Culinary Creativity

Research at Dole Nutrition Institute in Kannapolis is making nutrition science accessible—and delicious.

It turns out your mother was right: eating fruits and vegetables really is good for you.

And there’s an army of nutrition scientists in Kannapolis at the Dole Nutrition Institute conducting research demonstrating the connection between the phytochemicals—plant compounds such as antioxidants—found in fruits and vegetables and their ability to help reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

“One of the best weapons in the arsenal against disease is the body’s own protection mechanisms,” says Nicholas Gillitt, vice president of nutrition research at the Dole Nutrition Institute. “These mechanisms are enhanced by the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables.”

Gillitt heads a team of researchers and educators whose mission is to inform consumers about the benefits of fruits and vegetables in their daily diets. The research lab was established in Kannapolis in 2009 as part of the NC Research Campus, a public/private partnership exploring many aspects of plants and human nutrition, health, and performance.

The 350-acre NC Research Campus—known as the intersection of human health, nutrition, and agriculture—was founded by David H. Murdock, CEO of Dole Foods. Murdock has dedicated his life to finding a cure for cancer and extending life through fruit and vegetable nutrition. Academic partners include UNC Charlotte, UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, Appalachian State University, N.C. A&T State University, and Duke University.

Despite the growing body of research on the health benefits of increased fruits and vegetables in our diets and the admonishments of mothers all across America, increasing consumption rates remains challenging.

That’s why in 2015, the Institute turned to chef and culinary educator Mark Allison to use simple, quick, and tasty recipes to engage with consumers and motivate the public to cook healthy meals filled with fruits and vegetables. The classically trained chef is the former dean of culinary arts education at Charlotte’s Johnson & Wales University.

Healthy, delicious food

Allison brings a very personal connection to his educational mission and role of director of culinary nutrition.

“Eighteen years ago, after learning my son developed juvenile diabetes at 14 months, my philosophy about eating changed,” says Allison. “I began to look at food as a health vehicle. When I started doing research and looking at healthy food, I found it was rather bland and not sexy or exciting. I focused my career on creating healthy food that was delicious.”

For Allison, that meant unusual flavor combinations. His “Coffee Fix on the Go,” for example, blends espresso, raw almonds, filtered water, bananas, and ice into a morning (or anytime) smoothie that is packed with flavor and nutrients.

In 2008, Allison’s wife was diagnosed with Stage 4 carcinoid cancer and given three to four years to live. He redoubled his efforts on healthy diet and eating, using fruit and vegetable nutrition he says helped prolong his wife’s life eight years beyond her diagnosis.

“We came to the conclusion that a plant-based diet was the way to go,” Allison says. “We eliminated processed foods, cut way down on meats and dairy, and looked at fruits and vegetables as the main source of our diet.”

Since joining the Dole Nutrition Institute, Allison has been busy developing healthy recipes, conducting cooking demonstrations and presentations, and championing the benefits of healthy eating through programs such as “Get up and Grow.” The community outreach program celebrates healthy eating and features recipes, samples, and demonstrations at markets across the country.

As for Allison’s top tips on eating healthy:

“My philosophy is pretty simple,” says Allison. “Buy fresh, single-ingredient foods. Don’t be afraid to experiment or make mistakes in the kitchen. Incorporate colors into your diet—select from the wide array of colorful fruits and vegetables and try new foods. Cut back on animal protein and sugar. And get the family involved in shopping and cooking. The benefits are lifelong.”

For Allison’s recipes and additional information visit www.dolegetupandgrow.com/recipes.

Photos by Eric Pound.