Eat fresh: Serveries reduce salt, sugar, saturated fat
French fries may not be off the menu, but they are certainly on notice. With nutrition in mind, Housing and Dining staff at serveries across campus are working to reduce nutrients that are seen as posing the greatest health risks in order to improve student health. Under fire are what Director of Residential Dining David McDonald calls the 3 S's: salt, sugar and saturated fat. All of these elements are over-represented in most American diets, and they are contributing to a growing obesity epidemic. McDonald said the goal is to lower these unhealthy elements, which are omnipresent in prepared and processed foods, by 50 percent. The shift began earlier this semester and has been a gradual progression. So far, McDonald said he has heard no complaints.
The impetus for the change was the belief that servery cooking should represent home cooking for the students who consume it daily and the realization that it was not measuring up to those standards.
"Why don't we cook like we're cooking at home for our children?" McDonald said. "Because we care about you guys, and we want you to eat well."
However, McDonald - and Chef Roger Elkhouri, who is helping with this endeavor - say they know that above all, servery food must taste good.
"We're not trying to be a hospital here," McDonald said. "The key is to make the food more nutritious and yet still taste great."
The first challenge for the serveries to meet has been to reduce the saturated fat content of the food they serve. The serveries have used no trans fats for many years, McDonald said, but saturated fat unfortunately remained prevalent.
Saturated fats are widely regarded as a "bad fat" because their over-consumption can lead to heart disease and increased risks of developing certain cancers, according to Brandi Powell, the Wellness Center's dietitian.
In order to reduce these fats, Elkhouri and McDonald have taken a variety of both simple and drastic measures, they said.
One approach they have taken is shifting servery offerings, putting out fewer fried foods and substituting leaner cuts of meat.
McDonald was quick to qualify that French fries will not be eliminated any time soon. But the key, he said, is moderation.
Elkhouri agreed, saying fried foods are a universal temptation.
"Look, onion rings are my favorite fried food of all time," he said. "If I see it, I'm going to eat it. But it kills you."
With this acceptance that certain foods are too good to give up, Elkhouri said the servery is also trying to reformulate classic recipes to make them less fatty. He pointed to the West Servery's new alfredo sauce, which boasts a fat content down from 48 grams per serving to just eight, by consisting of less heavy cream.
"You don't even sense that because it's the same flavor and consistency," Elkhouri said.
In many areas, campus chefs and kitchen equipment are skilled enough to produce nearly identically tasting dishes with vastly different nutritional contents, Elkhouri said.
"We have the knowledge and the technology to make awesome food without a lot of fat," he said.
The keys are roasting and baking rather than frying and using healthier oils, such as canola, olive and soy. Chefs will also be calling on a wider variety of flavors - such as lemon, garlic and herbs - to create complex flavor profiles.
Seasoning substitution will also be the key to reducing salt in servery foods, McDonald said.
Americans get many times the recommended maximum daily value of 2,300 mg of sodium - about a teaspoon of salt - in their diets, Elkhouri said, which can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. The sodium can come in the form of table salt, a recipe ingredient or an additive in processed foods.
"A lot of times students tell me 'Oh, I don't eat salt; I never put salt on my food," Powell said. "But 80 percent of it is already in our foods."
Elkhouri said the human palate has a large window of acceptable salt levels, and the serveries are trying to come in at the bottom of it.
"Let's take all the salt out for flavor, and people can add it back in if they want," Powell said.
Other flavors can also replace that of saltiness, according to McDonald. The servery is currently developing a proprietary spice blend called "Owlspice," which will be sodium-free.
The servery is also taking aim at sugar, a staple of the student diet.
"We hear a lot about how Americans eat too much sugar," Powell said. "We can't really deny that, and Rice students aren't excluded."
Powell emphasized that the worry was about added sugars, usually in desserts, and not natural sugars found in items such as fruit.
"Sugar is high-calorie, and it's all empty calories," she said.
As with fat and salt, reducing sugar requires a multifaceted approach. On the supply side, Residential Dining has stopped buying prepared pie fillings, opting to make their own instead so that they can regulate the sugar content. Dining has also stopped buying sandwich bread that contains high fructose corn syrup. Although the new bread is more expensive than what was previously offered, McDonald said energy savings from new cooking methods as well as the reduced costs of cooking pie filling from scratch will more than make up the difference.
And although it has not become official policy yet, chefs are also experimenting with a calorie-free, all-natural sweetener called stevia that was recently approved by the FDA and is reguarly used in other parts of the world.
However, Elkhouri admitted that changing servery food composition was only half of the battle in improving campus nutrition. The rest must come from the students, he said.
Powell said for better or for worse, the serveries give students a lot of options.
"A student can go to a servery and walk away with a really healthy balanced meal on any given day, or they can walk away with a really unhealthy meal," Powell said.
Elkhouri encouraged students to be willing to try new foods in the serveries' main offerings and to use the plate method when selecting their meals (see above graphic).
"A misconception students have is you don't have to eat all three groups: starch, protein, and fruits and vegetables," Elkhouri said. "You have to eat all three at every meal."
Powell also encouraged students not to skip meals.
"If we don't feed our bodies well early in the day, then we're going to feel it late at night," Powell said.
He said this normally results in students eating the most convenient food out of hunger, ending in unhealthy choices.
Seemingly innocuous treats now can cause trouble later, McDonald added.
"When you're 18, you're invincible," McDonald said. "We've been there; we know that. But poor eating habits can catch up with you decades later. If you have a healthy body, you need to maintain it."
McDonald, Powell and Elkhouri all agreed that in the end, all of the nutritional changes come down to preparing students to succeed in life.
"All these habits are forming our bodies for later in life," Powell said. "Rice students are so bright and they work so hard, so I want to see them be successful in their careers and lives for a long time and not have to worry about heart disease when they're 50, 40 or even 30."
And "Chef Roger," as he's known around campus, is more than happy to help students eat healthier.
"It's a crime for a chef not to take care of his guests," Elkhouri said. "This is the demand and the trend right now, and we're a part of it."