March 13, 2009 -- For a chef tasked with creating the tastiest food possible, the line between flavor and fat content can blur in the throes of culinary creativity -- or get disregarded all together.
A group of dietitians called The Fat Panel took issue with that disregard in a recent report from the United Kingdom, part of a public health campaign to increase awareness of the dangers of consuming foods high in fat, particularly saturated fat.
"It's a very good idea to watch your saturated fats," said John Burton Race, a Michelin-starred British chef whose recipes were evaluated by The Fat Panel. "But I would rather eat one spoon of full-fat cream ice cream than sit there with a gallon of unsweetened yogurt. I would rather eat these foods which are naughty but nice in moderation than try to look around for substitutes. It's just a pointless exercise."
The report, called "The Guilty Secret of Celebrity Chefs," published this week by The Fat Panel, singled out 16 famous chefs, including Race, Nigella Lawson and Rick Stein, and evaluated one or two of their dishes for total-fat and saturated-fat content and suggested ways to substitute low-fat ingredients or spreads to improve their nutritional value.
Fat or Flavor?
Sian Porter, a dietitian and member of the Fat Panel, which receives funding from the Margarine and Spreads Association in the U.K., said they evaluated a variety of main courses, soups, desserts and a few classic British favorites including cottage pie, which is made of meat, potatoes and baked apples.
"We chose straightforward recipes you could cook on a Sunday evening," Porter said.
The report found that many of the dishes contained more than 20 grams of saturated fat, which is the daily recommended value in both the U.K. and the United States. For example, a single serving of Nigella Lawson's Egg and Bacon Pie contained 41 grams of fat and 16.8 grams of saturated fat. Gordon Ramsay's Sticky Toffee and Chocolate Pudding contained 40 grams of fat per serving and 23 grams of saturated fat.
Limit the Number of Rich Dishes
Still, Porter pointed out that the warning is primarily for those inclined to cook and eat these kinds of rich dishes several times a week.
"If it's your birthday or if someone made an effort to cook dinner for you, then that's fine," Porter said. "We encourage people to cook from scratch and know what they're eating but we want to say to people, when cooking at home, make some substitutions."
Fats are important for building healthy, functional cells and absorbing fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin E or vitamin A.
But a high-fat intake can lead to increased weight gain. Saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease, one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Many Americans exceed the 20 recommended grams of saturated fat in their diets, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Porter said the Fat Panel did not include an analysis of trans fats in their evaluation because people in the U.K. do not consume excess quantities of it.
The panel recommended a variety of spreads, margarines, yogurts and other substitutions for the butters and creams used in the recipes.
Accept No Substitutions
But substituting yogurt for double cream on a luscious baked apple does not sit well with Race.
"It's ridiculous," said Race, pointing out that the panel harped on 100 grams of butter in his baked apple recipe, which also included dried fruits, nuts and the whole fresh apple.
"If you want something really indulgent, one of the lovely, rich things in life, have it in balance and moderation," Race said. "I'm sure that it won't kill you."
Race knew his personal repertoire of about 2,000 dishes was bound to include a percentage that would be high in fat.
Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University, said, "Chefs have to provide us with indulgences. That's what we expect them to do. But that can be dictated by the prevailing food supply."
Movement Toward Healthy, Local and Organic Produce
Katz pointed out that we come to prefer foods that are familiar and that we eat often, which is directly related to the quality of what is available.
"Who can blame chefs for keeping the customer satisfied?" Katz said. "There is a shared responsibility on the supply side and the demand side."
While overhauling the food culture in the United States would be a long and difficult process, many see a definite movement toward healthy, local and organic produce.
And chefs are vocal about making food that serves more purpose than good flavor.
"I wouldn't say the number one goal of each of my dishes is to make it low fat, but it's in the back of my mind when creating a dish." said Stephanie Izard, Season Four winner of the reality cooking competition "Top Chef."
"If [chefs] are asked to prepare healthier recipes they should jump at the opportunity to show people ways to create them."
Izard suggested substituting yogurt in sauces to make them lighter, saying they often taste no different. Using gastriques, which are sugar and vinegar reductions, can provide highly flavorful sauces with almost no fat.
But for a special dish, some chefs would rather not sacrifice flavor in favor of a lower fat content.
"If you're going to indulge, just go for it once in a while," Izard said. "A chef isn't going to come to your house and force you to cook their dishes all the time. But if you go out to eat, it's nice to let that go for a while."
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