Healthy Ingredient Substitutions

These days, it seems that everyone has special dietary needs. From gluten and lactose allergies to eating more “cleanly,” diners are demanding that dishes are  more customizable.

Healthy subs

More people these days define a healthier way of life as eating more “cleanly.” This means more fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins in their whole form versus processed foods that can contain extra salt, refined sugars and chemical-laden additives.

“We’re going back to basics and using more natural ingredients rather than pre-prepped products,” says Lisa Falcone, RD, CEC, CP-FS, operations support director for Aramark’s West Coast K-12 and healthcare operations. Paying attention to sodium and sugar levels remains important for all customers, but primarily for patients with high blood pressure, digestive issues and diabetes, and as preventative care for children.

The good news about cooking from scratch, Falcone says, is that you have more control over the ingredients or substitutions you want to make.

At Pritikin Longevity Center, Miami, Anthony Stewart, executive chef of the center, focuses on making things delicious by combining different flavors in their most natural form. He easily swaps refined sugars for naturally sweet fruits and vegetables. He adds roasted butternut squash to a gluten-free, nut-crusted pumpkin pie to add sweetness without sugar. Roasted sweet potatoes and blueberries are mixed in with unsweetened cocoa powder for a healthier chocolate mousse.

The Jamaican native also adds a touch of apple juice concentrate to a salt-free jerk sauce with fresh peppers, herbs and spices that he uses to marinate tofu, meat, fish and vegetables to add flavor without sodium.

“Our bodies need some salt and sugar, and it will take from the natural sources and let go of the excess as long as there is no added refined salt and sugar,” says Stewart. Some kinds of produce have more natural salt than others, making them great stand-ins for sodium, he says. Celery blended into hummus with roasted garbanzo beans, lemon and garlic makes hummus that is just as delicious as one loaded with salt. And citrus fruits such as lemon, lime, grapefruit and orange add natural salt and brightness to salads, fish and other dishes.

Rich Rosendale and Vikki Krinsky, co-stars of the popular CBS show “Recipe Rehab,” follow similar protocols.

In addition to serious health concerns, “salt is the cause of a lot of puffiness and uncomfortable water retention,” says Krinsky, a private chef for many in the acting community. Besides using citrus, she uses natural amino acids in place of soy sauce and other refined salts.

Fresh vegetables in colorful combinations with fresh herbs and exotic spices also add natural flavor to dishes, says Rosendale, a certified master chef who had to “retrain” his palate after years of cooking in fine-dining restaurants focused on classic salt/butter/cream-heavy French cuisine.

“You don’t have to use a stick of butter, you can easily swap out different ingredients and still maintain the integrity of the traditional dish,” he says.

Vegan/vegetarian ideas

More diners are looking to reduce or cut meat completely from their diets. Others are more selective, opting for grass-fed and pastured proteins and wild-caught or sustainably farmed fish. And a growing group of vegans has excluded dairy and eggs from their diets.

“We use applesauce, avocados and coconut oil in place of shortening, oil and butter, which adds natural moisture and is healthier,” says Rosendale. Coconut also adds a natural sheen to fudge sauce and chocolate, and it gives a “luxurious texture” to soft-scrambled eggs over low heat, he adds.

Krinsky says that soaked and blended cashews make an excellent replacement for heavy cream and milk, even cheese and cream cheese, in both sweet and savory dishes.

When it comes to cooking meat-free, Krinsky looks to umami-rich vegetables such as mushrooms and cauliflower as great stand-ins for grilled meats and steak.

Stewart cuts down on protein in meatloaf and burgers by adding equal parts chopped mirepoix vegetables to lean ground beef and chicken.

Top substitution foods at-a-glance

  • Chia or Ground Flax Seeds + Water = Eggs
  • Soaked, Blended Cashews = Cream
  • Nutritional Yeast = Ground Parmesan
  • Unsweetened Applesauce and Coconut Oil = Baking Butter
  • Overripe Bananas, Dates, Prunes, Sweet Potatoes and Butternut Squash = Refined Sugar and Texture in Baking
  • Avocados = Healthy Binder for Mousse and Brownies
  • Celery, Mushrooms and Citrus = Salt
  • Nuts and Nut Flours = Gluten-Free Baking Ingredients
  • Gluten-Free Quinoa or Puffed Rice Cereal = Gluten-Free Breading
  • Cornstarch and Arrowroot Flour + Water = Roux
  • Mashed Potatoes = Soup Thickener

A full version of this article is available in the 2015 winter issue of Sizzle: American Culinary Federation’s Quarterly For Students of Cooking.

Article By: Amelia Levin.