SLENDER CELEBRITY CHEF RICK BAYLESS, the goateed enchilada evangelist who has transformed Mexican street food into fine dining, stands at the back of the Regattabar, near the full-length windows overlooking Harvard Square. Several people encircle him, straining to hear his voice over the din of the cocktail party, which caps the first day of a major food-industry conference being held here.
To the average foodie dropping in on this June evening, Bayless would be the biggest name in the room. He’s got his long-running PBS cooking show, a win on Top Chef Masters, and the standing that comes from owning one of the Obamas’ favorite restaurants in Chicago. But the savviest industry insiders — the power players here from multinational giants like Unilever and McDonald’s — know there is a far more important get: a soft-spoken Harvard professor named Walter Willett.
As Willett enters the room, carrying a red bike helmet, with a rumpled sport coat hanging off his 6-foot-2 frame, he doesn’t much look like a celebrity. The 68-year-old presents more like a reserved Congregationalist minister, albeit one with David Crosby’s untamed mustache. But no one here needs to read Willett’s name tag to recognize him or to Google his CV to appreciate the outsize role he plays in matters of the American diet.
Looking for a place to stow his bulging backpack, he’s buttonholed by a voluble pistachio salesman, one no doubt grateful for Willett’s many pronouncements on the health benefits of nuts. As the salesman launches into a broadside against the US Food and Drug Administration, Willett deftly extricates himself and heads over to a table staffed by representatives of Chobani Greek yogurt. Before he can taste his rockfish with yogurt mousse, a silver-haired guy is vying for his attention.
“Hey, Walter,” says Bart Minor, president of the California-based Mushroom Council, “what do you think about a burger combining mushrooms and beef?”
“Beets?” Willett replies hopefully.
Willett, whose latest research has found a strong association between red meat and diabetes, pauses to slurp his mousse. A better goal would be to cut out red meat entirely, he says.
The mushroom man persists, moving in closer. “By mixing in mushrooms, we can get people to reduce their red meat consumption,” he says. “Later on, maybe we can get rid of the beef in the burger altogether.”
“Getting rid of beef altogether — that would be good,” Willett says, pivoting to follow the scent of garlic wafting from Unilever’s table.
He’s tasting an almond-and-grape gazpacho when someone brings over a woman named Cindy Goody and, by way of introduction, says, “Walter, she’s trying to do good work at McDonald’s.”
He phrases his greeting in the form of a question, “Why can’t you make a good veggie burger?”
Goody, the senior director of nutrition for the 14,000 US outlets, appears taken aback. “We tried it,” she says tentatively.
“Aw, that was a setup!” Willett complains, waving his hand. He tasted one many years ago in an airport McDonald’s, and it was so awful he couldn’t finish it. “I’m convinced you guys made it bad to turn off people from veggie burgers.”
Stressing that the failed attempt was before her time, Goody says she and her colleagues have done some experimenting with veggie burgers, but they’ve had trouble keeping the sodium levels in check.
Willett isn’t persuaded. “My wife makes a delicious veggie burger,” he says, “and it’s very low in sodium.”
Goody tries a different tack, boasting that McDonald’s has reduced the sugar in its Happy Meal chocolate milks to 10 grams.
“Added sugar or total?” Willett asks.
“That’s not bad,” he says. “But people think kids need three glasses of milk a day to prevent bone fractures in adulthood. There is actually no evidence for that. So this idea of loading up sugar to get kids to drink their milk because they need it — that doesn’t make sense.”
Willett is the grandson of a dairy farmer. But the $140 billion dairy industry is just one of the many powerful interests that he has taken on during his nearly four decades as a researcher. Even if most Americans wouldn’t know him, it’s no mystery why Willett is so sought after at “This Menus of Change” conference cosponsored by The Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health. Not only is he the chair of Harvard’s nutrition department, he is also the single-most-cited nutritionist in the world. Broaden your view to all disciplines of clinical medicine, and Willet is still in the top five. In the world of eggheads, he’s Dr. Oz.Continued...