Before people were selling dried lagundi leaves in tea bags and malunggay capsules to breastfeeding mothers for lactation, medical students would arrive by the bus loads at my grandfather’s park in Antipolo to hear him talk about medicinal plants back in the late ’80s to early ’90s.

A retired lawyer and philanthropist, Romeo Ticzon, Sr. recognized the inherent healing power of plants and how it can be harnessed to cure different ailments. Romeo Sr., along with medical doctors of his time who had grown tired of Big Pharma shoving chemicals down our throats, believed that nature’s healing hand was just as effective as what scientists were concocting in beakers.

Fast forward to today and, while Gen-Xers are popping medication for gout and hypertension, millennials are learning from the mistakes of those who came before them. Resisting offers of extra rice and refusing that additional slab of foie gras on their salad, they are opting for prevention rather than seeking the cure by eating right. “To eat healthy, you have to pay a lot of attention,” says Dr. Frank Lipman, the founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in Manhattan, in a Forbes article online. And people are doing just that—especially the millennials, he contends. “They are 10 times more aware than my generation,” says Lipman, and are “much more interested in staying healthy and eating healthy.”

In search of wellness

Angela Lichauco with ingredients for her green juice

Based on Google searches this year, people are increasingly more curious about food that can enhance their lives. Searches for “best food for” have grown 10 times since 2005, and are usually followed by “skin,” “energy,” “acid reflux,” “your brain,” and “gym workout.”

People always think healthy food is bland and tasteless due to lack of sodium and sugar,” says Angela Lichauco.

Ingredients for Rawlicious’ green juice

Further evidence of this surging interest in being healthy shows in Google searches regarding “functional food” or superfoods like turmeric, apple cider vinegar, avocado oil, bitter melon (ampalaya), and kefir, which is high in probiotics. Known benefits of these “healthy ingredients” are better skin, libido, and energy or cures for depression, insomnia, and pain (in fact, “benefits” is a term that’s commonly searched for along with many of these foods). Now, the focus of people’s diets is less about eliminating foods than about adding them.

Global food, restaurant, and hotel consultancy firm Baum & Whiteman recently launched its annual trend forecast and “cleaner, healthier menus” are definitely coming up strong. With the global crackdown on big food companies using additives and harmful chemicals in their products, casual dining chains such as US-based brands Subway, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Chipotle are frantically trying to eliminate “unhealthy” ingredients from their recipes, while sit-down restaurants and hotels have remained non-committal. However, Baum & Whiteman president Michael Whiteman is confident: “Everyone will scramble to sanitize their menus.”

In the mix

Chef Lim with NAV’s healthy dishes

Why the sudden switch to healthy eating? “People are realizing that eating unhealthy is making them sick,” professes Angela Lichauco, co-owner of green smoothie delivery service Rawlicious. For her, clean eating is part of a holistic lifestyle that is sustained and nourished by her green smoothies. She packs them with the good stuff—turmeric, goji berry, spirulina, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and maca. 

Chef Francis Lim (NAV Modern Thai Cuisine, and Tipple & Slaw) is not the first person who would come to mind when thinking about healthy eating, but the changes he made in his personal life turned him into quite the healthy eater. A couple of years ago, an inactive and hard-partying lifestyle caused him to gain 85 pounds within a year. Sparked by vanity and driven by the desire to be healthier, he turned to exercise and clean eating which allowed him to lose all 85 pounds in two years. “I started off with quinoa, but then realized that superfoods also come in the form of nuts, seeds, and other grains.”

NAV’s Healthy Pad Thai Spring Rolls

His curiosity led him to research on ingredients that are high in benefits and also in flavor, something he applied to the menu he helped develop for health food eatery Vibe Cafe in Forbestown, Bonifacio Global City. Malunggay is a favorite ingredient in many of its dishes, showing up not just in beverages but also in pesto used in sandwiches and pastas. Customers sip on their turmeric and find it in their salmon rice bowl while activated charcoal (well-known for its detoxifying properties) is made palatable disguised as a citrusy juice drink or chocolate smoothie. 

Lichauco believes that superfoods are not a trend, and Lim has the secret to their staying power—flavor. “People always think healthy food is bland and tasteless due to lack of sodium and sugar,” the trim chef attests. “But, there are ways to manipulate flavor with the right combination of healthy ingredients and seasonings.” He gives an appreciative nod towards Robby Goco’s Green Pastures, which serves garlicky ribeye salpicao with bulgur instead of garlic rice; packs salads with kale, grains, and freshly made, low-fat dressings; and offers a variety of kombucha elixirs alongside fruit coolers. Lichauco makes the trip to the Legazpi Sunday Market in Makati for raw vegan food from Asha Raw Food and is a fan of the healthy dishes at Alchemy in the resort town of Bali, Indonesia.

Denying the dry

Green Pastures

As much as flavorful healthy dishes are the goal, the very essence of superfoods still lies in their benefits. They need to provide your body with what they promise. Lim claims that a certain type of berry is all hype: “Blueberries, although quite good when fresh, have low nutritional value. Dried prunes as well. Personally, I think all superfoods are healthy. But for me the best way to take them is fresh. Avoid powdered superfoods. Malunggay, gotu kola, turmeric, and garlic are amazing superfoods that can be taken fresh. I only take the powdered ones when the fresh ones are unavailable.” Having a regular and reliable purveyor is obviously key, especially if serving these superfoods in a restaurant setting is your goal.

With chefs like him making a conscious shift towards healthy eating, Lim plans to make the same commitment to using superfoods in all his restaurants. Still consulting with Vibe Cafe, he designed five different burgers (meat or otherwise) each containing a different medley of superfoods. Nav, he claims, “has vegetarian options as well since most Thai food is considered to be healthy and vegan-friendly.” What would be interesting to see, however, is how he would turn Tipple & Slaw’s calorific, American comfort food menu into something less fatty.

I believe what will make the difference is how the chefs treat this trend. Either it is merely jumping on the bandwagon of body-conscious millennials or it’s a means for promoting a lifestyle of clean and healthy eating.

I believe what will make the difference is how the chefs treat this trend. Either it is merely jumping on the bandwagon of body-conscious millennials or it’s a means for promoting a lifestyle of clean and healthy eating. At least for Lim, who has every intention of maintaining the body he worked hard to get back, it’s a habit he has no plans of breaking. “In fact, we’re expanding our menu to include healthier additions and options for each product since I myself am into fitness and wellness.”

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