Newswise — HOUSTON – (Oct. 31, 2018) – Beheaded stuffed peppers, graveyard chocolate hummus and creepy crawly pumpkin bars were among the Halloween-themed treats created by students at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry who were learning how to cook as part of a new program in partnership with UTHealth School of Public Health.

The culinary dentistry classes, among the first-of-their-kind in the country, launched this month as part of the fall clinical curriculum, to teach second-year dental students how food and nutrition are integral to oral and overall health.

“Combining nutrition with cooking is such an important skill to learn, so this program is ideal for our students. We’re always talking about what foods to eat or not to eat to both protect your teeth and look after your health more generally. This is the perfect way for students to gain greater knowledge and expertise to share with our patients,” said John Valenza, D.D.S., dean of UTHealth School of Dentistry.

The classes are an extension of the School of Public Health Nourish Program’s eight-week culinary nutrition course, which is led by trained chef dietitians.

“It’s all about providing students with the knowledge, techniques and inspiration to be creative and healthy in the kitchen. We’re delighted to be sharing this with dental students, who treat people of all ages daily and have a tremendous opportunity to influence their eating habits and instigate lasting behavioral change,” said Laura Moore, M.Ed., R.D., Nourish Program director at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the School of Public Health.

Consuming excessive amounts of added sugars not only causes tooth decay, but can also lead to weight gain and debilitating conditions such as Type 2 diabetes. Examples of foods containing added sugars include soft drinks, as well as energy and sports drinks, along with flavored yogurts, cereals and condiments such as ketchup.

Halloween is traditionally a time when people crack open one of the biggest sugar-laden culprits – candy. With a little creativity and effort, there are much healthier alternatives to celebrate the occasion, as demonstrated by dietetic intern Clarissa Ferris, who has been helping supervise the classes.

“The food has to taste great, that’s a given, but making it visually appealing is also important, especially at celebrations like Halloween. People shouldn’t feel like they’re missing out by being healthy,” said Ferris. “Carving your bell peppers like pumpkins before filling them with cauliflower rice and black beans or making apple ‘tombstones’ for the chocolate hummus are just a couple of examples. Vegetables and fruit are so versatile for making shapes, and instead of icing the pumpkin bars, you can decorate them with fruit purees.”

When it comes to beverages, thinking outside the box is also key.

“You could brew a spiced-apple tea or mix up a bloody-kale smoothie. Something really simple like adding pomegranate seeds to sparkling water can make all the difference,” Ferris said.

The proof may be in the pudding, and Valenza was impressed.

“There’s no better combination than learning and having fun. Students are not just sitting in the classroom, but getting practical experience. I’m thrilled, and it will be fascinating to see how the learning helps in a patient setting,” said Valenza. “I can certainly see parents being very receptive, and what better time to start than at Halloween? These options look amazing and taste delicious.”