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Can Herbs And Spices Replace Salt, Fat and Sugar?

Health and diet experts have been pleading with us to cut down on the amount of added sugar, fat and salt we eat. But can these essential flavour components be replaced? A new study says we can swap out unhealthy ingredients…

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My late stepdad was a big believer in healthy eating. He followed official dietary and medical pronouncements to a ‘T’. And when the medical community first started to demonize salt, he switched to what was then a new substitute: Mrs. Dash.

A creative concept

Mrs. Dash is a blend of dried herbs and spices designed to help home cooks reduce added salt in their savoury dishes. ‘A Dash a day helps keep the salt away’ has been the product’s slogan for years.

Mrs. Dash has had a faithful following over the years. But the idea of replacing added salt with other natural flavourings has faded into the culinary background. Until now.

A research team from Pen n State University has demonstrated that a blend of certain common herbs and spices can not only replace added salt, sugar and fat as flavour and mouth feel enhances, but may make familiar dishes more enticing.

What they did

The team first used a nationally-representative database to identify the 10 most popular dishes in America that typically use high of sodium, added sugars and saturated fat. These included meatloaf, chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, and brownies.

“Our goal was to see how much we could lower these overconsumed 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,” said team spokesperson Kristina Petersen.

Then, they sought out culinary experts to develop three recipes for each dish. The first represented the traditional high-fat, -salt and -sugar formula. The second version removed excess salt, fat and sugar. The third was identical to the second, except that it was enhanced with certain selected herbs and spices.

Then came the taste tests. Participants ranked in order of preference dishes based 0n overall liking and attribute liking, such as the food’s appearance, flavor and texture.

What they found

“We found that adding herbs and spices restored the overall liking to the level of the original food in seven of the ten recipes,” Petersen reported. “In fact, participants actually liked some of the recipes better than the originals.”

Tasters liked the flavour-enhanced brownies and creamed chicken ‘significantly more’ than traditional recipes. They preferred the traditional recipes over the enhanced versions of cheese pizza, mac and cheese, and chicken pot pie. And they showed no collective preference for the other 5 dishes, whether original or enhanced.

The takeaway

“We demonstrated a meaningful reduction in overconsumed nutrients is possible with modification of these 10 recipes, and these changes are acceptable to consumers,” said Petersen said. “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.”

My take

I’ll give my stepdad credit for creating wonderful, flavourful meals. But I’m sure he never even thought about trying Mrs. Dash or any other unconventional ingredient in his brownies!

On the other hand, I’ve long added mustard powder (and occasionally garlic) to my mac and cheese to perk up the flavour. So, the finding that herbs and spices enhance the flavour and preferability of some foods doesn’t surprise me. And I often add a dab of paprika or cayenne to perk up the flavour of bland dishes.

The research team did some calculations. They determined that, if 25 percent of the population switched to herbs and spices from extra sugar, salt and fat, daily national consumption of the bad stuff would fall by about 3 percent. But if 100 percent of the population made the switch, there would be an overall daily reduction in consumption of excess salt, sugar and fat of 11.5 percent.

And that truly would constitute, “a profound impact on peoples’ health.”

~ Maggie J.