Since the Government’s Responsibility Deal was introduced in 2011, parts of the eating-out sector have made concerted efforts to comply with its aims of reducing salt, making calorie information available and eliminating trans-fats from dishes.
Some restaurants, like Harvester, have trialled calorie counts on menus while others, like Pizza Express have introduced a low-calorie range to sit alongside their existing offering or have brought in smaller maincourses as at Prezzo.
However, a report released earlier this week by nutrition experts at Coventry University took the industry a few steps back by claiming that chefs were contributing towards the country’s obesity epidemic, not helping prevent it.
Tests on 904 recipes from 26 unnamed ‘celebrity’ chefs found that 87 per cent fell ‘substantially short’ of the Government’s healthy eating recommendations and only 13 per cent of the ingredients used were nutritious enough to be considered healthy by the Food Standards Agency.
Dr Ricardo Costa, one of the study’s authors, claimed it was important to highlight the fact because the public places trust in the ‘nutritional integrity’ of professional chefs and urged the industry to work with nutritionists to reverse the negative impact the news may have.
“When you have celebrity chefs involved with promoting many of the Government’s healthy eating initiatives, you inevitably encourage a culture of confidence in their culinary practices,” he adds. “So I think there ought to be a tightening up of regulation around what these chefs can present on their own terms when it comes to nutrition or healthy eating messages, particularly in light of the results of this study”
The findings in the report may come as a wake-up call to some chefs and restaurant groups who thought their dishes were nutritionally balanced, while others will brush off the report, taking the position that the taste and presentation of dishes they serve is of more importance to diners than whether they tick the low fat or low salt boxes.
Some, like James Ferguson, head chef at Beagle in Shoreditch, however, believe that chefs can offer diners nutritional and healthy dishes without compromising on taste.
Ferguson, who joined the recently-opened restaurant from Rochelle Canteen, eschews the use of butter for healthier oils, or opts for cooking meat and fish over charcoal, which eliminates the need for extra fat.
“I always find a lot of places use too much butter,” he says. “I worked in one kitchen where they used almost a whole packet to pan fry a pigeon breast – not to mention it was totally unhealthy, it also ended up just tasting of butter.
“Butter can be nice, particularly in the winter when you want more hearty dishes, but coming up to the summer, I like to use something lighter like olive oil, particularly when you’ve got such wonderful produce available. Besides, you don’t need to use it for cooking a beautiful piece of meat or fish when you can grill or roast it and bring out the flavour that way.”
Ferguson stresses that his method of cooking is more a way of letting the produce he serves shine than aiming to be an ambassador for healthy eating, but his approach scores well with personal trainer and nutritionist Jenny Swan. She believes chefs could score higher on the pro-health chart and attract more customers by making a few simple changes.
“Being healthy is not about calorie-counting, it’s about nutrition,” she says.
“People are so much more health-conscious these days. However, dieting doesn’t work and it never has worked. It’s not about what you can’t eat, it’s about what you can eat to maintain a healthy body and chefs are in an amazing position to encourage people to eat well and use their knowledge and skill to show off food in its best light.”
Swan says the method of cooking can have a huge influence on a dish’s health benefits and advocates the use of monounsaturated oils such as avocado oil if fat is needed. She also says restaurants are guilty of over-doing the protein.
“A portion of meat or fish should be about the size of a pack of cards, we don’t need any more,” she says. “Restaurants generally serve way too much protein and our bodies can’t process it all.”
While making adjustments to menus and cooking methods is one approach, there is a risk that it is too subtle.
Restaurant group Pizza Express takes a more direct approach to catering for the health-conscious diner through its low-calorie range Leggera. Introduced in 2009, the range includes a pizza with the centre removed and replaced by a salad. The whole dish comes in under 500 calories.
It has been so successful - since its introduction 10 million Leggera pizzas have been sold, about 10 per cent of all dishes sold - that two low calorie wines were added to the range the following year and next week, the Italian restaurant chain will launch a Superfood Salad, a combination of butternut squash, beetroot, light baby mozzarella, avocado and spinach and which contains just 295 calories.
