The Science and Art of Healthy Food

When Mildred Mattfeldt-Beman, chairman of the department of nutrition and dietetics at St. Louis University, was asked to help a local hotel restaurant improve the health of its recipes, the hotel's chef just about flipped out. “He thought we were ruining his recipes, nothing was going to taste good, we were going to lose all of the clientele,” Mattfeldt-Beman recalled. The perception was that as dietitians, they knew nothing about good cooking, she said. In reality, though, they had “considerable training in cooking and food science as well as food service management.”

This is when one of the nation’s first undergraduate programs combining the scientific principles of dietetics with the artistic flair of culinary skills started to take shape: The SLU staff was determined to teach students and the community that healthy cooking doesn’t mean bland, boring food.

The Brains Behind the Culinary Program

Mattfeldt-Beman loves to talk about food. Her eyes light up, her hands become expressive, and she speaks dramatically about recipes and gardening. Her excitement quickly draws in the listener: You want to hear more about the difference in the tastes of yellow and red tomatoes and how herbs can bring a new level of taste to a dish.

It’s this passion that continued to guide Mattfeldt-Beman’s efforts toward the creation of SLU’s groundbreaking new special emphasis in culinary arts for those majoring in nutrition and dietetics. SLU had graduated experts in the dietetics field for over 70 years, but Mattfeldt-Beman was hearing from other sources that something was missing from this expertise: a love of cooking. In addition, although students in the original dietetics program were now experts in the scientific aspects of food structure, many were novices when it came to food preparation.

“Students were standing in front of groups and classes holding up a zucchini and calling it a winter squash,” laughed Mattfeldt-Beman. The students also didn’t possess basic preparation skills, and she and her staff wanted to teach them how to cook from scratch. “I thought that if we could put a culinary option in the nutrition and dietetics program, the kids in culinary would be with medical students and would have a greater appreciation of what the health issues were. And my dietetics students working next to the culinary students would have an increased appreciation of the art of food.”

Students now receive hands-on education in cooking with classes in meat analysis, knife skills, baking, pastry and a variety of other areas. In addition, undergrads don’t just learn how to bake bread but also examine how different flours impact the gluten and fiber structure and how the bread can be altered to help those suffering from various diseases.

In October, Mattfeldt-Beman received a national award in innovations in culinary education from the American Dietetic Association for her work with the program. The students have brought their education into the real world by working on location at restaurants, clubs and hospitals across the area. Chris Desens, executive chef at Racquet Club Ladue, has welcomed students into his kitchen, not only to broaden their experience, but to incorporate some of these teachings into his own career as well. “The program helps us evaluate ourselves – how far we need to go in regards to dietetics. We offer the students something as well – to let them know how far they can go in this industry.”

Desens believes many new opportunities exist for this type of specialization. “I was reading about the FDA’s interest in putting nutritional labels in restaurants,” he said. “I think that shows there is a wide open arena for this type of education in the future.”

The Healthy Benefits of the SLU Program

Obesity is an overwhelming problem that can lead to an array of preventable illnesses, from diabetes to cancer. To help counteract the trend toward obesity, students in the culinary emphasis program learn techniques to teach others how the delicate differences in food can make nutritious meals both exciting and flavorful.

“The difference in flavors, the difference in textures, the difference in colors – it’s absolutely amazing what even switching from a red tomato to an orange tomato can do in terms of the color of the dish and the flavors you get in whatever you’re making,” explained Mattfeld-Beman. This creativity in cooking and food preparation can go a long way in convincing people to try different things when it comes to healthy eating.

“Why do we have to have so many special menus?” she asked. “We can just serve food that tastes great, is low in cholesterol, low in sodium, high in fiber. People won’t have to be on special diets; everyone can eat wonderful, healthy foods.” Besides the health benefits, the cost savings for restaurants, hospitals and other food-serving enterprises can be significant as different menus are combined into one tasty, nutritious meal.

The department also concentrates on the health of the environment. One important aspect of the program is its focus on sustainable agriculture, which spotlights practices that build the soil, recycle and enhance resources and center on the world as a whole. A multipurpose garden on campus allows students to get their hands dirty – in terms of sustainable agriculture – by growing the produce they will use in their culinary dishes. Next year, the sustainable agriculture program will go one step further by incorporating recycling elements.

Sustainable agricultural practices are important to building a safety network if the unexpected arises and food supply becomes a problem. “Look at the impact the recent grocery store strike has had on where people need to go for food,” said Mattfeldt-Beman. “What would happen if all food supplies were cut off, and we had to live on what we have? We’re worrying about plagues; we’re worrying about terrorists. Do we have a food safety net in this country?”

The Healthy Cooking Explosion

After only a few years in existence, SLU’s one-of-a-kind culinary emphasis is already considered a landmark in this type of education, and it’s expected to skyrocket in upcoming years as the need for experts in the field continues to grow. According to Mattfeldt-Beman, the demand for professional chefs alone will increase 42 percent by 2005, and it’s essential for these chefs to have a strong dietetic background as more and more individuals – especially those in the baby boomer generation – insist on meals that are both delicious and nutritious.

For more information on SLU’s nutrition and dietetics curriculum, as well as its community programs, visit the department’s Web site at, or call them directly at 314.577.8523.