When Hooni Kim learned to cook at the French Culinary Institute, he began to use a lot of butter.
Today Kim is the head chef at Danji, a Korean restaurant in midtown New York City, and one of the first venues to receive SPE certification. SPE certifies restaurants based on nutritional and culinary criteria — and none of the certified entrées use any butter.
The program is one of a number of meal and restaurant certification initiatives to pop up within the last few years. Some, such as the United States Healthful Food Council REAL nutrition and sustainability best-practices program and the American Heart Association Heart-Check mark, certify restaurants throughout the USA. Other programs, including WooFood and Healthy Howard, focus on restaurants in certain geographic areas.
The certifications represent a few growing trends, including the fact that people care more than ever about what they’re eating and what it’s doing to their bodies. Whether we’re vegan, paleo, gluten-free, trying to lose weight, or trying to save the planet, these days it can seem like everyone’s looking for a restaurant that meets some specific health needs. And with online databases of healthy restaurants and sites featuring customer reviews, it’s easier than ever to find that wheat-and-sodium-free takeout place.
Making Healthier Choices Easier — Certified Food
There are certification programs for certain dietary restrictions, such as Celiebo for gluten-free folks, and certifications for environmentally-friendly practices, as in Eco-Crown Hospitality. There’s even a certification for cleanliness: Since 2010, New York State restaurants have been required to publicly display their health inspection grades.
Experts say the need for these certifications is more significant than ever now that home-cooked meals are getting less and less popular. In the year 2000, Americans ate in restaurants about four to five times per week, and as of 2011, Americans were eating a third of their calories at restaurants. That’s almost twice as much as they were eating in the 1970s.
With people eating out more often than ever, “it’s a lot more important from a public health point of view for restaurants to serve healthier options,” said Erica Bohm, Vice President and Director of Strategic Partnerships at Healthy Dining Finder. The website lets users search for healthy options at restaurants all over the country, which isn’t such a bad idea, since the more people dine out, the more they tend to weigh Overeating in America: association between restaurant food consumption and body fatness in healthy adult men and women ages 19 to 80. McCrory, M.A., Fuss, P.J., Hays, N.P., et al. Energy Metabolism Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, MA. Obesity Research 1999;7(6):564-71..
The idea behind these certification initiatives is that it should be easy as pie for diners to figure out where to fill their stomachs in the healthiest, most hygienic way. Right now, says Greatist Expert and obesity researcher Sherry Pagoto, it’s easier to choose unhealthy items in supermarkets and restaurants. So the certification programs focus on making the healthy options on a menu more appealing.
Case Study: WooFood
WooFood is a food certification program run by three medical students in Worcester, Massachusetts, with plans to expand to the rest of the country. It’s also a microcosm of the booming certification trend. WooFood, funded in part by the Pioneering Healthier Communities initiative, created their guidelines using a range of research, including psychology and behavioral economics. Restaurants are certified partly based on the Harvard School of Public Health guidelines, which includes criteria like how many whole grains and veggies are on the menu. Perhaps most importantly, WooFood considers whether the food actually tastes good and whether the restaurant makes nutritious meals seem appetizing through creative presentation and naming.
Mitchell Li, one of WooFood's founders, is trying to make healthier options easier by, for example, asking restaurants to offer pasta dishes with whole-wheat pasta instead of white, by default. (Customers still have the option to ask for white.) WooFood has also developed an initiative called “dinner for now and tomorrow’s chow,” in which servers automatically present the option of wrapping up half the dish. “Customers feel like they’re getting a better deal,” Li said.
An important part of these certification programs’ success is taking a holistic approach to health and nutrition. “Getting more of the healthy stuff … on our plates is so much more appealing than thinking about things in terms of calories alone,” said Greatist Expert and nutritionist Tina Gowin.
The USHFC, for example, values a meal's overall nutrition and the restaurant's sustainable sourcing practices; plus they consider what the food tastes like and how it's presented on the menu and the plate.
Yelp and Crowdsourced “Certificates”
Still, consumers aren’t limited to restaurants certified by fancy organizations. On sites like Yelp and Chowhound, customers can review restaurants themselves, letting fellow diners know where the veggie plate tastes like heaven and where the sprouts look like dirt. Do a search for “healthy” on Yelp New York and up pop results for every kind of venue, from nationwide chains like Cosi to boutique locations in the West Village. One user on Chowhound asked for help finding an East Harlem restaurant that serves “humanely sourced” meat as well as meat-free options. He received 25 replies, with almost 50 restaurant suggestions.
While Yelp and Chowhound don’t have the same force as certification programs, they are proof-positive of a growing community of health-conscious (and vocal) eaters looking to make more informed choices about their food. Restaurants already post Yelp stickers on windows next to other certificates and Zagat ratings. These online customer reviews add an extra level of assurance to restaurants that are (or are not) certified; diners know that real people struggling with real health issues ate there and approved.
But preparing food that suits everyone’s health needs isn’t always easy. For some chefs who work at independent venues, cooking with one eye on the food pyramid is easier said than done.
Delicious and Nutritious — What Comes Next?
Kim, the chef at Danji, said it’s relatively easy for him to prepare nutritious meals because Korean cuisine involves a lot of miso and tofu and doesn’t emphasize fattening ingredients. But chefs who prepare other cuisines, like French food, tend to use a lot of butter and other ingredients that make customers’ mouths water. “As a chef we’re trained to make everything taste as good as possible,” Kim said.
One way to make a dish simultaneously tasty and nutritious is to rearrange the ratio of different food groups on a plate, Kim said. So even if the most scrumptious meal contains lots of butter and oil, chefs can serve a small portion of that food and fill the rest of the plate with vegetables.
In general, many of these certification programs are trying to change the way people think about nutrition. “We don’t like the word ‘healthy,’” Li said. “There are so many connotations with ordering off that ... separate menu.” Instead, WooFood makes sure the most healthful meal options on the menu are just as appetizing as the less nutritious choices. Absolutely everything has to taste good, Li said, and creative descriptions on the menu should make it sound appealing, too.
For Kim, there are no bad ingredients or food groups. He loves starches, vegetables, steak, and of course, butter. “You go to a restaurant where you get all of that on a plate,” he said, “I think that is healthy eating.”
Do you look for certifications when you dine out? Which ones? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author @ShanaDLebowitz.