Diet therapy

How to put ‘real’ flavour into your cooking

For better health we are encouraged today to use less fat, salt and sugar and to rely more on ‘real’ foods rather than those that are highly processed.

This is easy for some but can be a real challenge if you lack basic cooking skills, are in a hurry to put a meal on the table, or have to deal with the different likes and dislikes of others

It may seem so much easier instead to just pick up a packet of dehydrated seasoned sauce, gravy or soup mix, snip off the end and add the contents to what ever meat, pasta or vegetable dish you are cooking.

Starting from scratch

Most ready-made foods give us flavour combinations to enhance a particular style of cuisine (e.g. Mexican, Italian etc) and also they may contain a stock base and thickening agents. All these things can be found naturally and putting the effort and patience in now to learn how will ultimately save your time, money and health.

Advantages of going fresh!

While it may take a more thought initially, using fresh ingredients really is a healthier alternative.

  • You know and can spell the ingredients you are eating.
  • Its cheaper
  • It’s healthier as you have more control over the salt, sugar and fat content
  • It’s better for the environment because you are using less packaging
  • Adding fresh herbs and spices to leftovers can also help to extend their use into soups and stocks thereby reducing food waste.
  • With practice your palate will develop more sensitivity to the real taste of foods and gain a greater appreciation of flavour differences.

Understanding taste perception

Our appreciation of flavour depends on having a healthy mouth and tongue as taste sensation is produced when a substance in the mouth chemically reacts with taste receptor cells mostly on the tongue, the roof, back and sides of our mouth.

The tongue is covered in many thousand of small bumps called papillae. Each papillae contains hundreds of taste buds (there are around 2000-5000 taste buds on the front and back of the tongue alone). Each taste bud contains 50-100 taste receptor cells.

Taste buds can differentiate five main flavours:

Sweet: associated with energy source and pleasure e.g. sugar

Sour: associated with acidity, lemon and detection of food deterioration

Salty: associated with neurotransmitters sending chemical messengers to the brain

Bitter: associated, during evolution, with detecting toxins in food e.g. alcohol

Unami: Savoury, meaty flavour e.g. cheese, soy sauce, MSG helps balance flavour

In this way flavour detection has been part of our bodies first line of defense when assessing the healthfulness of foods.

Taste is also affected by things such as smell, temperature, viscosity or creaminess. Flavours can seem metallic and astringent the latter of which can cause a puckering sensation on the mucous membrane lining the mouth.

As you consume less fat and sugar you will notice a marked freshening of the palate and a greater appreciation of the ‘real’ tastes of food. People often notice this when sampling wine. That the ‘notes’ relating to flavours describing wine (on the label of the bottle) as chocolate, cinnamon, peach, prune etc are much more easily detected when the overall diet is improved.

Matching Herbs and Spices in cooking

When trying to match up different flavours with purpose you will find that everyone has their own taste preferences. Traditions, customs and nationality can also be important to the selection and combinations of flavour. This is often evident in recipes that are passed down from one generation to another. Here are some examples where herbs and spices can be used.

Herb Soups Breads Baking Fish Shellfish Eggs Poultry Lamb Beef Pork Vegetables Cheeses Desserts Marinade
                      & Salads   & Fruit & Sauces
Lemon Balm
All Spice
Poppy seed

Flavour combinations and styles

Many dried herbs and spices now come in flavour combinations to represent the cuisine and cooking styles of different countries such as Italian herbs; Moroccan seasoning; Curries etc. which makes the task of flavouring foods cheap and easy. Just read the label first to check for authenticity.

When trying to recreate the flavours of traditional dishes it is important to recognise that every region has its own cooking techniques and also that flavours in foods are a total blend of locally produced food grown at different altitudes, soils and climates. The overall effect will also vary according to amounts used and so good cookbooks are essential initially particularly if you are experimenting with the use of chilli powders and jalapeno!

This list may help to broaden your appreciation of the main flavouring agents found in different styles of foods:


Garlic, onion, corn, black beans, avocado, tomato, coriander, red chilli, onion, tomato, garlic, lime, jalapeno also found smoked and dried in Chipotle sauce.


