UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Eating clean sounds simple enough in theory but in practice, sticking to a healthy diet tends to get complicated. Countless dieters and their taste buds bemoan the loss of exciting flavors while trying to eat healthier, but researchers from Penn State are here to remind us all that there are far more flavors out there than just sugary and salty.
The team notes that Americans don’t have to sacrifice the flavors and tastes they love to feel better. They say it’s very possible to remove some saturated fat, sugar, and salt from popular American foods while still maintaining their tastiness. So what’s the secret? Replacing those over-consumed, unhealthy nutrients with healthy herbs and spices instead.
“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally, and limiting saturated fat and sodium intake are key recommendations for reducing the risk of developing this disease,” says Kristina Petersen, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, in a university release. “Yet, we know that one of the key barriers to reducing intake of these ingredients is the flavor of the food. If you want people to eat healthy food, it has to taste good. That’s why our finding that participants actually preferred some of the recipes in which much of the saturated fat and salt was replaced with herbs and spices is so important.”
The team at Penn State made use of a nationally representative database from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, to search for and identify 10 of the most popular foods eaten by Americans that are typically very high in sodium, added sugars, and saturated fat. Examples of such foods include meatloaf, chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, and brownies.
Then, researchers collaborated with a group of culinary experts to develop three versions of these recipes. The first recipe featured fairly typical levels of saturated fat, sugar, and salt used to create those foods. The second recipe was nutritionally improved by way of removing excess saturated fat, sugar, and salt. The third recipe had the same nutrient profile as the second version but also contained a number of added herbs and spices such as cayenne, garlic powder, ground mustard seed, cumin, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, and vanilla extract.
A more specific example: A typical macaroni and cheese recipe usually includes salted butter, two percent milk, American cheese, and salt. The nutritionally improved recipe for mac and cheese, however, swapped the salted butter for unsalted butter and reduced the amount in the recipe by 75 percent. The two percent milk, meanwhile, was exchanged for skim milk, some of the American cheese was replaced with reduced-fat cheese, and extra salt was eliminated. The nutritional plus spices recipe for mac and cheese featured onion powder, garlic powder, ground mustard seed, paprika, and cayenne.
“Our goal was to see how much we could lower these over-consumed ingredients without affecting the overall properties of the food in terms of mouthfeel and structure, and then add in herbs and spices to improve the flavor,” Prof. Petersen explains.
Next, the research team conducted a series of blind taste tests featuring each one of the 10 recipes. Participants evaluated all three versions of a given dish, one at a time, all within a single session. Somewhere between 85 and 107 consumers completed each test. They also rated several aspects of acceptability for each recipe, including overall liking and attribute liking (the food’s appearance, flavor, and texture). Then, participants were asked to rank the dishes in order of personal preference.
“We found that adding herbs and spices restored the overall liking to the level of the original food in seven of the ten recipes,” Prof. Petersen adds. “In fact, participants actually liked some of the recipes better than the originals.”
The taste testers reported enjoying the healthier, flavor-enhanced versions of the brownies and chicken in cream sauce significantly more than even the original recipes. For another five of the dishes (meatloaf, chili, apple pie, pasta with meat sauce, and taco meat), participants said they liked the healthier, flavor-enhanced versions about the same as the original versions. They only said they liked the original recipes for three dishes (cheese pizza, mac and cheese, and chicken pot pie) over the healthier, flavor-enhanced versions.
Study authors were also sure to model the potential impact of 25 to 100 percent of U.S. adult consumers eating these recipes as opposed to the original recipes. For both saturated fat and salt, the study found that the estimated daily drop-off would be roughly three percent if 25 percent of consumers started eating the healthier recipes versus about 11.5 percent if 100 percent of consumers adopted the healthier recipes.
“We demonstrated a meaningful reduction in over-consumed nutrients is possible with modification of these 10 recipes, and these changes are acceptable to consumers,” Prof. Petersen concludes. “This suggests that more research should be done to look at how to implement this more broadly, how to educate people to make these kinds of changes. Importantly, these findings could be applied to the food supply because most foods that people consume are purchased in a prepared form. I think that would have a profound impact on people’s health.”
The study is published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.