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HamburgerUNHEALTHY EATING HABITS have been catching up with Americans’ waistlines and health. Over a third are now considered obese, and another third are overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Heart disease and diabetes, which can be triggered by diet, continue to alarm the medical community.

Several Business School graduates are among those trying to transform an average meal, or at least create healthier eating options for everyday people.

Christine Johnson, MBA ’02, seeks change through government regulation and buying power. Brian Wansink, PhD ’90, educates individuals to make small, calorie-limiting changes in their dining habits. Diane Del Signore, MBA ’84, markets locally grown food products, which, she argues, are healthier and more environmentally friendly. Amanda West, MBA ’05, is rebuilding fast food, a frequently blamed culprit for growing waistlines.

Diane Del Signore, MBA ’84, in her Oakland raspberry bed with Susy Q, a goat from her children’s 4-H project on animal care. Signore directs a nonprofit that advocates locally grown food.

Diane Del Signore, MBA ’84, in her Oakland raspberry bed with Susy Q, a goat from her children’s 4-H project on animal care. Signore directs a nonprofit that advocates locally grown food.

BANISHING TRANS FATS

All health-conscious foodies begin with a basic question: What makes our diet so unhealthy? Christine Johnson first focused on trans fat, which is usually artificially created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils. The process, called hydrogenation, is often used to create solid fats such as margarine or shortening. Trans fats provide baked goods with a longer shelf life and remain stable at higher temperatures for frying than do regular oils or butter. But they have come under fire for raising “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and lowering “good” HDL cholesterol. Nutritionists also blame trans fats for promoting heart disease.

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring the labeling of trans fats on manufactured foods. In 2008, Johnson helped write regulations that made New York the first large American city to limit the amount of trans fats in restaurant and bakery food.

Johnson first worked with healthy food during Business School, when, as part of the School’s Board Fellows program, she sat on the board of the Chez Panisse Foundation of Berkeley, Calif., which promotes gardening of edibles in schools. After managing donations for a food bank, she was hired in 2006 by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to work on food policy. Studying the city’s restaurants, bakeries, and suppliers, she discovered half used trans fat oils, a number that did not budge after a concerted effort to educate restaurateurs about trans fat dangers. This lack of progress was “what really demonstrated a need for regulation,” she says.

Despite early concerns, the regulations do not appear to have cost food businesses their livelihoods. Once regulations changed the market shifted, so that today anecdotal evidence indicates healthier oils cost about the same as hydrogenated oils cost prior to the new rules. Some worried that their beloved cannoli wouldn’t taste the same, but chefs found ways to tweak recipes without sacrificing flavor. “You can eliminate and fully replace trans fat, and the consumer is never going to know the difference,” Johnson says. “It’s been quite a seamless transition.”

New York’s rules have set a new standard. The state of California, for instance, is banning trans fats in restaurants by 2010 and in retail bakery goods by 2011, and San Francisco has a voluntary trans fat elimination program now. National restaurant chains like Wendy’s and Taco Bell have pledged to remove trans fats.

Johnson’s other recent initiative could also shape food markets. She helped create nutrition standards for food served by city agencies, influencing the buying practices for some 225 million meals annually provided at schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and more. Agencies must offer five servings of fruits and vegetables daily and eliminate deep fryers. “We’re the first major city to set nutrition standards across all city agencies,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to make a market for healthier food.”

Next on Johnson’s and New York City’s health agenda: bringing down salt in processed and restaurant foods. “High salt consumption leads to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack and stroke,” says Johnson, who is working on an effort to reduce the amount of salt eaten by New Yorkers by 20 percent in the next five years. “We’re asking processed food and fast food manufacturers to reduce sodium in their products,” she explains. The city estimates that if salt levels could be lowered by 50 percent in the next decade, it could prevent 150,000 deaths annually.

SMALLER PLATE = SMALLER WAIST

Brian Wansink disagrees with New York’s approach. When asked if eliminating trans fat will have a good impact on health, the founder and director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab says, “I doubt it. First of all, just because it has no trans fat doesn’t mean it’s healthy. And if people see it’s trans fat free, it will give them more of a license to overeat.”

Wansink, who wrote his dissertation at the GSB on how to get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables without realizing it, teamed up more recently with Pierre Chandon of France’s INSEAD to present people with two types of food: some labeled low fat, some not. Average-weight test eaters consumed about 22 percent more calories if food was labeled low fat, and overweight people ate up to 50 percent more. “People have this gross tendency to overeat something labeled low fat,” says Wansink, a Cornell professor, “and it disproportionately influences overweight people.”

Two years ago, he took a leave to serve as executive director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, where he helped develop new dietary guidelines to be released in 2010 and made the center’s MyPyramid website the most accessed federal site, with 5.6 million hits a day.

In his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Wansink explains that Americans take in large quantities of food without thinking about it because of factors like lighting, placement of serving bowls, package sizes, and the diameter of their dishes. For example, one study shows that pre-plating food in the kitchen before placing it on the table leads people to eat 30 to 33 percent less than if they keep a serving plate in front of them. One famous study from his lab centered around a soup bowl that refilled from below, encouraging diners to consume more—73 percent more—without knowing it. He also found that eating from a 12-inch plate causes people to consume 22 percent more calories at a meal than eating from a 10-inch plate. So just by shifting to smaller plates, Americans could lose weight. “They won’t realize they’ve eaten less, and they won’t feel any more hungry,” Wansink says.

