This article original appeared in the Lebanon Local and New Era newspaper.
Every year here in the Healthy You column, we celebrate March as National Nutrition Month (NNM). The annual theme is chosen by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and this years theme is pretty basic and simple. This year, we just want to celebrate “the importance of good nutrition” and acknowledge the expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs).
While many of us may already have basic understanding regarding what is healthy and what is not, there is one protest I tend to hear people when making needed changes to their diet: “I know what foods are healthy” they begin, “but healthy food doesn’t taste good.”
Let’s remove the excuses and celebrate National Nutrition Month by making healthy food taste flavorful, vibrant, and just plain ole good! Discover what I call the basic “principles of yum.” Once learned, these principles will help you balance flavors, correct culinary mistakes and feel unchained from “having” to use a strict recipe all the time.
There are two brilliant culinarians and foodists who have contributed to my developing understanding of the elements of balanced flavor and making food taste good. Rebecca Katz in her cookbook The Longevity Kitchen first made the concepts very understandable and manageable to me. Rebecca relishes good food that also nourishes and heals. She is a “go to” resource and excellent teacher. Samin Nosrat in her book Salt Fat Acid Heat (and Netflix documentary by the same title) offers a deeper dive into cooking and flavor balance. Her focus isn’t on health as much as making great flavor possible. Here are a few things I am learning to implement in my own kitchen that you can use in yours.
What Flavor is Made Of
Flavor is really a marriage of several elements which include fat, acid, salt, and sweet. While it was once thought that the tongue had specific regions of taste in the mouth, we now know that the entire tongue has “islands” of all the taste receptors covering the tongue and roof of the mouth. For example, sweetness is not limited to the front of the tongue nor is bitter relegated to the back etc. Each element of flavor does different things:
Fat. Poor, misunderstood fat functions as the very important chauffeur of flavor. It is an essential element that gets the other flavors swirling around the mouth. Fat also helps carry certain vitamins and antioxidants from foods and spices all the way to your small intestines where they can be fully digested and absorbed. So be sure to include a little fat when cooking or dressing a dish.
Examples of healthy fat in cooking include olive oil, butter, ghee, virgin coconut oil, avocado oil and walnuts.
Acid. Acid functions as that neon sign that says “notice me!” Acid brightens a dull dish. It also can slow the absorption of sugars in the body (ie. glycemic response) and assist in digestion. Examples of acid include citrus, vinegars, fermented foods (pickles, kimchee, sauerkraut etc) and surprisingly, aged dairy products (yogurt, buttermilk, aged cheese, feta etc) .
Salt. Salt is unfortunately misused in the food industry and underappreciated by home cooks. In fact, there is a bit of “salt phobia” these days. It is worth noting that very few people are actually “salt sensitive” to the degree to that they actually need to slash salt from their home cooking. Look at your packaged food intake before you begin cutting out salt from your cooking completely. If you eat out regularly or dine predominately on canned or frozen dinners, then you may be consuming too much. If you cook from home, you ought not to worry.
The salt I recommend the most is sea salt. It retains 80% of its minerals and sports a million different varieties (pink, black, white etc) and different sizes of flake.
Sweet. Probably Americas’ favorite element of flavor, sweet brings pleasure to the mouth (and brain). Research actually indicates that sugar actually ignites the same pleasure centers in your brain that cocaine does! No wonder too many of us are so addicted to sweets that that is the only element of flavor we want (to the neglect of the others!). When used in in balance with the other three elements and when using healthy forms, sweetness can be that little push that puts a healthy dish into that next level of yum!
Healthier forms of sweetness include 100% Grade B maple syrup, and raw honey. Honey can have a very distinct taste so consider that when cooking. Maple syrup is probably the most subtle.
The FASS Method
How exactly do you take these elements of flavor and make them work for you as you cook a new veggie or cook off the cuff without a recipe? Use the acronym of FASS (Fat Acid Salt and Sweet) to remember all the elements to incorporate. You will find that you can even use them to correct mistakes you when you have added a little too much of one of another element. One last note: for the sake of space we didn’t talk about heat—the how you cook a dish. This can make all the difference in the flavor and palatability of a dish so it definitely needs to be considered. For now, here are some cheat sheets below to guide you in your quest for flavor balance:
(note: I apologize for the poor quality pictures of the charts. The blog won't let me upload the actual chart, only pictures of it!)
So there you have it, a basic profile of the elements of flavor. They need to be played with. Try them out when cooking healthy veggies and healthy dishes that maybe you used to say you couldn’t eat because they just didn’t taste good!