Perhaps it’s a futile attempt to understand how restaurant chefs think about food and nutrition, but lately I’ve been watching the very warped “Top Chef” episodes for the last couple of seasons–easy to do online. I can’t help wondering not only at the contestants, all of whom seem to display basic ignorance of what used to be called the “Four Food Groups,” but at some of the judges who fault them on nutritional challenges.
In this season there have been two, the School Lunch Challenge and–not that the judges even thought about it as a nutritional challenge, which they should have–the Baby Food Challenge. In both, the judges seemed at least as lacking in nutritional knowledge as the contestants, and in some aspects even worse.
The School Lunch Challenge brought out scathing comments on the show and on a number of blogs, particularly when the bottom-ranked chef, who went home for her gaffe, attempted to make a banana pudding palatable by adding sugar. Tom Colicchio made a big deal of her adding two pounds of sugar to the pudding–which was to feed 50 students.
And admittedly it’s not great for nutrition, but it was hardly the disaster he and the other judges made out. If anyone had bothered to whip out a calculator and known how to use it for pounds-to-kilos conversions, they’d have discovered that the two pounds of sugar amounts to 0.91 kilos. Or 909 grams, to be a little more precise (which we shouldn’t, the chef was eyeballing what she added). Divide by 50 and you get 18 grams per serving or about 4 teaspoons–not all that surprising an amount of sweetener in any prepared dessert. Add that to the starch already present as thickener and the sugars from the milk and bananas and you probably have 30-40 grams of carb or thereabouts per half cup of pudding.
It would be a lot for someone diabetic, like my daughter, but not disastrous as long as she knew how much carb was in it, and it certainly wouldn’t be disastrous for most school kids if the rest of the meal was balanced with low-fat protein and vegetables and not too much other starch.
But actually, most of the lunch entries were pretty starchy. The fact that they didn’t all have as much noticeable added sugar is almost immaterial–starches break down into sugars. You have to count them all.
What really stood out was the pathetic nature of the criterion “to include a vegetable.” One that was most-praised–a slab of caramelized (talking of sugar) sweet potato under a chocolate sorbet as a dessert–was mostly a starch, though in its favor it had vitamin A and fiber. Another team served celery (no vitamins and very low fiber, despite the stringiness) with a peanut-butter mousse (why, oh lord, not just peanut butter? chef-think at work?) piped out directly onto the celery, supposedly so kids would eat it. No one liked the mousse because it looked remarkably unpleasant, like something you’d find on the sidewalk if you weren’t stepping carefully, so they didn’t dare touch the celery, which they might actually have eaten plain.
The starches and sugars and lack of substantial vegetables on most of the teams’ menus allowed Colicchio, Kass and Lakshmi to display lots of self-righteous indignation–which always sells. But it was clear from the vagueness of their comments that none of them really knew very much about the nutrition guidelines for kids (or adults) or how to apply them effectively. They didn’t seem to realize that while they criticized a banana pudding, at least three-quarters of almost every team’s menu was primarily starch. And they didn’t seem, either in setting the criteria or in their judging, to understand the difference between starchy vegetables and low-carb ones, or between vegetables that deliver vitamins and fiber from ones that really don’t.
The most vegetable-like entry was a half-cup of mixed corn kernels (a starch) and a few cherry tomatoes, though not enough to do any good as a vegetable serving and provide a decent amount of fiber and vitamins. Oddly, this side dish was praised by Colicchio even though it wasn’t worth a lot nutritionally. More oddly, guest judge Sam Kass, the White House chef who’s been working with Michelle Obama on her initiative for school gardens and better school nutrition, twitted the team that “tomatoes are a fruit, not a vegetable.” Please. That’s not only irrelevant for the challenge, it’s below feeble for nutritional knowledge.
The one area where all the judges displayed the least knowledge is the one I consistently criticize restaurant school-trained chefs for: salt. None of them remarked on salt content at all, not that we could have trusted them to know what’s reasonable for any of the dishes in a school lunch or even what the recommended daily maximum for kids is.
