There are various ways to enhance the taste of our meals. It often involves the addition of salt, pepper, various spices and herbs, sugar, other sweetening agents, sauces, condiments, salad dressings etc. to foods to improve/enhance their taste. We should always choose healthy options.
When we do not, we can take away from the goodness of the healthy produce that should be the foundation of the meals that we prepare and can make otherwise healthy meals less so.
Consider a bowl of wholesome fresh salad ingredients. It can be made less healthy with the addition of overly processed store bought salad dressings. Many unhealthy food enhancers also often alter the natural flavour of food.
Let's start by taking a look at some of the popular unhealthy food seasonings. There is a very large variety of these sold with the promise of improving the taste of foods. Many of these come in the form of cubes, or are ‘powder’ like. I used many of these seasonings in the past and will admit that they do make food tasty.
The question is how healthy are they? Did you know that seasoning cubes are appetite stimulating and so it is easy to lose control and eat excessive amounts of the foods cooked with them? Many seasoning cubes have a variety of ingredients…typically a lot of salt (sodium), hydrogenated oils, sugar, cornstarch, chicken, beef fat or fat from other meats, onion and garlic powders, spices, preservatives etc.
These so called food enhancers are also addictive, as are most overly processed consumables. As you must know, if you have read my book 'Moderation Is Key' or my previous blogs; I have discussed extensively, the need to be super cautious with all heavily processed consumables. They have the potential to negatively impact our health when used regularly over time.
Let's take a close look at the main ingredient in seasoning cubes, salt. It affects people differently. Increased salt can have no effect on some individuals, but for others, even a slight increase can elevate blood pressure. For this latter group, the ability to regulate bodily fluids with their kidneys can be greatly affected by the increase in sodium. This will contribute to extra water stored in the body elevating blood pressure, forcing the heart to work harder and even making it difficult to breathe.
For sodium sensitive individuals, the higher the amount of salt consumed, the higher will be their blood pressure. Increased blood pressure, causes a strain on the heart, arteries, kidneys and brain. These can eventually lead to heart disease, heart failure, heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, etc.
Our bodies eliminate excess salt via urine, alongside calcium. High levels of calcium in our urine can cause the development of kidney stones. This elimination of calcium can result in inadequate levels of this vital metal in our body leading to thinning bones and osteoporosis.
See the wide range of conditions that can be induced by salt? I am certainly not advocating the total elimination of salt, as the right amounts are actually an important nutrient for the human body. Salt balances fluids in the body, maintains healthy blood pressure and is essential for nerve and muscle function.
Other ingredients of concern in these cubes are hydrogenated oils, sugar and preservatives. Arguably these amounts are relatively small, but with many of these ingredients also present in other highly processed foods, the amounts consumed can quickly add up. Very briefly, hydrogenated oils are also known as trans fats. This fat, is produced in an industrial process through the addition of hydrogen to vegetable oil. It makes the oil slightly more solid at room temperature. They have been found to cause gradual damage to the heart, when consumed over sustained periods. Studies have shown that these fats also increase the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease good cholesterol (HDL). These are both risk factors for heart disease. Trans fats are discussed in more detail in Chapter 5 of my book ‘Moderation Is Key’,
Sugar is a contributory factor for weight gain, inflammation, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and increased blood pressure. These are all linked to an increased risk for heart attacks and strokes. Again are you thinking that the amount of sugar in these products is insignificant and therefore inconsequential? Think again. It is the cumulative effect on our bodies of these unhealthy ingredients in various products and often where least expected that should be a concern. For example, did you know that many salad dressings and various sauces contain a significant amount of sugar?
Let’s take a closer look at the other worrisome ingredients present in seasoning cubes, preservatives and corn starch. Preservatives are used to prolong the shelf life of various products, including seasoning cubes, condiments, and other highly processed foods. These products often have long lives, as much as 3+years. How is this possible? It’s the preservatives, which are designed to ensure that the products that contain them last long, do not spoil quickly. They create an environment that stops or delays the normal decomposition process by bacteria, fungi, mould etc.
Did you know that these preservatives also do in our bodies what they do in consumables? They interfere with our microbiome, creating an environment that is hostile to microbes. This is not beneficial to our bodies though as we need microbes for good health, a healthy gut and immune system.