Pizza Express marketing director Emma Woods, who joined the company in 2008 from Unilever where she worked on the Slim Fast and Weight Watchers brands, was instrumental in the launch of the range and said she wanted to ensure those watching their weight could feel confident about going out to eat without ruining the diet.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with women who are dieting,” she says. “They feel conflicted when they go out as they don’t want to worry about what they are eating, but don’t want to throw the diet out.
“I’m not doing this from a Responsibility Deal point of view, I want to enable my customers to have a better experience when they go out and eat, that was the main reason behind the range. Eating out shouldn't be a prison sentence."
Those businesses already catering for the health-conscious diner are, as we can see, doing so for different reasons, whether it is to abide by voluntary codes, to enhance the eating-out experience for all sectors, or simply because their preferred cooking methods are healthier.
Whatever the reason for factoring this sector in to their offering, it is likely that others will soon be following as more initiatives seek to improve knowledge of health and nutrition.
At the end of last year Unilever launched its health and nutrition training programme to help college lecturers raise awareness and improve catering students’ knowledge of nutrition in the workplace.
Unilever Food Solutions managing director Tracey Rogers said the course, developed with sector skills council People 1st, was designed to help future chefs better understand nutrition because it would be such an important aspect of their job.
“Whatever your view, the issue of healthy eating is here to stay and is set to influence menu trends for the next three to five years. However, less than half of consumers are currently satisfied with the healthy menu options served out of home. Whether this is down to the lack of inspiration or skill set within the kitchen, we need to raise our game to satisfy consumers."
And work continues. Earlier this month, representatives from the foodservice supply chain met at a summit organised by sustainability experts Footprint to discuss the challenges faced by the sector in driving forward the nutrition, health and wellness agenda.
One of the key issues arising at the summit, attended by employees from Sodexo, Unilever, Nestlé Professional, Innocent, Pret A Manger, Compass Group, Brakes, 3663, CH&Co and Prestige Purchasing, was that was a need to get 'buy-in' to the Responsibility Deal from smaller operators and better education among chefs.
"With figures suggesting that one in six meals is now eaten out of home, representing around 20 per cent of our daily calorie intake, the foodservice industry has an obvious and vital role to play in helping improve the nation’s health and wellbeing.
"While we mustn’t underestimate the progress being made through the Government’s Responsibility Deal, we believe there is scope for the foodservice industry to do more and what this summit has demonstrated is a consensus to work together to do just that," said Footprint managing director Charlie Miers.
How to make menus healthier - top tips:
- Offer low-calorie side dishes, such as rice or a baked potato as an alternative to chips. “Rice, particularly basmati has a big role to play in this emerging era of healthier eating because of its versatility, the significant dietary contribution it can make and the value it offers caterers and their customers. Basmati is very much a ‘calorie bargain’ because a half cup cooked serving is just over 100 calories, it is healthier than long grain rice and keeps you fuller for longer," suggests Mark Lyddy, head of foodservice at Tilda.
- Change your cooking methods. Grill or roast food rather than fry food, advises Beagle chef James Ferguson and look at using different types of oil that are lower in saturated fat for the times you do want to use fats for cooking.
- Don't be too generous. Making dishes healthier could simply be a case of cutting back on ingredients used to enhance the dish, such as salt or oil. Emma Woods of Pizza Express said the 'hardest part' about introducing the Leggera pizzas was stopping the chefs from being so generous with the olive oil. "Chefs traditionally are generous people and they love applying that generosity to their food. It took us about six months to get them to drizzle less oil over the dish," she says.
- Hold the cheese. Adding cheese to dishes as an extra topping can add half the calories. Nutritionist and personal trainer Jenny Swan advises her clients to avoid cheese based dishes, because of this. "For example, a typical fast food hamburger contains approximately 30 per cent fat. The equivalent size cheeseburger has approximately 45 per cent fat," she says.
- Don't forget the drinks. Alcohol can be particularly fattening, with half a bottle of wine adding 300 calories to the total meal and heavy milk-based drinks or syrups added to coffees can add up. Some companies, like flavoured coffee company Beanies which uses flavouring techniques rather than adding sweeteners or alcohol to their products are seeing sales increase due to demand. Boss Andy Fenner is also working with two slimming organisations to develop products.
Read and view all our content on dietary requirements here.