Healthier Side Dishes

Cindy Hazen, Contributing editor

January 19, 2010

11 Min Read
Healthier Side Dishes

The food at my favorite meat-and-three restaurant is long on flavor and comfort. For all the nutritious possibilities of sharing a small portion of meat with three sides (chosen from fresh vegetables and starches), the end result is often overindulgence in sodium and fat.

Sometimes excess has its place, yet trends are shifting toward healthier side dishes for home or away. Its the starchy sides that most often need a makeover, but vegetablesintrinsically healthy, but often drowned in sauces or smothered in saltcan also find room for improvement. The trick is providing that healthier side dish while retaining consumer appeal and keeping costs low and quality high.

Fat-friendly solutions

French fries, onion rings and batter-dipped veggies may never carry a nutrient-rich banner, but they can be made healthier by eliminating trans fats and reducing levels of saturated fat. Tom Tiffany, manager of food oils applications and technical services in research and development, ADM, Decatur, IL, suggests oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) for producing healthier fried-food products. As sources of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, PUFAs are preferred fatty acids from a health perspective, he says. Frying with oils that contain higher PUFA content does create challenges, as the fatty acids are more prone to oxidation. Frying foods in oils with mid to high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids is considered a healthy alternative to high-trans, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Omega-9 oils derived from specially bred canola and sunflower oilseeds contain 70% monounsaturated fatty acids and offer the best solution for foodservice operators looking to switch to a healthier cooking oil without compromising taste or oil performance, says Dave Dzisiak, healthy oils global commercial leader, Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis. Omega-9 oils have zero trans fat and the lowest amount of saturated fats among cooking oils, he says. Cost effectiveness is another benefit because these oils can allow up to 50% longer fry life than partially hydrogenated soybean oil and other commonly used frying oils.

Any of the oils rich in omega-6, omega-3 or omega-9 fatty acids are healthful choices for sautéing, or creating sauces or dressings. Soybean and canola oil are currently used in salad dressing applications. These oils provide polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are essential fatty acids needed in the diet, says Tiffany.

A different whey

Adding whey protein to salads adds more bang for your caloric buck, says Gwen Bargetzi, director of marketing, Hilmar Ingredients, Hilmar, CA. For example, we have protein-fortified a zesty Italian-flavored crouton and salad dressing to provide a tasty increase in the health and satiety value of an ordinary garden salad. In addition to giving more nutrition per calorie, the croutons and dressing were carefully developed to use everyday ingredients and natural flavors for a simple, friendly label.

Mac-and-cheese is another good application for whey proteins. In egg-noodle formulations, for instance, when using eggs is not an option due to cost, availability or allergen issues, whey protein can partially or completely replace eggs. An 80% whey protein hydrolysate, notes Bargetzi, is designed for use in noodles or pasta. Functionally, it works as a binding agent and an emulsifier to improve product structure, dough extrusion and product yield.

In a dry-mix cheese sauce, adding whey protein to augment milk and cheese ingredients makes a lower-fat, economical sauce thats easy to mix and full of creamy, full-cheese flavor, says Grace Harris, manager of applications development, Hilmar Ingredients. Whey proteins are also ideal in packaged cheese saucesthey provide thickening, improve mouthfeel and are an alternative to starches and gums. One whey protein hydrolysate boosts cheese and savory flavors in cheese sauce, she notes. It can be used alone or in concert with other cheese flavors or enhancers to boost the overall impact of the final flavor.

One functional whey protein can decrease the amount of cheese in a cheese sauce, which will help to lower the fat and the cost of sauces in macaroni or vegetable side dishes, says Michelle Ludtke, senior food technologist, Grande Custom Ingredients Group, Lomira, WI. The choice of functional whey protein product will depend on the desired end product. One product can mimic the same heavy, full-bodied mouthfeel attributes similar to that of melted cheese, and another can provide a slippery mouthfeel perception, she says. This is really desired when the level of cheese is reduced greatly and that specific characteristic is desired.

Reining in sodium

Tina Anthony, industrial seasoning R&D manager, Newly Weds Foods, Memphis, TN, who works primarily with rice dishes, sees increased focus on lowering sodium levels. We have several sodium reducers that we like to use, she says, but more of what Ive seen to reduce sodium is just increasing some of the other flavors and using savory enhancers to bring out the overall flavor. Sometimes, with the sodium replacers, you get such a bitter note that it detracts from the flavor, so weve been using a combination of savory enhancers and yeast-based ingredients. We try to avoid HVP, which would normally help the flavor quite a bit, but it doesnt look good on the label anymore. A lot of what I work on is pantry-friendly, something the consumer can understand when they read it.

The challenge when reducing salt is that it is a unique flavor enhancer. It not only helps to reduce bitterness and acidity flavors in foodsfor example, salting slices of eggplant helps draw out the bitterness, or salting citrus fruit and tomatoes reduces the acidity taste and enhances the flavor of the fruits, says Mariano Gascon, vice president, R&D, Wixon Inc., St. Francis, WI, but it also brings out other flavors, such as spices and herbs.

Building savory characteristics via yeast or mushroom extracts enhances umami. It has its own limits, since you can only add so much before you change the original flavor profile of the product, says Gascon. Salt substitutes are a viable option, however. An expert on taste modification can guide the food developer with the usage of the right combination of ingredients to obtain the salt flavor that we love without the bitterness of the traditional salt substitute.

Debra Steward, senior food scientist, Newly Weds Foods, finds best results are obtained when salt replacers arent used at too high a level. Replace 20% or 30% of the salt rather than 50%, she says.

