Herbs, spices instead of saturated fat, sugar makes food yummier - study

Researchers replaced the high fat and sugary ingredients in unhealthy recipes with herbs and spices.

Herbs and spices. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Herbs and spices.
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Food manufacturers around the world have played a fast one, deceiving consumers by lowering the amounts of harmful saturated fats in their products with no-less-dangerous sugar to make them more palatable. 

But now, researchers at Pennsylvania State University have worked to make food tastier without saturated fats by adding herbs and spices. The results appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics under the title “Using herbs/spices to enhance the flavor of commonly consumed foods reformulated to be lower in overconsumed dietary components is an acceptable strategy and has the potential to lower intake of saturated fat and sodium.” 

“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,” said nutritional sciences Prof. Kristina Petersen. 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 healthful 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 used a nationally representative database from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to identify 10 of the most popular foods that are typically high in sodium, sugars, and saturated fat. These included meatloaf, chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, and brownies.

Three variations on the same recipes

Next, they worked with culinary experts to develop three versions of these recipes. The first contained typical amounts of saturated fat, sugar, and salt used in these recipes. The second version was nutritionally improved by removing the excess saturated fat, sugar, and salt. The third version had the same nutrient profile as the second version but also contained added herbs and spices like garlic powder, ground mustard seed, cayenne pepper, cumin, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, and vanilla extract.

 Spices (illustrative). (credit: INGIMAGE)
Spices (illustrative). (credit: INGIMAGE)

For example, the typical macaroni and cheese recipe included salted butter, two percent milk, American cheese, and salt. For the nutritionally improved version, the researchers swapped the salted butter for unsalted butter and reduced the amount in the recipe by 75%. They swapped the two-percent milk for skim milk, replaced some of the American cheese with reduced-fat cheese, and eliminated the extra salt. For the nutritionally improved, plus herbs and spices version, the researchers added onion powder, garlic powder, ground mustard seed, paprika, and cayenne.

“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,” Petersen said.

Blind taste tests

Next, the researchers conducted blind taste tests featuring each of the 10 recipes. Participants evaluated all three versions of a dish, one at a time, in a single session. Between 85 and 107 consumers completed each test. Participants rated several aspects of acceptability for each recipe, including overall liking and attribute liking, such as the food’s appearance, flavor, and texture. Participants then ranked the dishes in order of 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,” said Petersen. “In fact, participants actually liked some of the recipes better than the originals.”

Specifically, participants liked the healthier, flavor-enhanced versions of the brownies and chicken in cream sauce significantly more than the original recipes. For five of the dishes – meatloaf, chili, apple pie, pasta with meat sauce, and taco meat – participants liked the more healthful, flavor-enhanced versions about the same as the original versions. They liked the more healthful, flavor-enhanced cheese pizza, macaroni-and-cheese, and chicken-pot-pie recipes less than the original versions.

Finally, the team modeled the potential impact on American adults eating these versions instead of the original recipes. For both saturated fat and salt, they found that the estimated daily reduction would be about three percent if 25% of consumers adopted the healthier recipes versus about 11.5% if 100% of consumers adopted the healthier recipes. Smaller estimated reductions in added sugars were observed across the modeled range of consumer adoption.

“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. “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.”