Goodbye trans fats; now it's salt's turn

Top nutritionist looks to change how America eats

Harvard's Dr. Walter Willett talks with food-industry chefs and executives about ways to reform the eating habits of Americans. Harvard's Dr. Walter Willett talks with food-industry chefs and executives about ways to reform the eating habits of Americans. (photos by terrence mccarthy/the culinary institute of America)
By Louisa Kasdon
Globe Correspondent / March 4, 2009

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ST. HELENA, Calif. - The neighboring vineyards are basking in the last 20 minutes of winter sun when Harvard nutritionist Dr. Walter Willett taps on the microphone. A hundred or so corporate chefs and food service executives are waiting to hear what Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, has to say. He's the force behind the nationwide effort to ban trans fats and has recently prepared nutrition policy recommendations for President Barack Obama. He also has a habit of saying very scary things in a calm monotone.

The School of Public Health is cosponsoring this invitation-only biannual conference, called Worlds of Healthy Flavors, with the West Coast location of the professional cooking school, the Culinary Institute of America, based here. It involves three days of cutting-edge science and a discussion of food strategies to get America to eat better. Three years ago, when Willett first lectured this group about trans fats, labeling them as "nutritional poison," few of the attendees would have guessed that by 2009, legislation would go into effect in several cities to rid foods of the fats. Now he's thinking about suggesting a regulation mirroring a new law in the United Kingdom to mandate a dramatic salt reduction in all packaged and processed foods. And he's also suggesting a national tax of up to 18 percent on sodas and candy.

"We need economic levers to keep the public from making bad food choices," Willett says. The 100-plus people in the audience who work for the companies that serve many of the meals Americans eat outside of the home are listening intently.

Willett tells executives from Panera Bread Company, Applebee's, McDonald's, and others, "An unregulated market is doing to human health what it has done to the US economy."

This already isn't an easy time for food service operators. Changing formulas and labeling is always expensive. As chef Greg Schweizer, a food consultant formerly of Applebee's explains it, "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 recipes free of trans fats cost major food suppliers over $1 billion dollars, according to the National Restaurant Association.

But chefs want to do well by their customers. The code words at the conference are "stealth health," an under-the-radar effort to reduce salt and sugar in food; add more good fats such as olive and canola oils, nuts, and avocados; and increase whole grains. (Conference sponsors include the National Peanut Board, Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Sun-Maid Growers of California, The Almond Board of California, Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association, National Watermelon Promotion Board, and others.)

On the dessert table, diners may start seeing what someone refers to as the "dessert flip." That means that fresh fruit covers more of the plate than the pastry does. The challenge is to make "healthy food that doesn't taste like 'health food,' " says Stan Frankenthaler, executive chef of Canton-based Dunkin' Brands (parent company of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins).

"Almost everyone now has better-for-you options on their menus," says Chris Gatto of Uno Chicago Grill. "It's part of our response to Dr. Willett, to the obesity crisis, and to serving what the customer wants." What he learns at the conference, he says, "goes right into new product development. We're not going to mess around with our sacred signature deep-dish pizza, but we feel the pressure to offer more healthy options to the guest."

To that end, there's a dish of brown rice with mango and Craisins on Uno's menu, along with beef barley and wheat berry soup.

Frankenthaler takes the scientific data from this meeting straight to his "culinology" team, a group that brings together nutritional scientists, chefs, and product development people.

In these large-scale food corporations, significant changes don't happen quickly. Mark Graham, a product development consultant for Starbucks, says, "Even when we are ready to introduce a better-for-you option, we have to find the supply chain that will support it." When the coffee chain introduced apple and dried cherry muffins, he says, they had to find a baker to produce 23 million organic muffins a year.

Panera's vice president for bakery development Tom Gumpel says he got through the trans fat regulations and now there's the salt issue. Willett is suggesting a reduction of up to 20 percent. "As a chef," he says, "it really has me worried. For the food service, turning off trans fats was like flipping a light switch. But when you take 20 percent 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, says he's going home a little dispirited. "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?"

If Walter Willett has his way, not very long.