Using naturally brewed soy sauce instead of salt is an easy way for food manufacturers to reduce sodium, according to Debbie Carpenter, senior marketing manager, foodservice & industrial, Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., San Francisco. Where 1 tablespoon of soy sauce has 920 mg sodium, she notes, the same measure of salt has 7,200 mg sodium. Brewed soy sauce goes through a process of aging and fermentation, resulting in nearly 300 distinct flavor components that contribute to umami, the fifth taste. Salt is simply sodium chloride, and contains none of these components, she notes. Adding salt only amplifies flavors already present in the food without adding the complex savory notes that are created by an umami-rich product like brewed soy sauce. Though its not a 1:1 replacement, this added umami benefit means that a smaller amount of soy sauce can create as much flavor as salt with a little something extra, she says.

For example, instead of adding a teaspoon of kosher salt to two cups of chicken stock (1,120 mg sodium), she recommends adding just ¾ teaspoon of brewed soy sauce (690 mg sodium). The soy sauce will bring out the flavor of the stock while combining with the umami components already present in the stock to create umami synergy. The increase in flavor you get from combining these different sources of umami results in an amplification of the umami in both, she says.

According to Anthony, brothy flavors such as chicken or turkey work particularly well with rice dishes because they complement the overall flavor of the rice itself. This is particularly important when using brown rice, because it has a slightly nutty flavor. Sometimes we will use the fat and broth dried flavors together to get some of that rich, brothy note, but we minimize it for saturated-fat content as much as possible, she says.

Gaining grains

Steward notes that, when most people buy rice for their families, they come back to the flavor basics: chicken, savory and Spanish. Increasingly, development requests include seasonings for healthier brown rice in lieu of white. Brown rice contains approximately four times the fiber of white rice (2 grams per ½ cup serving versus only 0.5 grams in a serving of white rice). Brown rice provides B-vitamins, niacin and potassium, and is a good source of antioxidants and phytonutrients, many of which are lost in the milling process.

In fact, FDA allows brown rice to carry this whole-grain health claim: Diets rich in whole-grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

Developments in quick-cook technology are further driving time-crunched consumers' interest in rice-based side dishes. Depending on the degree of precooking before dehydration, companies are offering both white and brown rice that can be delivered to the table in 90 seconds to 30 minutes. Traditional brown rice requires about 50 minutes of stovetop cooking.

Using whole-grain pasta is another way to boost the nutrition of a normally starchy side dish. Mike Veal, vice president of marketing, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, describes a nine-grain orzo pasta made with ancient grains. The pasta has a great taste and nutritional profile because of the whole grains, yet provides the familiar cook time and al dente texture of pasta versus the long cook times and texture normally associated with brown rice or other cooked grain kernels, he says. The nine-grain orzo can be the foundation of a variety of side-dish applications, including cold pasta salad mixes, or as a replacement for rice or potatoes in hot recipes.

For a more-mainstream taste profile, formulating pastas like rotini or macaroni with a partial replacement of white whole-wheat flour adds whole-grain fiber to a packaged side dish without changing the appearance and flavor.

Pass the potatoes

Potatoes are healthy, and fit in a variety of side-dish applications. One medium (5 1/3 oz.), skin-on potato has 110 calories, is cholesterol-free, has zero fat, is a good source of vitamin B6, has 45% of your daily value of vitamin C and contains more potassium than a banana, says Meredith Myers, manager, public relations, United States Potato Board (USPB), Denver. According to recent research, potassium may help lower blood pressure and promote heart health, making potato side dishes potentially eligible for label claims.

Yet, for all of potatoes healthful attributes, people often forget that they are a vegetable and not just a starch. They have a much healthier profile than white rice and pasta, which are typically used in frozen meals, Myers says.

Moreover, potatoes are natural sources of resistant starch, which resists enzymatic digestion in the small intestine. It arrives in the colon intact, where it can be fermented and where it acts as a prebiotic by stimulating the growth of beneficial bacteria. The amount of resistant starch found in potatoes is highly dependent upon preparation methods, according to Myers. Cooking and then cooling potatoes doubles the amount of resistant starch from approximately 1 gram per 100 grams of potato to 3.2 grams per 100 grams of potato.

Pre-cut frozen potatoes, dehydrated flakes and other processed potatoes can be seasoned with on-trend flavors to be packaged into refrigerated, frozen and even shelf-stable items. Frozen, skin-on potatoes are also a great way to add visual appeal and an added health halo for consumers, Myers continues. Potatoes are a natural accompaniment for Mediterranean flavorssuch as salsa romesco, harissa and chermoulaand grilled vegetable sides. Other tips include capitalizing on the Latin heritage of potatoes to create Peruvian potato sides and entrées, such as potatoes bravas and potato causa. Or tap into Indian food trends with authentic foods like potato samosas.

Myers believes many manufacturers are just beginning to take advantage of the many IQF forms of potatoes the industry offers, including pre-seasoned skin-on, chunks, baby bakers, wedges and roasted potatoes.

In recent research conducted by the USPB, potatoes, and particularly mashed potatoes, were cited by food manufacturers for their visual appeal, versatility and ease of dispensing. One of the reasons potatoes remain a best-selling side dish is theyre familiar and satisfying, Myers says.

Perhaps this familiarity is the ultimate appeal for successful side dishes.  But a healthy, yet tasty, makeover should also be on the menu to stay in step with the times and provide an added incentive for purchase.

Cindy Hazen, a 20-year veteran of the food industry, is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She can be reached at [email protected].

Sides Step Up

According to a report from Mintel, Chicago, the side-dish segment grew 10% in 2008, compared to the year prior. The report notes that side dishes offer recession-weary consumers an economical way to add variety to home-cooked meals.



About the Author(s)

Cindy Hazen

Contributing editor

Cindy Hazen has more than 25 years of experience developing seasonings, dry blends, beverages and more. Today, when not writing or consulting, she expands her knowledge of food safety as a food safety officer for a Memphis-based produce distributor.

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like