All Articles Food Consumer Insights Are better burgers, desserts the key to more nutritious, sustainable eating?

Are better burgers, desserts the key to more nutritious, sustainable eating?

Making the appealing option a little healthier and better for the planet could be the key to moving the needle on the American diet, experts said at the 11th annual Menus of Change conference at The Culinary Institute of America.

6 min read

Consumer InsightsFood

Are better burgers, desserts the key to more nutritious, sustainable eating? [Photo of a cookie with a heart shape dusted on in powdered sugar]


Sign up for ProChef SmartBrief today, free.

When it comes to eating food that’s better for the planet and for our personal health, there are several boxes that most of us know we should be checking more often. Eating more plants and less animal protein. Consuming fewer processed items and embracing a wider range of foods that benefits nutrition and biodiversity. On paper, eating a healthy and environmentally-friendly diet sounds simple. In practice, it’s much more complicated. Cost, geographic location and a number of other factors can make it difficult if not impossible for many people to access nutrient-dense foods with low climate impact. And then there is the matter of taste. When we pick up a menu or stroll down the grocery aisle, many of us are still going to order the burger or put the cookies in our cart.

Making the appealing option a little healthier and better for the planet could be the key to moving the needle on the American diet, experts said at the 11th annual Menus of Change conference at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., last week.

“People aren’t really into numbers when they’re eating food. It has to taste delicious,” said Spike Mendelsohn, chef and co-founder of Eat the Change, during a session about creating a better burger.

This sentiment is reflected in the “2023 Plant-Forward Opportunity Report,” which found that only 11% of US consumers surveyed said they would be encouraged to order a plant-forward option from a menu if it had a lower carbon footprint, while 46% said they would be encouraged to order a plant-forward dish if used flavors they love.

Reducing “risk” by using familiar flavors and formats is key to getting diners to order plant-forward foods, said Marie Molde, head of product marketing at Datassential, which created the annual report in collaboration with the CIA, Food for Climate League and the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative.

Building a better burger

There is perhaps no more familiar food to American diners than the hamburger, which makes it an excellent candidate for nudging consumers toward healthier and more climate-friendly eating.

“The average American eats three burgers a week, and 71% of all beef used commercially is in the form of burgers and cheeseburgers. So if we’re going to make a difference, the burger is a really good place to start,” said Pam Smith, a culinary nutrition consultant and founder of Shaping America’s Plate.

The Culinary Institute of America made a breakthrough in the quest for a better burger several years ago when its Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative worked with The Mushroom Council to develop a mixture of mushrooms and meat called “The Blend,” which countless restaurants and other foodservice operations have integrated into their menus. Seasons 52 and The Cheesecake Factory have included blended burgers on their menus, and Sonic has featured a blended burger limited-time offering called the Sonic Slinger several times since launching it in 2017.

In 2015, the James Beard Foundation created the Blended Burger Project to encourage chefs to create the best blended burger. Restaurants across the country send in their entries, and many of the blended burgers remain on their menus. 

“I kind of fell in love with the concept of the blended burger competition because we started Burgh’ers to create a healthier option for food that everyone can relate to,” said Fiore Moletz, president and chef of Burgh’ers Brewing based in Pittsburgh, whose recipe won the 2018 competition. 

Moletz said swapping some of the beef for mushrooms has flavor benefits in addition to the health and climate benefits of eating less meat. “The mushroom blend that we used really added a depth to the hamburger that we couldn’t get with just beef,” he said.

More than a third of the burgers ordered at Moletz’s restaurant are blended or fully plant-based burgers, which is significant when you consider that Burgh’ers bills itself as a regular burger joint. 

Mendelsohn, whose growing PLNT Burger chain offers a fully plant-based menu, said bringing crave-worthy plant-based food to the masses is key to “democratizing plant-based foods. We can only have a massive change if we make these things affordable to all.”

Don’t skip dessert

The importance of prioritizing taste when creating foods that are healthier and more sustainable is well-established at this point, but despite the acknowledgment that it is key to offer foods that people want to eat, there is little talk of desserts.

“While we don’t need dessert to survive, people are going to eat dessert and it’s a huge industry…If we want to have impact, we need to talk about desserts,” said Lauren Haas, a professor at the Culinary Institute of America’s School of Baking and Pastry Arts.

“Just like making small, incremental changes in our savory foods can have a big impact, so can making small, incremental changes in our desserts, or in our pastries, or our baked goods.”

Haas joined two other baking and pastry instructors for a breakout session exploring the possibilities of desserts and baked goods that are better for personal and planetary health. Using plant-based ingredients, incorporating alternative grains and finding ways to minimize waste can help culinary professionals create indulgent treats that are better for us and the environment, they said. 

Haas explained a detailed pastry recipe she created that calls for several components including a plant-based meringue stabilized with potato protein and a chocolate shell formed in a recycled paper mold rather than a silicone one. This intricate creation serves as an example of what is possible with plant-based desserts, but there are many more accessible starting points for chefs looking to make a small change.

At The Bakery Cafe at Greystone at the CIA’s St. Helena, Calif., campus, Haas started with a cookie, and now all of the cookies made and sold there are “100% plant-based,” she said.

“The cookie is our number one seller in the bakery by far…When we started with the cookie I labeled them as plant-based and then after a while, I just took the label off. They are what they are, they just happen to be made with plant-based ingredients. I rely a lot on nuts and other types of ingredients that are healthy but still high in fat because fat is what creates that indulgent texture. They’re just healthier fats.”

After Haas demonstrated a recipe for a plant-based cookie topped with a shiny circle of chocolate, she said there would be some available for everyone to try later on. At the mention of samples, an excited murmur went through the crowd of attendees. That’s the power of a cookie.

Read more like this from SmartBrief:


If you liked this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free email newsletter from The Culinary Institute of America. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.