As the first Director of Culinary Nutrition for the Dole Nutrition Institute (DNI), Mark Allison, an award winning chef, culinary educator and author, hangs his chef whites next to lab coats and lines his cookbooks up next to scientific journals.
He works with plant, food and nutritional scientists at the NC Research Campus (NCRC), where the DNI research lab is located, to blend scientific findings with culinary arts to motivate people to cook healthy meals filled with fruits and vegetables.
Allison acknowledges that getting people into the kitchen to make nutritionally-sound and delicious meals from fresh foods is a formidable challenge. Especially in an age when food is entertainment more than nourishment and people read about good nutrition rather than practice it, all while rates of chronic disease that can be prevented by a healthy diet skyrocket.
“The problem these days is that everything is so accessible,” Allison commented. “We just walk to the local shop, buy whatever we want, eat it, and we don’t even think about how loaded processed foods are with sugar, fat and salt. We take in all these extra calories without even realizing it.”
Throughout his 35-year career, Allison noted the negative effects of processed foods and the lack of nutritional training in the culinary world. He took action by crafting lessons that integrated nutritional principles with sound cooking techniques. At the DNI, a part of Dole Food Company that leads in the creation and distribution of scientifically-validated health and nutrition resources, he reaches a larger audience and is willing to share the origin of his personal commitment to a plant-based and unprocessed diet− his family’s battle with diabetes and cancer.
Witnessing the Benefits of a Healthy Diet
Growing up in England, Allison’s interest in healthy foods and cooking started with a father who loved to garden and a mother who loved to cook. The early experiences at home plus some home economics courses convinced him to pursue the culinary profession. He started in restaurant kitchens moving into culinary instruction and eventually became the dean of culinary arts education at Johnson & Wales University and the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute. He’s travelled to France, Spain, Italy, Alaska and Singapore as a guest professor, and won numerous awards as a chef, culinary coach and teacher.
The recognition he is most proud of is the 2012 Father of the Year award from the American Diabetes Association. The award is a milestone on a journey with his second son Matthew, 17, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 14 months. Since his family was living in Alaska at the time, he recalled how easy it was to believe that Matthew had a stubborn cold. After a blood glucose check, the diagnosis led to a week in intensive care, drastic changes in his family’s diet and a greater emphasis on nutrition as a father, chef and instructor.
His wife’s diagnosis of stage four carcinoid cancer in 2008 made him a believer in the power of a plant-base diet to fight disease and prolong life.
“She was given four years to live and lived for eight. I believe it was because we changed her dietary habits to foods that nourished her body,” Allison said. “When two people out of five in your family have life-threatening diseases, you see the true benefits of a healthy diet.”
From Knowledge to Action
Allison’s experience, both professional and personal, is a new opportunity for the DNI to influence nutrition education. “With Mark on board, we can change the conversation about nutrition,” remarked Nicholas Gillitt, PhD, vice president of nutrition research for Dole Food Company and DNI Director. “The conversation right now seems to focus far too much on what you shouldn’t eat, extra calories via added sugars, fats and salt. We want people to turn their attention to what you should eat, and Mark’s culinary expertise can help us all include more fruits and vegetables in our everyday diets.”
Allison and Gillitt believe that easy recipes combining fruits and vegetables with moderate carbohydrates and lean proteins are a tool that can help people take the first steps toward a healthier diet. Since joining DNI in May, Allison’s tested recipes to share in cooking demonstrations, the DNI’s Nutrition News e-newsletter and Dole Food Company’s multi-media campaign called Get Up and Grow! that challenges people to eat more fruits and vegetables.
His recipes incorporate research from the NCRC, a public-private research center focused on human health, nutrition and agriculture located near Charlotte, North Carolina. On a local television show, he recently demonstrated Asian Crab and Watermelon Salad, a recipe that requires a few minutes of chopping, mixing and a little zesting to create a dish with the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and the compound lycopene. Research at the NCRC-based UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute shows omega-3 fatty acids are critical to cognition and brain development, especially in children. Scientists at the NC State Plants for Human Health Institute, also at the NCRC, study lycopene in watermelon for its anti-cancer activity and its ability to protect skin from ultraviolet rays.
Along with recipe development, Allison is writing a series of books linking nutrition to the prevention and management of chronic disease. Community outreach initiatives are underway, and plans to launch programs for culinary professionals and registered dieticians with grocery stores, hospitals and schools are on the drawing board.
“We are in a very unique position,” Allison said. “We have Dole producing fantastic products. We have some of the best food scientists in the country, if not the world, at the NCRC whose sole objective is to study the benefits of plant-based foods. Now we have the culinary piece to connect the two, and give people ways to turn knowledge into action and inspire them to acquire a taste for nutrition along with good food.”
Learn more about Dole Food’s research at the NCRC.