in the larger role food and dining play in our lives. Throughout his three decades in the industry he has worked toward forging links with other fields. He’s the creator of the C.I.A.’s Worlds of Flavor International Conference & Festival, the annual Worlds of Healthy Flavors, and Menus of Change leadership conferences.
Mr. Drescher said the Healthy Menus conference, which was launched about five years ago, is a vehicle for chain restaurants to help themselves “in a competitive-free space.” An original partner in the endeavor was the Mushroom Council. Today, there are about 35-40 corporate members.
“(Healthy Menus has) created working groups focusing on such topics as produce usage, whole grains, healthier carbs, reducing sodium, strategic calorie design, protein, etc.,” he said. “In looking at ‘strategic calorie design,’ the point is, in light of the huge obesity issue plus the increase in Type 2 diabetes, people clearly need to focus on the quality of calories.”
But, Mr. Drescher warns, it is important that product developers don’t go in to slash calories.
“We know our industry has issues around excess calories, but in many cases having a moderate amount of healthy fats in the dish is not a place to cut,” he said.
He contends the aim should be “retaining flavor in a slow metabolizing meal.” In short, it would seem as though all should agree on reducing calories, “but all calories are not created equal. Chefs really need to look at the total dish (and determine) what they are trying to achieve from a health and culinary perspective,” he said.