Herbs and spices can jazz up a low-calorie meal

July 19 2013

Canadian chefs who are preparing low-fat or reduced-calorie meals for health-conscious diners may find they can achieve great results by adding more herbs and spices to their dishes.

With more and more North American consumers watching their weight and looking after their heart health than ever, demand for low-fat dining options is increasing all the time.

However, many consumers find the taste of these meals to be somewhat lacking, posing a challenge to food service operators who are keen to cut down the calories without compromising on the flavour.

Now, research funded by the McCormick Science Institute and presented at the recent 2013 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting & Food Expo in Chicago has suggested that herbs and spices could provide the answer to this conundrum.

Dr John Peters, professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, carried out a study in which a group of 150 subjects were asked to taste-test a selection of meals, including meatloaf, vegetables and creamy pasta, before rating them using a nine-point Likert scale.

Some of the meals were full fat, others had reduced fat levels and the remainder were low-fat dishes blended with everyday spices such as onion, oregano, paprika and garlic - though the recipients were unaware which dishes they were sampling.

It was found that the full-fat meal and the reduced-fat meal with added spices both scored around a 7.0, compared to the 6.25 scored by the unenhanced low-fat meal. Moreover, in the cases of the meatloaf and vegetables, the spiced-up low-calorie options were actually favoured ahead of the full-fat versions.

According to Dr Peters, this research shows how significantly the simple addition of herbs and spices can enhance a health-oriented dish.

Not only will this recipe idea improve the appeal of menu offerings to consumers, it could also help diners to cut down on their dietary fat intake and choose more foods that are recommended by healthy eating guides such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

"Substituting herbs and spices for fat may be a promising strategy for helping people meet the Dietary Guidelines, especially if it's simple stuff you can buy in the store that doesn't require any exotic training," said Dr Peters.

This research is particularly timely given the increasing trend towards healthier eating options that is being seen across North America at the moment.

For example, a recent report from Technomic showed that the prevalence of vegetarian items on restaurant menus saw a 22 per cent leap in the first quarter of 2013 compared to a year earlier, with businesses from traditional eateries to fast food chains such as Burger King all looking to introduce healthy alternatives.

This increase in the availability of vegetarian options is reflected across the appetizer, main course, kids' meal and extras categories, underlining the strength of demand for low-calorie options - as well as the challenge that restaurants face in devising tasty and flavoursome menu offerings for this growing consumer demographic.