Beheaded stuffed peppers, graveyard chocolate hummus and creepy crawly pumpkin bars were among the Halloween-themed treats created by students from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry as they learned cooking skills through a new partnership with UTHealth School of Public Health.

The “culinary dentistry” classes are among the first of their kind in the country and launched this fall as part of a larger clinical course for second-year dental students. The goal is to show 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,” said John Valenza, DDS, dean of the School of Dentistry. “We’re always talking about what foods to eat or not 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.”

School of Dentistry Associate Professor Deborah Franklin, DDS, MA, and Associate Professor Ana Neumann, DDS, MPH, PhD, director of dental public health, developed the culinary dentistry curriculum in collaboration with Laura Moore, MEd, RD, and nutritionist J. Wesley McWhorter, MS, RD, both of the School of Public Health. “Culinary Medicine: Carbohydrates and Oral Health,” is a three-hour rotation inside the second-year fall clinic course Franklin directs.

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

Moore, who directs the Nourish Program at the School of Public Health’s Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, said the classes “are 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,” she said.

Consuming excessive amounts of added sugar 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 and Thanksgiving are traditional times for eating more candy, pies, and other sweets. With a little creativity and effort, healthier alternatives are available for both occasions, said Clarissa Ferris, a dietetic intern who helps 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 and Thanksgiving. People shouldn’t feel like they’re missing out by being healthy,” Ferris said.

“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,” she said. “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, Ferris said 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,” she said.

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

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