Blog

We have a healthy amount to say.

A Complete Guide to Food Ingredient Substitutions

Sometimes a secret ingredient is magical and unique. Without it, the dish just isn’t the same. But most ingredients are standard and there’s no harm in swapping them out. Ingredient substitutions can reduce the costs of producing food and give you more flexibility if something becomes harder to find. 

However, no matter what you’re  manufacturing, substitution of ingredients is not a simple thing! It’s challenging to find subtle ways to improve the food without fundamentally changing the recipe. With the right knowledge, it’s possible to change one or more ingredients without anyone noticing the difference.

Here, we’ll cover the top 3 considerations to keep in mind before substituting an ingredient. 

Why would you want to substitute an ingredient?

If you’re thinking about swapping an ingredient, ask yourself: what is substitution of ingredients going to accomplish? What are the benefits? 

For starters, you can alter the nutrition profile of your product to make it healthier. Changing a single ingredient can reduce carbohydrates or sugars, for example. 

Ingredient substitution also allows you to remove allergens or animal products. If your customers are looking for gluten-free, kosher, halal or vegan food options, that’s an obvious step to take. That might get you started looking through a healthy food substitutions chart so you can meet their needs.

Keep in mind that substituting a signature ingredient – altering the entire dish – is a topic for another article. Here, we’re just discussing replacing one or two ingredients.

Sometimes you need to reformulate or extend a product line. If you're improving a successful product, you may need to adjust some of the complementary ingredients to get the perfect result.

Another reason to substitute an ingredient is probably the simplest: cutting costs. Market forces and supply chain disruptions constantly alter the prices of each ingredient you rely on. Ingredient substitutions might seem like an unnecessary risk, but sometimes a new ingredient can put your business on stronger footing. 

If you want to be able to quickly adapt to supply chain risks, it helps to understand potential substitutions. This way, if an ingredient is out of stock, you can easily replace it, or find a new supplier.

1. What’s the purpose of the ingredient?

Before making a switch, consider what purpose the ingredient serves. What effect does it have on the final product?

Remember that any small change or substitution of ingredients can alter perceptions of taste, texture, weight – or mouthfeel if you prefer. 

Ingredients have different purposes in the food formulation. Some ingredients are functional, like flour, baking soda or preservatives. Other ingredients impact the flavor profile. Some are simply aesthetic ingredients like coloring or a garnish.

Finally, consider the chemical properties of the ingredient you’re considering replacing. Does it add moisture or reduce it? Does it thicken or sweeten? Does it increase the product’s shelf life? 

Here’s a real-world example: sunflower oil and its derivatives have been challenging to find in recent months. Instead of scrambling to find an increasingly rare and expensive product, it could be the perfect time to substitute. There are other vegetable oils that are common cooking substitutions for sunflower oil, so you may find one of those alternatives works well for your recipe. We’ll cover more ideas about testing multiple options below.

2. Consider the nutritional panel 

There are some tradeoffs involved in substituting ingredients. Any food ingredient substitutions must be made carefully.  

Just consider the cost of re-printing nutrition labels for your food. There are subtle differences in chemistry between two different ingredient alternatives. 

Some changes might seem small, but they might require creating updated packaging and nutrition labels. Trying a few different ingredient substitutions in recipes might require swapping nutrition labels more than once. That can be costly to test and retest. Depending on how important the ingredient is, you might even need to alter the portion sizes and daily values.

When sourcing a new ingredient for substitution, we recommend sharing your original spec sheets with suppliers so they can ensure the product meets your existing specs and maintains the nutritional profile.

Even the tiniest portions are important when it comes to substitution of ingredients. In baking, as you already know, the difference between a teaspoon and tablespoon can ruin a batch dramatically!

If you’ve ever looked at a baking ingredients substitution chart, you’re aware that it’s a precise science! 

3. Consider the timelines

Ideally, ingredient substitutions in recipes are as simple as a few test runs with the new ingredient. 

However, as is often the case in the kitchen, things might get a bit more complicated. Your new product formulation could take a few weeks, or it could take several months. Whatever it takes to make sure the product is the way it should be.

Make sure to account for this possibility with your production schedule, lead times, and product demand. Your suppliers and recipients should be aware that you’re making recipe substitutions in case it impacts them.

Food Substitutions Done Right

If you’re thinking about swapping out an ingredient (or two), these guidelines should get you started in the right direction. There are many benefits to being flexible with your food choices, including cost savings and improved quality.

Just remember, there is no such thing as a standard  ingredient substitution guide. Every product will have its own requirements and it helps to have expert feedback.

Suppliers usually have a deep level of knowledge about which products can be good substitutions. Ask if they have a table of substitution of ingredients for you to reference if you want to see what others have tried before.

Ready for more personalized answers? Create a ShelfLife account today and start a conversation with a supplier. A single ingredient substitution can change the trajectory of your product for the better.

No items found.