Substituting Ingredients for Good Health
Think of a recipe as a guide - you don't have to follow it verbatim. By swapping a few ingredients, you often can make a recipe healthier than the original (and just as tasty).
Not only can substitution save the day when you lack an ingredient called for in a recipe, but it also enables you to make a recipe better for you. That's helpful whether you are trying to improve your overall eating pattern or are cooking for a specific health condition.
Although you may hesitate to change a recipe for fear of ruining it, remember that recipes are simply instructions for combining and processing a group of ingredients. "Recipes are crafted by people who simply had ideas about what ingredients may work together, but there’s no reason you can't change them," says Helen Rasmussen, PhD, RD, an instructor at Tufts' Friedman School and a senior research dietitian in the Metabolic Research Unit at the HNRCA. "You've probably found that even some published recipes don’t taste quite right when you first make them, so you make notes and tweak them next time to get a better result." Substituting ingredients to improve healthfulness of recipes works the same way.
Consider What to Change:
Swapping ingredients for health reasons should start with your goal(s) in mind. Perhaps you're trying to cut back on salt, increase fiber or boost nutrition. "If you are the chef in your household, think about how you might substitute an ingredient in your dish that is nutritionally superior to what was in the original recipe," says Nicola McKeown, PhD, a scientist in the Nutritional Epidemiology Program at the HNRCA. For example, replacing regular sour cream with low-fat Greek yogurt provides four times as much protein and reduces calories by more than half. Reviewing such products' nutrition labels side by side will show you how they compare.
Besides replacing ingredients in a recipe, you might simply reduce the amount of less healthful ingredients, such as salt or sugar. Many recipes can accommodate such reductions, but realize that some ingredients are key to the performance of certain recipes. For example, although you can reduce the salt in a soup or salad dressing recipe, a certain amount of salt is essential in yeast bread. If you omit salt in a yeast bread recipe, not only will the flavor be bland, but the gluten needed to form the bread structure will be weaker, resulting in a flatter loaf.
Similarly, although you often can reduce the sugar in recipes (such as by ¼ to ⅓ in baked goods) and never miss it, you probably won't be able to eliminate it entirely. Sugar helps make baked goods, such as quick breads and muffins, more moist and tender, plus aids in browning. In yeast bread, a bit of sugar supports fermentation.
So, take a careful look at recipes and see what healthful tweaks make sense for the recipe and for your palate. Here we review some changes you might make and why they may benefit your health.
Why and When to Substitute Fats:
Recipe substitution guidelines and cookbooks that were popular in the 1990s focused a lot on cutting out fat. However, scientific evidence shows that cutting out fat isn’t the goal - about a third of our calories should come from fat. With that said, the type of fat is key: we should strive to replace less healthful fats with more healthful ones.
"The best data we have to date suggest there’s an advantage for cardiovascular health when animal fats, which are rich in saturated fat, are replaced with vegetable oils high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts' HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory. According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which Lichtenstein helped inform, strong and consistent evidence shows that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats (which are present in high amounts in corn oil and soybean oil), is associated with lower blood levels of total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular-related deaths. Some evidence suggests replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat, which is found in higher proportions in canola oil and olive oil, also benefits cardiovascular health, but the evidence isn't as strong as for polyunsaturated fat.
"People also should note that we’re not encouraging them to replace saturated fat with carbohydrate, particularly refined carbohydrate such as white flour and sugar," Lichtenstein says. Although replacing saturated fat with carbohydrate may reduce blood levels of total and LDL cholesterol, which is desirable, this substitution also increases blood levels of triglycerides and reduces HDL (good) cholesterol, which is not desirable.
So, for example, although it was common in the past to advise replacing the fat or oil in a baked good with puréed fruit, a better choice is to replace a highly saturated fat, such as butter or lard, with a vegetable oil. To learn more about assessing the fat content of a recipe, see "Updating Nutrition Information for Our Recipes," below.
How to Substitute Fats:
When a recipe calls for a solid fat, such as butter, shortening or margarine, can you just swap in vegetable oil? It depends what the recipe is. "If the recipe instructs you to melt a fat (such as butter), it generally works fine to substitute oil," Lichtenstein says. Or, if you’re sautéing something in the fat, the type of fat shouldn’t make much difference, as long as it’s one that tolerates the heat of cooking without starting to burn. Common vegetable oils, which are typically refined, can be heated to higher temperatures (around 450 degrees Fahrenheit) while most unrefined oils, such as many specialty nut and seed oils, can’t be heated very high (generally 225 to 320 degrees Fahrenheit), so they're better used for drizzling, salad dressings and marinades. Extra-virgin olive oil can be heated to 410 degrees Fahrenheit.
When a recipe for a baked good calls for a solid fat, it's preferable from a health standpoint to use oil instead of butter, lard or vegetable shortening and traditional stick margarines that contain trans fat (partially hydrogenated oil). However, for some baked products, solid fats are preferable due to their textural characteristics. In such cases, use shortening or margarine with 0 grams trans fat, which have become widely available as man-made trans fat is being phased out. Spreads that are less than 60% oil generally won't work well in baked goods since these spreads are higher in water. That could negatively impact the structure and texture of the baked good, as well as decrease browning.