Americans may well be reeling from the latest “new” dietary recommendations. Just as they were beginning to understand the old pyramid, the new version is being rolled out--well, actually 12 of them. (So it will be easier for consumers to understand.) Margarine was good, and butter was bad. Now trans fats are bad, and dairy is good. Does that make butter good? Carbs were good, then bad, then good again.

How is this never-ending nutritional roller coaster affecting consumers' dessert preferences? To find out, Prepared Foods sent its executive chef to some of America's centers of culinary excellence. There, he ordered, and ate, some of the latest and greatest desserts now on our country's menus. According to the nutrition experts, it was a very dangerous job, but someone had to do it! Here is what was learned. -- Eds.

Nestled in a beautiful hillside, overlooking California's Napa Valley, sits majestic Grey Stone Mansion--The Culinary Institute of America's (CIA, Hyde Park, N.Y.) crown jewel. The chefs trained at CIA influence culinary trends across America and around the world. A recent visit to the mansion, also known as the “Gray Lady,” was quite telling. A grand event was being catered on the garden terrace, and what extraordinary dessert was being served? Something new; something healthy? No, the dessert served was what the customers had ordered: a traditional, classic strawberry shortcake. It was perfect, delicious, decadent--and very high-carb.

Meanwhile, in view of the Golden Gate Bridge, dozens of trendy upscale San Francisco restaurants were serving numerous variations on a single theme--chocolate. Almost every menu had more than one chocolate item, and on most, it was the top seller. Every restaurant also had at least one item containing fruit. But, in most cases, it was covered with yummy sauce, toppings, or sitting on a piece of cake.

What about New York City? Chef Nobuyuki Matsuisa of Nobu Restaurant is serving a Chocolate “Bento Bo.” In Portland, chef Greg Higgins creates his signature Chocolate Bread Pudding. Meanwhile, at Abacus restaurant in Dallas, chef Kent Rathbun is wowing customers with his Abacus Chocolate Tart.

In Miami, dessert menus have seen a recent and ongoing simplification. In a word--cheesecake. Also, most restaurants in Florida have some version of Key Lime Pie on their menu. However, that same list most likely will also carry four or five types of cheesecake. Why are they there? The customers insist on it.

Then there is Omaha; perhaps our last, best defender of good old “steak and potatoes cuisine”--a true American classic, if ever there was one. M's restaurant may be the best place to eat in Omaha's Old Market section. Although the gourmet chefs at M's may have fretted a bit about the low-carb craze, they stuck to their guns--and also have listened to their customers. The dessert menu at M's is all about chocolate, sugar and cream.

On the restaurant menus in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Boston, chocolate desserts and rich cakes “garnished” with fresh fruit appear. Not a low-cal item is to be seen. What is going on?

Net Carb Backlash?

The National Restaurant Show in Chicago is the perfect place to investigate what manufacturers are selling to chain restaurants. It also is a great place to get “off the record” comments on various works in progress. At booth after booth, the same thing was seen. Very few truly healthy desserts were being displayed. Here, too, chocolate desserts and cheesecake were the star attractions. When asked about new dessert products in the pipeline, no one mentioned anything really new or innovative. Many of the biggest players seemed to be focusing on trans fat reduction of existing items. Others said they were trying to find ways to “get additional fiber” into their products. The misleading term “net carb” seems to have completely disappeared from people's vocabulary in the foodservice industry. Customers visiting the show, looking for products, said they are still interested in healthy items. However, many have grown weary of ever-changing recommendations. Consumers are seeking a long-term answer. Most have tried a number of diet or healthy foods, and most have not continued to buy those products. Overall, they shared a few common views.

1. Dessert is not the primary meal. It is the “treat” at the end of a meal. Many view dessert as a reward for eating a healthy main item. Many will skip other high-calorie items to “allow” for a great-tasting dessert.

2. When dining out, many are less interested in healthy desserts than when eating at home. Since a restaurant dessert is a special treat, it must be extraordinary and taste extraordinary to meet customers' expectations.

3. When dining away from home, the expectation is that a dessert must taste better than one could make at home. “Good enough” is not good enough.

4. When in doubt, many customers will order their “favorite” flavor restaurant dessert. In many cases, favorite has come to mean chocolate.

5. Almost universally, customers would rather skip dessert than eat something less than delicious--even if it were healthy.