Cornstarch is also often present in these cubes, and is low in essential nutrients. Again it is true that the amounts are small in these enhancers. It is their cumulative effect we should be looking at. We always do ourselves well to learn to be mindful of consumables that have absolutely no benefit to our wellbeing.
Let’s take a look at the history of arguably the most popular seasoning cubes in Africa, Maggi cubes. In the 1880s this seasoning cube was created for poor people in Europe by Julius Maggi. Many of the poor, could not afford meat and fish. These cubes were used to give the impression that they were consuming meat and fish.
A decision was made to export these cubes to the various colonies, mainly in Africa. It turned out to be a lucrative idea, as the preservatives they contained gave them a long shelf life in the mainly hot African continent. It has become an extremely popular food enhancer amongst Africans and it is estimated that more than a 100m cubes are sold everyday.
To ensure that there are no breaks in the supply chain for these cubes, eleven Maggi cube factories are now located in Africa. This is very worrying, as their ingredients, make them a public health risk. They consist of 40% salt, which is high. The ubiquitous use of these cubes has caused them to be a contributory factor for various cardio vascular related diseases, induced by high levels of salt. These include high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, heart attacks and erectile dysfunction.
These overly processed seasoning cubes are not only unhealthy, but very addictive, as are many overly processed consumables. They are now consumed frequently by a large percentage of people in Africa. Many of whom unfortunately cannot imagine the preparation of their meals without them. I suggest some healthier natural food enhancers below. Please continue to read.
Other popular food enhancers are various condiments. These are sold as sauces or relishes, with a promise to enhance the flavour and enjoyment of food. Examples include, soy sauce, tomato ketchup, pickles, mayonnaise, etc. Again these are overly processed and often contain sugar, salt and preservatives that can make the foods they are added to less healthy.
I highly recommend that overly processed seasonings are not used. I used them regularly myself until about 4 years ago when I learned how unhealthy they are. I have since used only natural seasonings like sea salt, garlic, ginger, freshly ground black pepper, thyme, rosemary and other fresh seasonings. My choice of food seasonings always depends on the meal, my location and recommendations in recipes.
Our meals are also more authentic, when we utilise the fresh seasonings indigenous to our location and suggested in recipes for foods being prepared. In Nigeria, where I live there are a number of minimally processed nutritious and relatively cheap food seasonings.
A few are the West African pepper seeds (Uziza seeds), scent leaves and Locust bean (Iru or Dawa Dawa) etc.
Uziza seeds are quite spicy and so are used sparingly. They add a very nice aroma and flavour. They also contain large amounts of beta-caryophyllene, which is an anti-inflammatory agent.
Scent leaf have a very appetising aroma and also improve the taste of food. They are rich in iron, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin A.
This leaf also has health benefits. It is often used in the treatment of constipation, oral infections, and colds. It lowers blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, increases blood circulation, lowers blood sugar, has a calming effect on the stomach, etc.
Locust beans help to promote good sight and controls hypertension and diabetes. They also contain tannins. Foods rich in tannins are recommended for the treatment of diarrhoea.
I am a big fan of Thai food as their flavours are very robust. Let’s look at some of the herbs, spices etc used to give their distinct tastes.
Lime (rind and leaves), coriander leaves, sweet Thai basil leaves, lemongrass, galangal, and garlic are often used in Thai dishes. Other spices, like coriander seeds cardamom, nutmeg, and cumin are added to some pastes. These various additions are minimally processed and enhance the taste of foods which contain them.
We can get creative with homemade salad dressings, using basic ingredients like olive oil, black pepper, dried mixed herbs, a sprinkling of sea salt, vinegar etc. It is not only cheaper, we know exactly what we are consuming. Another bonus, is that they are preservative free.
The best seasonings should not alter the natural flavour of food, they should just compliment them. Minimally processed seasonings like sea salt, fresh and dried peppers, various fresh or dried herbs are healthier food seasoning options.
To get the optimum flavours from these natural food enhancers, it is a good idea to marinade the food to be seasoned overnight with a combination of these ingredients. There are also other various natural food enhancers that are indigenous to our location.
Let's endeavour to always season our foods with the healthier, less processed food enhancers available wherever we live. This will help ensure that we do not make the wholesome foods that our good God has graciously blessed us with less healthy.
We can reduce the presence of ‘toxins’ in our bodies with the elimination of seasoning cubes and other overly processed food enhancers.