Innovative Approach Emerges to Trim Saturated Fat, Sugar, and Salt in Popular Foods While Preserving Flavor

by Ella

Responding to the prevailing trend of low-fat diets in the 1990s, a multitude of food manufacturers eliminated saturated fats from their products, often substituting them with sugars to maintain the desired flavors. Unfortunately, these modified products failed to offer a healthier alternative to the original versions, leading to an excessive consumption of saturated fat in today’s average diet.

In a breakthrough study, a team of researchers hailing from Penn State University has unveiled a groundbreaking technique to curtail the levels of saturated fat, sugar, and salt in beloved American dishes, all without making any compromises in terms of taste. The secret lies in replacing the overused elements with a dose of healthful herbs and spices.


This strategic shift comes as a reaction to the rampant inclination towards low-fat diets in the 1990s, where a multitude of food manufacturers substituted saturated fats with sugars, ultimately failing to render their products healthier. Consequently, today’s dietary habits often feature an undue emphasis on saturated fat intake.


The pivotal discovery unfolds through an intricate approach. To counter the challenge, the researchers capitalized on the potential of herbs and spices, which not only enhance flavor but also serve as a promising alternative to unhealthy ingredients.


Kristina Petersen, an associate professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, stated, “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. 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.”


Drawing on the extensive data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the researchers honed in on ten of the most cherished American dishes, which typically contain high levels of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fat. This selection included classic favorites like meatloaf, chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, and brownies.

Their innovative approach involved working alongside culinary experts to develop three distinct renditions of each recipe. The first version retained the conventional levels of saturated fat, sugar, and salt. The second variant featured an enhanced nutritional profile, with reductions in the excess saturated fat, sugar, and salt. The third iteration preserved the improved nutrient composition while incorporating a medley of herbs and spices, including garlic powder, ground mustard seed, cayenne, cumin, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, and vanilla extract.

For instance, the conventional macaroni and cheese recipe integrated salted butter, 2% milk, American cheese, and salt. The nutritionally enhanced version witnessed the replacement of salted butter with unsalted butter, coupled with a 75% reduction in butter quantity. The researchers exchanged 2% milk for skim milk, substituted a portion of American cheese with reduced-fat cheese, and omitted excess salt. The third rendition, focusing on both nutritional enhancement and flavor elevation, introduced onion powder, garlic powder, ground mustard seed, paprika, and cayenne.

Unveiling their approach, Petersen noted, “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.”

To validate their approach, the team conducted blind taste tests involving the ten recipes. Participants evaluated each dish’s three versions individually during a single session, with each test enlisting between 85 and 107 consumers. The evaluation encompassed a range of aspects, from overall liking to attribute liking, which encompassed factors such as appearance, flavor, and texture. Subsequently, participants ranked their preferences for the dishes.

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

Notably, the enriched yet healthier versions of brownies and chicken in cream sauce garnered significantly higher favor among participants compared to the originals. In the cases of meatloaf, chili, apple pie, pasta with meat sauce, and taco meat, the healthier, flavor-enhanced versions resonated similarly with participants as the originals. On the other hand, the healthier, flavor-boosted adaptations of cheese pizza, mac and cheese, and chicken pot pie lagged behind the originals in terms of preference.

In a pivotal move, the researchers proceeded to estimate the potential impact of 25% to 100% of adult U.S. consumers embracing these healthier recipes instead of the traditional ones. Their projections unveiled a daily reduction of approximately 3% in saturated fat and salt intake with 25% consumer adoption, escalating to about 11.5% with full-scale adoption of the healthier alternatives. Comparable reductions in added sugars were observed across the entire spectrum of consumer adoption.

The groundbreaking findings have been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Petersen concludes, “We demonstrated a meaningful reduction in overconsumed nutrients is possible with modification of these 10 recipes, and these changes are acceptable to consumers. This suggests that more research should be done to look at how to implement this more broadly, and 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.”



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