In 1996, Wansink showed that larger package sizes lead people to eat more, so he climbed into his Jeep to deliver the message to mega-food-producers. He told Nabisco, Mars, and Kellogg’s that they could “sell people less food, and they’ll pay more for it.” The companies balked at this free advice initially, but one by one, they gave it a try. The 100-calorie “snack pack” was born, saving “mindless” consumers countless calories.

Back at Cornell after his stint in D.C., Wansink is planning the Small Changes Institute, which will explore little things that companies, government, and academics can do to help people eat better. Already, he is distributing cell phone reminders about cutting empty calories and printable eating charts via his website, www.mindlesseating.org.

FRESH FROM THE LOCAL FARM

Small changes may help people cut calories, but Diane Del Signore is working toward a big-picture shift on where and how people buy food.

She is executive director for Davis, Calif.–based Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), one of the largest, oldest nonprofits advocating sustainable agriculture, and a member of Slow Food, an organization that views locally grown and produced food as healthier. Eating locally not only means that food has retained more of its nutrients and flavor because it’s consumed quickly; it also contributes to local economies and helps keep family farms alive. And local food cuts down on the gas needed to transport farm-grown food farther afield.

If each American ate one meal of locally, organically grown food a week, this country’s oil consumption would drop by 1.1 million barrels each week, according to environmental studies scholar Steven L. Hopp.

To make local food more available to California consumers, the 30-year-old group has launched a growers’ collaborative that’s opening new markets for small farmers. CAFF runs two distribution centers for family-farmed produce, in Ventura and Davis, which provide produce to institutions including the University of California’s Berkeley and Davis campuses, Kaiser Permanente, and Bon Appétit Management Company, a food service that provides meals at worksites including the Business School, eBay, and Yahoo. As the program rolled out, these organizations have been willing to pay slightly more for CAFF’s fresher, sustainably grown produce, which typically goes from field to customer kitchen within 48 hours.

Now, Del Signore, a former tech executive who is the first business-trained leader of CAFF, is working to keep these clients and gain more by controlling costs and managing the collaborative like a growing business. She is seeking partnerships with large, established food distributors to offer a new line of locally produced foods to their existing clientele. The idea comes from consumers themselves: “Distributors have been getting pressure from buyers to have a local buying option,” Del Signore says.

At home, Del Signore practices what she preaches, growing food that she and her family consume. Her family runs a mini farm in the Oakland Hills housing 8 chickens, 13 goats, 45 fruit trees, and a vegetable garden. Her two daughters and their friends pick fresh vegetables to cook together, nurturing a love of good-for-you food. Says Del Signore, “I believe in inspiring people through their tastebuds, not by finger-wagging.”

REBUILDING FAST FOOD

But many families don’t have time to grow their own food. That’s why Amanda West is rebuilding classic American fast food, making it a more nutritious option.

Fast food is important, she says, because it can offer a protein-rich meal quickly, at a low price. But it’s a nutritional bad boy because of its fried, fatty ingredients. West thought she could change that. “Our pace of life is not slowing down at all, but we are more interested in what we eat and how it impacts ourselves and the world,” she says.

West interned at Niman Ranch, a natural meat producer emphasizing sustainability, then based in Alameda, Calif., during a Business School entrepreneurial study program, where she was inspired to widen the reach of high-quality, natural meats beyond high-end markets. She fleshed out her vision of a healthy burger joint in a business plan she wrote during the School’s two-quarter class Evaluating Entrepreneurial Opportunities.

She fleshed out her vision of a healthy burger joint during a Business School entrepreneurial class.

The result is Amanda’s Feel Good Fresh Food restaurant, which opened in 2008 on busy Shattuck Avenue at Center Street in Berkeley, Calif. Amanda’s offers all-natural beef burgers, baked sweet potato fries, and organic salads. Diners can top off their meals with Amanda’s homemade sodas, her most innovative menu item, sweetened with organic agave nectar rather than corn syrup. (The nectar is less processed and has a lower glycemic index, making it better for diabetics.)

West works to ensure the quality of all her ingredients. “We are slow food for fast people,” she says. A dozen meals on the menu are less than 600 calories each, and the average tab is $7.50. West struggles to keep consumers’ costs low by sticking to a simple menu, doing minimal training, and increasing volume. If she has her way, the restaurant could expand to 25 units in 10 years.

FOOD WARS?

Each of these alums takes a unique approach to promoting better eating. Which leads to the question: Are we about to witness some kind of healthy food war over how to change Americans’ behavior?

Not likely. Health-conscious foodies can and do unite in the hopes of getting people to eat better. All share the goals of improving health and decreasing obesity. These snapshots of alums show just how far-reaching the overall effort has become.

In that spirit, all of these perspectives on healthy eating could work together. Maybe someday, a family living in any U.S. city will buy the corner bakery’s trans-fat-free bread to eat with locally produced tomatoes and cheese and a take-out organic salad, all on 10-inch plates, and wash it down with a swig of cold agave-sweetened soda—feeling a sense of fizzy satisfaction with their choices.

By Meredith Alexander Kunz

–Photo by Anne Hamersky

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Health Foods: Alums tap into tastebuds, marketing psychology, and legal machinery to make eating a healthier activity
  2. Physicians Missing Self-injury Behavior in Youths with Eating Disorders, Study Finds
  3. Making Sense of the Wall Street Rollercoaster

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