Coconut, mango, pineapple, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, lemon grass, basil, kaffir lime, root ginger, star anise, mint, lime, fish sauce, sesame or peanut oil


Potato, split lentils, black-eyed peas, mung beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, chili powder, cumin, turmeric, ginger, coriander, Garam masala (cardamom, cinnamon and cloves) Ghee, peanut and mustard oils


Fresh basil, tomato, artichokes, olives, garlic, onion, olive oil, marjoram, mint, olive oil


Cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, pepper, paprika, sesame seed, coriander, saffron, mace, cloves, anise, oregano, cayenne pepper, mint, parsley, caraway,verbena, sage, fennel.


Coconut, ginger, lime, garlic, onion, pineapple, green banana, garlic, soy sauce


Garlic, ginger, star anise, soy sauce, oyster sauce, chilli, star anise, white onion,

Creating good stock bases

The basis to many good soups, sauces and stews is to use good stocks. It’s easy to reach for packet varieties in dry or liquid form. However making your own from fresh off cuts of food, then freezing these for later use, reduces waste and saves money.

Beef, chicken and vegetable stock

Place beef bones or chicken wings into a pot with onion, tomato, carrot, celery, peppercorns and water.

Or for vegetable stock just combine vegetables scrapes, with parsley, thyme and water.

Bring the stock to the boil, then reduce to a simmer, skimming any foam from the top as it cooks. Cover the pot and simmer over a very low heat for 2-3 hours if using meat bones or just 45 minutes if making vegetable stock. Strain and freeze the stock in varying sized plastic boxes for later use.

Methods of thickening

Packet sauce mixes often contain thickening agents however these are easy to do naturally.


These are found in flour, corn flour, sago and tapioca and need to be mixed with cold water to form a paste ( 1 Tbsp flour to 1 cup soup/stew liquid) before being added to food towards the end of cooking. Also cereal grains such as quinoa, pearl barley, lentils, rice and oatmeal can be used to thicken soups.

Some people just add more starchy vegetables such as potato, kumara and carrots to help soak up any extra moisture in the mixture.

Care must be taken to continue stirring the food once it is thickened otherwise the starch can settle on the bottom of the saucepan and burn. If adding thickening to a sauce you are cooking in a microwave then cook for 5 minutes then stop and stir and repeat until the food is ready.


This can be incorporated in a number of ways:
Yoghurt is used in some East European and Middle Eastern countries to thicken soups and stews.
Egg yolk is also often used by experienced chefs to thicken milk based dishes however care must be taken not to overheat as this can lead to a ruined product as the egg forms into hard, overcooked specks.
Gelatin is often used to thicken cold foods such as jellies and mousse but needs to be dissolved and heated lightly first and it will then thicken as it cools

How to change to healthier flavourings

Restock your pantry

This doesn’t have to cost a lot, but just cull out all the herbs and spices, sauces and dressings in your fridge and pantry that are past their ‘use by date’. Top up on fresh stock of those things you have used the most

Make space in your garden

If you have any spare garden space, clear out a spot and start growing a herb garden. Herbs such as parsley, mint, chives, basil, rosemary and coriander can make any dish taste more special.
Check with your garden centre which of these are presently in season and if any are better grown in pots on your windowsill.

Keep some fresh basic ingredients on hand

Staple foods such as garlic, onions, fresh ginger, whole seed mustard, olive oil, chilli and lemons, mushrooms and tomatoes can turn even the most basic dish into a master piece.

Plan meals

This can save you money and reduce food waste.


Trying different cuisines when eating out and of course travelling can also broaden your appreciation of different flavours and cooking styles from around the world.

Our sense of taste begins to deteriorate after the age of 50 years due to the loss of papillae on our tongue and saliva production declines. Taste appreciation can also be affected by declining health and cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation and medication.

If you are experiencing any of these concerns and would like practical help then do contact us for a nutritional assessment.

Other articles by Lea on similar topics:

Taste is important to fluid consumption
8 tips to break the sugar habit
How to increase the good fats in your diet
Tips to help you shake the salt habit
Sugar control is essential for better health

Taste definitions
Wickham C. All you need to know about herbs. Marshall Cavendish Ltd 1973

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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