Researchers have found a way to reduce saturated fat, sugar and salt in popular foods without sacrificing taste


A variety of herbs and spices

Researchers have found a way to reduce the saturated fat, sugar and salt in popular American foods without sacrificing taste, by replacing these items with herbs and spices. Blind taste tests confirmed that participants preferred or found the modified dishes equally enjoyable as the original recipes, and modeling suggests that these changes could significantly reduce daily intakes of unhealthy nutrients if they were widely adopted.

In response to the 1990s obsession with low-fat diets, many food manufacturers removed saturated fats from their products, replacing them with sugars to keep the flavors intact. Unfortunately, the modified products were not any healthier than the original versions, and today, the average person consumes an excessive amount of saturated fat.

Now, a team of researchers from Penn State has discovered a way to reduce the amounts of saturated fat, sugar and salt in popular American dishes without compromising on taste. the trick? Replace over-consumed ingredients with a dose of healthy herbs and spices.

“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally, and limiting intake of saturated fat and sodium is a key recommendation to reduce the risk of developing this disease,” said Kristina Petersen, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State. “However, we know that one of the main 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. For this reason, our finding is that participants actually prefer some recipes in which a lot is substituted. Of saturated fats, salt, herbs and spices is very important.

The team used a nationally representative database from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, to identify the 10 most popular foods that are typically high in sodium, added sugars and saturated fats. These included meatloaf, chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, and cake.

They then worked with culinary experts to develop three versions of these recipes. The former contains the typical amounts of saturated fat, sugar and salt used in these recipes. The second version is nutritionally enhanced by removing excess saturated fat, sugar and salt. The third version had the same nutrients as the second version but also had added herbs and spices, such as garlic powder, ground mustard seeds, cayenne pepper, cumin, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, and vanilla extract.

For example, a typical macaroni and cheese recipe includes salted butter, 2% milk, American cheese, and salt. For the nutritionally enhanced version, the researchers replaced the salted butter with unsalted butter and reduced the amount in the recipe by 75%. They replaced 2% milk with skim milk, swapped some American cheese for low-fat cheese, and eliminated the extra salt. For a nutritionally enhanced version, in addition to the herbs and spices, the researchers added onion powder, garlic powder, ground mustard seeds, paprika, and cayenne pepper.

“Our goal was to see how far we could reduce these over-consumed ingredients without affecting the overall properties of the food in terms of texture and texture, and then add herbs and spices to enhance flavour,” Petersen said.

Next, the researchers conducted blind taste tests for each of the 10 recipes. Participants evaluated the three versions of the dish, one at a time, in a single session. Between 85 and 107 consumers completed each test. Participants rated several aspects of the acceptability of each recipe, including general liking and adjectives such as the food’s appearance, flavor, and texture. The participants then arranged the dishes according to their preference.

“We found that adding herbs and spices restored the overall liking to the level of the original food in seven of the 10 recipes,” Petersen said. “In fact, participants liked some of the recipes better than the original.”

Specifically, the participants liked the healthy and flavour-enhanced versions of brownies and chicken in cream sauce much more than the original recipes. For five of the dishes—meatloaf, chili, apple pie, pasta with gravy, and meat tacos—participants liked the healthy and flavor-boosted versions almost as much as the originals. They liked the healthy, flavor-boosting cheese pizza recipes, macaroni and cheese, and chicken pot pie less than the original versions.

Finally, the team modeled the potential impact of 25 to 100% of adult US consumers taking these prescriptions instead of the original ones. For both saturated fat and salt, they found that the estimated daily reduction would be about 3% if 25% of consumers adopted healthy recipes, versus about 11.5% if 100% of consumers adopted healthy recipes. Smaller estimated reductions in added sugars were observed across the model range of consumer dependence.

The results were recently published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“We have demonstrated that it is possible to achieve a measurable reduction in food items consumed in excess by modifying these 10 recipes, and these changes are acceptable to consumers,” Petersen said. “This suggests that more research should be done to look at how this can be implemented on a larger scale, and how to educate people to make these kind of changes. Importantly, these findings can be applied to the food supply because most of the food people consume is purchased in the form of Ready. And I think that will have a profound impact on people’s health.”

Reference: “Using herbs/spices to enhance the flavor of commonly consumed foods that are reformulated to be lower in overconsumed food ingredients is an acceptable strategy and has the potential to reduce saturated fat and sodium intake: an analysis of a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey blinded to ‘taste’ by Christina S. Petersen, Victor L. Folgoni, Helen Hubfer, John E. Hayes, Rachel Gooding, Penny Chris-Etherton, July 31, 2023, Available Here. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2023.07.025

Other authors on the paper include Victor Fulgoni, Senior Vice President, Nutrition Impact LLC; Helen Hubfer, Associate Professor of Food Science, Penn State; John Hayes, Professor of Food Science, Penn State; Rachel Gooding, Senior Research Chef, McCormick & Company; and Penny Chris Etherton, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Sciences at Evan Pugh University in Pennsylvania.

The McCormick Institute of Science supported this research.

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