Never before has so much emphasis been put on the need to eat healthily. Government reports on the growth in obesity levels and the increased risk to our health caused by eating too much fat, sugar and salt has made everyone more aware of the benefits of making healthier food choices.
Where does this leave the caterer? Traditionally, eating out was something that only happened on special occasions and was an opportunity to indulge in meat and fish dishes smothered in rich sauces, followed by calorie-busting creamy desserts.
Chefs and restaurateurs cannot afford to regard requests for healthy options as being faddy. If requests are granted, customers will go away satisfied and will not only recommend the restaurant to friends and colleagues, but will also return time and time again.
In devising healthy dishes, it is important that caterers fully understand the main components of good nutrition and why people are choosing to eat less fat, salt and sugar..
Low fat Some fat is required in the diet because fat helps the body absorb some vitamins. as well as being a good source of energy and essential fatty acids. Too much fat, however, will result in excess weight.
Consideration needs to be given, too, to the type of fats you are using. Too much saturated fats and trans fats can increase the cholesterol in the blood, which increases the risk of heart disease. Where possible, these fats should be replaced by foods high in unsaturated fats
Foods that are high in saturated fat and trans fats include fast food, sausages, butter, lard, pastry, cakes, coconut milk and cream. Trans fats can be formed when liquid vegetable oils are turned into solid fats through hydrogenation. They are also found naturally in low levels in dairy products, beef and lamb.
Unsaturated fats are healthier as they provide the body with essential fatty acids. Foods high in unsaturated fats include oily fish (the best source of omega 3 fatty acids which help protect against heart disease); avocadoes; nuts and seeds; and olive, sunflower, rapeseed and vegetable oils.
Tips for cooking with less fat include: •Use unsaturated oils, such as olive or sunflower, instead of butter or lard, for frying.
•Select lean cuts of meat where possible.
•Grill, steam, bake or poach rather than fry or roast.
•If making chips, cut them as thickly as possible as they absorb less fat.
•If frying, ensure that the oil is hot enough. If it not, the food being fried will absorb more fat.
•Offer oily fish on the menu such as salmon, trout, swordfish, mackerel and fresh tuna in place of non-oily fish such as cod, haddock, plaice, skate, halibut and tinned tuna
•Use semi-skimmed or skimmed milk in place of full-fat.
•If using cheese in cooking, choose a strong tasting one so that you don't use so much.
•Use yoghurt or fromage frais in place of cream.
The majority of British people eat too much salt - probably around 60% more than they should. Adults should eat no more than 6g of salt per day, which is equivalent to about one teaspoonful.
Eating too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, which is responsible for half of all cardiovascular deaths. It is also responsible for water retention and is a contributory factor in kidney disease, osteoporosis, asthma and stomach cancer.
Salt is made up of sodium and chlorine, and it is the sodium content that is the undesirable element. Many food labels only list the amount of sodium in the food, shown as fractions of a gram per 100g of food. In order to convert the sodium content to salt, you need to multiply the amount of sodium by 2.5. So, bread containing 0.5g of sodium per 100g would, in fact, contain 1.25g of salt per 100g.
Much of the salt that the British public eat comes from processed food. Some of the most highly salted foods that chefs use regularly - and must be wary of if they are considering lowering the salt content of their cooking - include some brands of soy sauce, smoked salmon and capers. Soy sauce, for instance, can contain twice the concentration of salt that seawater holds.
Tips for cutting back on salt in cooking:
•Add less salt to cooking. If you add salt, don't add at the beginning as you immediately lose control - always add salt at the end.
•Check labels of any processed foods used in your cooking as you will be surprised at how many contain salt, eg mustard.
•Make your own stock, rather than using ready-made stocks or bouillon, as they are often high in salt.
•Use alternative flavour enhancers to salt, such as lemon juice, lime juice and balsamic vinegar.
•Use lots of fresh herbs and spices for added flavour.
•Onions, shallots, leeks and garlic are all big flavour carriers.
Food containing added sugar can lead to excess weight being gained if large quantities are eaten. These items contain calories, but few other nutrients, and can also cause tooth decay. Sugary foods are the most likely items that a customer will want to avoid if concerned about gaining weight.
Foods containing high levels of added sugar include fizzy drinks and juice drinks, biscuits, jam, cakes, pastries, puddings and ice cream. Foods that contain sugar naturally, such as fruit and milk, are a healthy option.
Tips for offering dishes with less sugar: •Always offer some form of fresh fruit for dessert.
•If using tinned fruit, always use those in natural unsweetened fruit juice rather than syrup.
•Offer freshly squeezed fruit juices or juices that are unsweetened.
•In place of fizzy drinks, offer fresh or unsweetened fruit juice with sparkling water.
•Experiment with cutting back on the amount of sugar you use in desserts. It will work with most dishes, except meringues and ice cream.
•Offer low sugar or sugar-free cereals and low-sugar jams, if serving breakfast.