Big interview: Gut instinct

Big interview: Gut instinct

More depressing news to kick off the new year, just in case you thought times weren’t sufficiently turbulent or the weather depressingly grey enough. Life expectancy in some regions of England has fallen by a year for the first time since official figures began. This is pretty significant, and while the reasons are complex and myriad, obesity is thought to play a role, especially in the poorer parts of the country – another sign that we are moving backwards not forwards as a civilisation.

Those findings are inevitably a cause for further hand-wringing by public health authorities. But while we’ve been told often enough that food is medicine, very little of a doctor’s training is taken up with food nutrition. If they’re lucky they may spend the best part of just two weeks of an average medical training glossing over its fundamentals.
That clearly needs to change, especially if we are to take advantage in the medical revolution surrounding new discoveries concerning the workings of the human gut – often dubbed the second brain – and the recent flurry of peer-reviewed papers being published that link gut bacteria to virtually all aspects of health, from mood, immunity to obesity and even autism. “The latest research on the gut is so revolutionary, it’s the biggest thing in nutrition for the past 100 years,” asserts nutritionist Jeannette Hyde, and author of the Gut Makeover.

But what has this to do with chefs, whose focus has generally been on creating great food combinations, full of flavour and presentation appeal? The relationship with dietitians if anything can be a difficult one, with the dietitian trying to stay the hand of the chef who may want to liven things up a bit with an extra pat of butter or a bit more salt. Nevertheless, chefs have increasingly restrained their natural instincts on this front. Occasional indulgence remains important but health and good nutrition is rising rapidly up the agenda.

“The whole health issue is enormous, and public awareness, partly due to TV, has gone through the roof,” says Lee Maycock, chairman of the Craft Guild of Chefs and, more recently, the newly appointed executive chef for Blue Apple. “We’ve witnessed a massive upturn in flexitarian or vegetarian dishes,”

While chefs were in the vanguard of these developments, with many individuals visiting schools and businesses to impress upon them the importance of healthier diets, Maycock believes there is little in the way of formal training in health and nutrition as part of a formal chef’s training. This really needs to change, he asserts. “Let’s talk about fat. I think a lot of chefs would struggle to fully identify the full range of them and their various properties – there’s tremendous confusion over them.”

There are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats, as well as the more dangerous transfats, based on partly hydrogenated vegetable oils, of the type found in deep-fried donoughts or deep-fried fast food.

So called invalid cooking used to be part of the training discipline of any classically trained chef, but things have moved on. The lost art of Mrs Beeton’s repertoire of beef tea, junket, barley water and a variety of awful offal has perhaps rightly given way to a new emphasis on preservation of health and prevention of illness.

But the only trouble is that there is as yet no real training focus on health nutrition at catering college level and this needs to change, argues Maycock. “Apart from the major chef training institutions, I don’t think you would see much in the way of any formal training in health and wellness as part of the curriculum,” he says.

As a result there is a lot of confusion over what constitutes a healthy, balanced diet, he says, with a danger that ‘fad-diets’ get incorporated into menu repertoires. Maycock, who is currently creating a new series of healthy diets for Blue Apple, is focusing in large part on the Mediterranean diet, which advocates the use of plant-based foods, olive oil, whole grains and legumes, fish and judiciously modest amounts of meat, nuts, as well as using fresh herbs and spices for flavouring. “There is so much misleading information out there on the Internet about healthy eating, it can be a bit of a minefield,” he says. “A sensible approach is clearly needed, along with better guidance.”

One company that has been cautiously introducing some of the new thinking over gut health into its various menus is Leon, the healthy fast food restaurant chain. Indeed, it is believed to be the first such UK chain to have done so commercially. It has been quietly introducing a variety of friendly cut-boosting drinks and dishes since 2016. These include mango and passionfruit kefir smoothies, and a variety of kombucha drinks (fermented fizzy teas), as well as dishes such as rainbow mezze salad or sage and kale salads.

Those items have been added into Leon’s repertoire in association with dietitian Dr Megan Rossi, a research associate at King’s College, London, who runs a gut health clinic in Harley Street. “We have introduced dishes that we think will help make it easy for everyone to look after their core health,” she says.

Its gut-friendly smoothies are full of nutrients and natural probiotics. Anti-inflammatory turmeric has also been added to its carrot, apple and ginger juice, which also help to digest proteins and fats.
Much of the latest range of gut healthy dishes was launched in the summer of 2017. It has been a relatively soft approach. Everything has been based on the latest scientific thinking and Leon has been careful to avoid being seen as overly messianic in its approach. “You can’t just impose dishes on customers who may not be familiar with them,” counsels Rossi.

Kefir may have been used by our ancestors in previous centuries but its natural sourness is something of an acquired taste. “We’ve had to make sure that it wasn’t overly fermented or too sour in taste,” she says. “The addition of fruit has also made it much more palatable than the more hardcore plainer varieties.”

It is also a case of gently educating and engaging customers to inform them of not just the additional calcium and protein involved, but how they can support a healthier microbiome in the gut too. In terms of price, she says Leon has attempted to charge the same rates as it does for its other dishes, which again tend to be inspired by a classic Mediterranean diet. “We have introduced properly live culture yoghurt and we did not change the price,” Rossi adds. “It is not as sweet as our other yoghurts but people are starting to appreciate its qualities.”

But not everyone has been lagging behind the high street when it comes to healthier eating. B&I operators such as Artizian have been at the forefront of promoting health and nutrition at their outlets for many years. The company, which was founded by Alison Frith in 1997, has developed a profound passion for menus that not only fulfil client expectations but also actively promote good health and wellbeing among its workplace clients.
The company has boasted a dedicated in-house nutritionist, Catherine Attfield, and its menus and health philosophy is encapsulated in its excellent and accessible Little Book of Artizian. The publication that goes well beyond the normal platitudes of merely reducing salt, saturated fat and sugar, but actively seeks to prevent conditions such as obesity, diabetes and liver overload.

As nutritionist Jeannette Hyde asserts, a lot of people are paying lip service to the current health revolution, but relatively few are actually putting its main tenets into practice. Chefs such as Lee Maycock, and hospitality companies such as Leon and Artizian, are determined to change all that.