Share the health

When a Harvard nutritionist talks, chefs listen
By LOUISA KASDON  |  February 21, 2007

Dan Coudreaut, director of culinary innovation at McDonald’s, is groaning. He’s sitting in a large auditorium on the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Greystone campus in Napa Valley, listening carefully as Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, presents his recent findings. Willett has the lulling, comforting tone that scientists use when standing at a podium, confidently armed with PowerPoint slides and regression analyses. “The scientific community has no choice but to label trans fats ‘metabolic poisons,’ ” Willett is saying. (Metabolic poisons?, you can almost hear Coudreaut thinking.) Indeed: it’s strong language for the product formerly known as margarine. “We’ve concluded that there is absolutely no safe amount of trans fats in the human body,” Willett continues, almost apologetically. Coudreaut’s breathing is shallow. He’s the guy charged with ridding McDonald’s of trans fats, and developing a new recipe that doesn’t make the famous fries taste like cardboard. By many estimates, it’s an effort that has cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in the past year. (In fact, it was at this meeting, the annual CIA–Harvard Medical School retreat for the corporate food world, that Willett first broke the definitive news about trans fats last year, starting a national cascade of alarm that no sane corporation could ignore.)

Coudreaut, his Golden Arches in danger of tarnishing, raises his hand. “I just gotta know: what’s the next ‘trans fats’? What’s coming at me next?” Willett smiles and waves his hands for a second or two, considering the impact his answer will have on the 300 chefs at the conference — corporate executive chefs from companies such as Red Lobster, Magic Kingdom, Hyatt, Starbucks, and Au Bon Pain, as well as the dining-services directors from Harvard, Stanford, UMass, and Boston College, among others, and representatives from major food distributors, grocery chains, and produce growers.

Au Bon Pain executive chef Thomas John
“Coke,” Willett says. “Sugared beverages are the number-one preventable cause of obesity among young adults. We don’t have to go to zero, but we have to go way down.” The corporate types in the auditorium take a moment to think about what their bottom lines would look like if the revenue from Coke and other sugared sodas suddenly disappeared. But Willett doesn’t want to make too big a deal of it yet. Trying to forestall a deep depression, he continues, “That’s our top concern, but we’re also worried about new guidelines to restrict sodium and eliminate poor-quality carbohydrates, and wrestling with our findings that a healthy American diet would incorporate nine or more daily servings of vegetables and fruit.” The groans in the audience become hopeless chuckles. Compared with all of the other items on Willett’s hit list, trans fats suddenly seem like an easy warm-up. But when Dr. Willett speaks, the chefs listen — and so do their customers.

In this fantastic wine-country setting, the serious food-industry money players and medical guys come together every year to make the health decisions that are actually starting to turn the huge American cargo cruiser around. (Where do you think Mickey D’s got the idea for all those salad entrées?) Here’s a new factoid: we belong to a demographic called LOHAS — people who choose a Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability — and evidently there are a lot of us, and we eat out often enough for the giants to take us seriously. Want more trivia? McDonald’s now sells more chicken than beef, and bottled-water sales are surpassing all expectations. (In fact, as a nation we now spend more per ounce on bottled water than we do on gasoline.) One more tidbit: try to pass on the salad dressings at McDonald’s. A chicken salad smothered in creamy dressing has more calories than a Big Mac.

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