• Alison Acerra MS, RDN

How Can Globally Inspired Menus Drive Better Health For People and the Planet?

It’s 4pm and I’m still daydreaming about today’s lunch served at my local SF-based coworking space: Chef-prepared Basmati rice, shredded carrots, grilled Haloumi cheese and kalamata olives atop a bed of crunchy Romaine finished with a citrus tahini dressing. Perfectly portioned and complete with incredible flavor, textures, color and WOW this was truly a power lunch that kept me energized and focused all afternoon long. The menu is among one of many developed by the rockstar culinary talent on board here serving nourishing meals to this hungry group of eaters looking for big flavor that packs a nutritious punch.

Global Flavors Still Trending and Here to Stay

According to a recent Technomic report, twenty-four percent of consumers are trying more unique types of ethnic foods as compared with 2 years ago and this number increases to 35% for gen-Zers and millennials. Widespread adoption of social media by younger generations allows for the ability to share unique insights into the cultures of the world (and, food is a universal connector!). Another reason these younger consumers seem to have more diversified tastes and preferences for less mainstream flavor profiles than older generations is because they themselves are more ethnically diverse a trend that will continue. According to this census report review, “Latino and Asian populations are expected to nearly triple...Today in the United States, 25 percent of children under age 5 are Hispanic; by 2050, that percentage will be almost 40 percent.”

Ethnic Menus as a Strategy for Health Improvements

Over the past 40 years, a variety of factors have influenced the American foodscape that have had repercussions on public health. As a population, we are woefully deficient in fruits and vegetables (the CDC reports only 1/10 Americans meet the recommended intakes) and yet eating more sugar than ever (13% of total calories come on board with added sugars). The change in our eating habits has sent rates of chronic disease like diabetes soaring.

When it comes to optimizing health and performance with good nutrition, the increased focus on global flavors may just be a dose (albeit a small one) of the medicine America needs to help manage its public health crisis. The issues at the heart of the matter are complicated and will require change on multiple fronts, but the food industry is well-positioned for impact by making flavorful, ethnic foods more accessible and mainstream.

So how can a shift towards dietary patterns that incorporate more ethnically diverse menus potentially impact the health of people and the planet?

While plenty of diversity exists between traditional food cultures, something most of them share in common is their heavy focus on plant-based ingredients with animal proteins typically used in much smaller portions, if featured at all. The cuisines that define a culture are typically those where ingredients can be raised and produced locally based on factors such as soil, climate and water availability. And the evidence stacks so far in favor of plant-based eating for health (and the environment) it can’t be argued. Plant-forward menus where nutrient dense vegetables, fruits, hearty grains and tubers become the star of the show also means we feel much fuller on less! The American food scene has become inherently super-sized in terms of the amount of animal proteins and sheer calories on our plates.

Incorporating Ethnic Flavors and More Plants into Appealing Menus

Food service operators can respond to the consumer interest in more ethnic foods while delivering healthier menus to their guests. While indulgence can be found in any cuisine (think fried samosas, baklava and chimichangas!) there are ways to take the healthiest and most flavorful aspects of a cuisine and build a crowd-pleasing menu that incorporates global flavors.

Indian: To start, the herbs and spices intrinsic to Indian fare such as ginger, turmeric cinnamon and coriander are antioxidant rich and full of anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial compounds that can support immune function. Heart healthy and fiber-rich lentils and garbanzo beans promote lasting fullness and stable blood sugars helping to prevent weight gain and prevent diabetes. With the incredible flavors in these dishes, customers won’t even miss the meat.

Mediterranean: The Mediterranean Diet is the most well-researched diet in the world with strong evidence to support its benefits on disease reduction, cognitive health and longevity. This pattern is an amalgamation of influences from countries surrounding the coastline of this gorgeous Sea including Greece, Croatia, Italy and Spain. The cuisine incorporates plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, beans, olive oil and wine, the ingredients behind its heart healthy benefits. Grilling, broiling and other leaner cooking techniques are common.

South-east Asian: Cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia incorporate plenty of fresh vegetables and fish with moderate use of meat, to none at all. Starchy dishes like fried rice and Pad Thai noodles can be balanced with more diced and sliced vegetables. Instead of large chunks of meats, many dishes are served with smaller amounts of animal proteins thinly sliced as in stir frys and curry dishes.

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