Can Chefs Create Reduced-Calorie Restaurant Foods?

Restaurants could play an important role in helping to reduce the growing obesity epidemic by creating reduced-calorie meals, according to Penn State researchers.

The researchers surveyed chefs, restaurant owners, and culinary executives from across the country to assess their perceptions of serving healthy foods in restaurants.

In the survey, 72 percent of the 432 respondents said they could trim off 10 percent of the calories in meals without customers noticing differences in taste, and 21 percent said they could trim off at least 25 percent of the calories. This small change could lead to a major impact on the obesity epidemic.

Researchers found that many chefs were not familiar with the calorie content of the meals they served — 7 percent were not at all familiar and 49 percent were somewhat familiar.

Chefs in the study were much more willing to create new reduced-calorie foods rather than modifying existing meals, as they might not want to modify their signature dishes for fear of losing sales or affecting their restaurant’s reputation.

This highlights a common idea chefs have about restaurant food: that promoting a dish as healthy is the “kiss of death.”

In the study, chefs rated their perceptions of obstacles to increasing healthy food in restaurants. Low consumer demand was the major concern — 32 percent of chefs thought this — followed by the need for staff skills and training — 24 percent — and high ingredient cost — 18 percent. The majority of chefs, 71 percent, indicated that the success of a low-calorie meal hinged primarily on taste.

When asked about the most effective method for reducing calories in meals, chefs favored reducing portion sizes over “reducing calories per bite” — reducing fat or adding fruits or vegetables. However, when asked to pick specific strategies for reducing calories for two popular meals — beef stew and apple pie a la mode, chefs most often chose methods of reducing fat.