One trend, three trailblazers

Three ways with: low-calorie ingredients

Calorie labelling continues to be a hot topic, but how are chefs providing lower calorie options for regular dishes?

17 February 2020

The trend

  • Restaurants displaying calories on menus serve healthier food than those that don't, according to a study by the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR). Items from restaurants with in-store menu labelling had, on average, 45% less fat and 60% less salt than items from other restaurants.
  • According to a survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation, intermittent fasting was the most popular diet in 2019. Intermittent fasting includes the well-publicised 5:2 diet which involves eating only 25% of a normal calorie intake on two non-consecutive days per week.
  • Public Health England's calorie reduction programme challenges the food industry to achieve a 20% reduction in calories by 2024 in product categories that contribute significantly to children’s calorie intakes and where there is scope for substantial reformulation and/or portion size reduction.

Discussions over whether calories should be displayed on menus in the UK continues to rumble on as we wait for the government to chew over the results of its 2018 consultation and come up with a definitive plan of action. 

While the idea of mandatory calorie labelling is unpopular with many, and certainly impractical for chefs at restaurants with daily changing menus, it has, nevertheless, put calories on the agenda and focused our attention on the amount we consume. 

Couple this with consumers' growing interest in health, nutrition – and weight loss for some - and it's unsurprising that we're witnessing an increasing number of low-calorie dishes (under 600 calories) appear on menus. 

image credit: Pho

PizzaExpress led the way, with the introduction of its Leggera range of pizzas – where salad replaced the centre of the pizza to reduce the dish to 500 calories - in 2009. Success in this area has seen it expand the range to include salads, desserts, and even a pasta dish. 

Other pizza and pasta chains like ASK and Bella Italia have followed suit, creating and marking out dishes containing fewer than 600 calories. 

But it isn't just that restaurants are providing lower calorie options for regular dishes, many are simply highlighting that their classic dishes are low calorie. Cafe Rouge's Duck Confit and Beef Bourguignon are two such examples. 

Low calorie dishes have been on the menu at Vietnamese Restaurant Pho since the group started out 15 years ago. Indeed, all its core dishes – the phở rice noodle soups – are under 600 calories. However, founder Jules Wall has noticed a need to highlight its low-calorie credentials, hence the restaurant group's recent partnership with Weight Watchers. 

“Generally, people are much more conscious of nutritional information, especially calories and following a controlled diet, so being able to offer a wide range of dishes that fits into a healthy lifestyle is hugely important,” she says.

The trailblazers

Jules Wall, founder of Pho Restaurants, describes a phở: “Most people will tell you that Vietnamese food is naturally healthy and this is true. If you compare phở to a ramen for instance, our soups are lighter, have much leaner meats, with clearer, less greasy broths and are served with rice noodles. You won’t find any dairy or gluten in any phở noodle soups either. This means that it is generally a pretty well-balanced bowl, the perfect amount of calories for a main meal. All of our phở are under 600 calories. We make our broths by slowly simmering beef or chicken bones, or loads of veg, with aromatic spices for a good 12 hours in each restaurant. We add to this different varieties of protein, like tender beef brisket, which is slowly cooked in our beef broth; chicken breast; king prawns; thinly sliced steak; tofu, mushrooms and many many more. Then, we add in a generous amount of rice noodles, and serve the phở with a side plate of fresh herbs like Thai basil, coriander and mint; fresh chillies; beansprouts and limes. A few choice spoonfuls of our table sauces bring added flavour dimensions – garlic chilli vinegar for sourness, our homemade chilli paste for more a more dynamic spiciness and fish sauce for saltiness and umami. The options are there to satisfy the tastebuds and sate the appetite however someone's feeling.”

Candice Webber, head of food and development at Vacherin, describes a supreme salmon bowl: "Our Supreme Salmon Bowl is a real crowd pleaser. It ticks the low calorie, gluten-free boxes and is fresh tasting, healthy and filling. It also couldn’t be easier to prepare. We prepare the quinoa base, edamame, mung and green beans by blanching them and then topping with wakame, coriander, olive oil and lemon juice. The key is in presenting them in a way that tempts the eater. We do this by keeping each element in its own distinct section, like a Buddha bowl. It means you can see exactly what is in your bowl – a feast for the eyes. The dressed beans and quinoa are topped with pink steamed salmon and finished with a wedge of lime. So many low-calorie dishes can be boring or bland, the key to making this dish work is the acid, layers of flavour, spice, balance and a thoughtful approach. We created the Supreme Salmon Bowl as an alternative to our sushi box and it just so happens that it is not only delicious, but low in calories as well.”

James Gould-Porter, founder of Island Poke, describes a Zero-Cal Noodle Slaw and Detox Bowl: “Seaweed noodles are mixed with julienned red, yellow and green peppers and carrots to make the zero cal noodle slaw which can be ordered as a base for other ingredients. For us our hero flavours are in the toppings and sauces we use. Our tuna is freshly marinated, our salmon mixed with spring onions and then we have a number of house dressings which really add the flavour kick. These don’t have to add the calories - our recently launched detox bowl topped with smoked tofu with a tahini ginger dressing, marinated golden beets, sesame broccoli and a super seed mix comes in at under 300 calories. We want to be able to offer customers choice and healthier alternatives when choosing to eat with us - especially during January when we know customers are making even more of a concerted effort, which is why we launched our detox bowl and zero - cal noodle slaw at the beginning of the year.”

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