All stated they would definitely buy healthy desserts, if they tasted and looked as good as the “real” thing. However, most mentioned having been disappointed in the past. None said that they would choose a restaurant because of healthy desserts.

What's Next?

Now that the dietary “dust” is beginning to settle, and food scientists and research chefs can get back to common sense decision-making, what are the next long-term opportunities going to be? Even the “flip floppers” have always held the line on two things: a balanced diet is best and eating more whole grains is always a good idea. Another true trend is a growing understanding that “real” food is better than “fake” food. Although those terms are not very scientific, they are the ones often used by consumers. These attitudes are helping to drive the organic foods market, as well as the demand for vegetarian and vegan items. How do we tap into that deep customer preference? Let us look at two people who are succeeding.

When ConAgra (Omaha, Neb.) needs a delicious new consumer product, they have thousands of technologists and marketing people they can consult. But at the end of the day, when the “fire hits the pan,” someone has to actually make the first prototype. Although ConAgra has hundreds of scientists and cereal chemists, it also has some of the world's best research chefs. Additionally, deep down in the basement, they also have one very special culinary artist who is an artisan baker: Richard Charpentier, a master French baker.

He is working on making delicious, decadent, baked items. However, he also is focused on making sure they are healthy. Although exactly what he has on the drawing board cannot be revealed, those who want to compete had better start focusing on gourmet taste, texture and appearance. Oh, by the way: it had better be very good for you.

Chef Jo Kaucher is widely acknowledged as one of the top vegetarian chefs in the nation. A winning member of the USA's Culinary Olympic team in Frankfurt, Germany, her wonderful baked products are being sold in Whole Foods Market (Austin, Texas) and Wild Oats Markets Inc. (Boulder, Colo.). Chef Kaucher has been studying, testing, and perfecting the art of vegan product development for over 30 years. She and her husband Mickey have operated a very successful vegetarian restaurant, The Chicago Diner (Chicago), and a wholesale vegan baking operation since 1983. Everything Chef Jo creates is “real food,” and everything is wonderful, decadent and delicious. Plus, it is being sold wholesale. It can be done; she proves it every day.

We eat dessert not to fuel our bodies or to “get healthy,” but because we deserve a treat and we want it to be yummy. Whatever the next big trend in food will be, we know that to succeed, it will have to be delicious.

Chocolate Remains the Favorite

Here is a list of America's top five restaurant desserts, as voted on by 8,589 consumers in a recent (non-scientific) Internet poll. All contain chocolate as a main element! For the complete list, type “Top Ten Chocoholic Dishes” into an Internet search engine.

1. MacDeth by Chocolate, Sugar Dessert Bar (Chicago)

Bittersweet molten chocolate cake, chocolate pot de crème and a rich chocolate sorbet are a trio of Shakespearean proportions, best devoured on one of Sugar's cocoa-colored banquettes. We foresee diners having no toil or trouble finishing off every morsel.

2. Chocolate Mousse Cake, Sweet Endings (Dallas)

Diet-spoilers abound at this neighborhood bakery, but one standout takes the cake. Layered with chocolate mousse and topped generously with chocolate whipped cream, the creation is finished off with a chocolate ganache glaze. Sweet Endings' German chocolate and Chocolate Oblivion cakes run a close second.

3. I Scream Fudge! Sundae, Creole Creamery (New Orleans)

Why go for 31 flavors when one is all you need? Start at the top with a chocolate cherry, work your way through layers of chocolate chips and cocoa powder, and sink into two scoops of deep chocolate fudge heaven, all in a fudge-coated glass.

4. Frrrozen Hot Chocolate, Serendipity 3 (New York)

''I'll have a butterscotch sundae, I guess,'' says a blasé Gwyneth Paltrow when her Royal Tenenbaums character visits Serendipity. Enthusiasts will enjoy the Frrrozen Hot Chocolate, a sub-zero version of the classic beverage. The meal-sized mug is topped with whipped cream and cocoa powder.

5. Godiva Chocolate Cake, Morton's Steakhouse (Cleveland)

The very mention of Godiva produces a Pavlovian response in most chocoholics, and this dish lives up to its pedigree. It is everything a chocolate cake should be--rich, warm and gooey with a hot fudge filling--in an atmosphere where Frank Sinatra would have felt right at home.