We have no real idea how much salt went down in the cafeteria that day, but given some of the entrees–spaghetti and meatballs, pork carnitas–and the starchy side dishes like rice, which restaurant chefs tend to salt heavily and cook in broth or bouillon, it probably took up well more than half of the daily max of 1500 mg sodium.
To my mind, this is the most serious error other than not providing straight-up and substantial low-carb raw vegetables and straight-up moderate-carb fresh fruit as half of the plate on a daily basis. You can’t work off sodium the way you can calories, and children are at least as vulnerable to the effects of a high-sodium diet as adults, not less. The excess sodium they ingest while growing seems to have a lasting influence on their future blood pressure and kidney function. Plain fruits and vegetables–tomatoes or otherwise–provide potassium to counteract sodium, and they add very little sodium of their own.
The Baby Food Challenge–in which contestants were supposed to make a baby-suitable version of an adult dish–was even more twisted in regard to salt. Several of the contestants and Lakshmi herself either had or were expecting infants. So the entries all seemed at first glance to be on track with no raw meats or fish, and the inclusion of vegetables. A few contestants remembered to pull out the hot spices before blending up the baby version. But not one of them skipped the salt.
That’s an error that it took Congressional hearings to correct back in the late 1960s. Up to that time, baby food manufacturers had been adding salt as well as artificial colors and flavors because the mothers who bought these products would often taste them before giving them to their babies. The manufacturers were attempting to please the adult palate–at the cost of the babies’ health.
Leo Dahl, the hypertension researcher who developed the famous salt-sensitive and salt-insensitive rat strains for his studies back in 1961, was one of the experts who testified that commercial baby foods should not contain added salt. He gave as evidence a series of studies that showed baby rats had a distinct window of vulnerability to salt: they had a higher risk of developing high blood pressure later if fed high-salt diets even for a short time during early development, and similar results have since been shown in human infants. He also pointed out that human milk has only one-eighth the sodium content of cow’s milk, and that the sodium content in most of the jarred baby foods far exceeded infants’ physiological sodium requirement. At the end of the hearing, salt, along with a number of carcinogenic colorants and other additives, was finally disallowed in commercial baby food.
The judges for the Baby Food Challenge actually praised a number of the baby versions as well-seasoned, meaning salted up to the expectations of an adult chef trained to salt food routinely–maybe too routinely–for his or her customers.
And why do they do that anyway? Everyone’s taste is different–or should be. Should they also be cutting up their customers’ food into teeny-tiny bites and spoon-feeding them while making airplane noises?
The whole experience of watching these episodes makes me shake my head at what is and is not taught in culinary schools in America these days. Nutrition clearly isn’t in it.
The only other thing I can think makes a difference is generational: I went to elementary school in the early 1970s, the Nixon era, when the Four Food Groups were still in force and Fruits & Vegetables was still part of the scenery in most people’s diets. The school cafeterias had stoves, ovens and refrigerators and most of the food was made there, not in some fast-food factory for reheating as it is today.
Most of the Top Chef “cheftestants”–and most of the judges too–are 10 to 20 years younger than I am, products of the Reagan and Bush years when, as Reagan proudly declared while cutting federal school food budgets to shreds, “Ketchup is a vegetable.” Health class was quickly usurped by the roiling controversies over actual vs. “abstinence-only” sex education, PE classes that demanded actual running around and exercising were cut as well, and home ec pretty much faded away. So who was going to teach kids the fundamentals of nutrition? We’ve lost an entire generation for this basic knowledge, and the succeeding generation is growing up with parents who can’t teach them.
Filed under: cooking, DASH Diet, Food Politics, Food TV, fruits, kid food, nutrition, unappetizing, Vegetabalia | Tagged: baby food, carb counting, childhood nutrition, childood obesity, cooking shows, diabetes, high blood pressure, low-salt diet, Padma Lakshmi, Sam Kass, school cafeterias, school gardens, school lunch, Tom Colicchio, Top Chef |