December 2006

The Science of Sweets

Not all sweets are created equal. If you are going to nibble on dessert or rich snacks this holiday season, concentrate on those that provide at least some health benefits. Many ingredients in sweets contain plant substances that are known to lower the risk of cancer, heart and other chronic diseases.  Of course, the amount you would need to eat for true health benefits is generally outweighed by fats and sugars, but in moderation there are some treats you can feel good about.

Sweet Twists of Tradition

  • Gingerbread cookies: Fresh ginger contains gingerol, a substance studies have shown has antioxidant properties. Laboratory studies have found gingerol may help destroy cancer cells and block the action of compounds that lead to inflammation, which might lead to higher cancer risk. Gingerol is also used for treating nausea and other digestive troubles.

    When ginger is dried, the gingerol breaks down and the compounds shogaols and zingerone form. Preliminary research suggests that these compounds may also have antioxidant properties. If you purchase prepared gingerbread or cookies, make sure the ingredients list ginger as opposed to ginger flavoring.

    To see some inspirational gingerbread houses, take a look at contest winners.

  • Fruitcake: This holiday perennial has garnered a bad rap for use as a possible doorstop over the years. But, along with loads of sugar, fruitcake can also contain a wide assortment of fruits. The traditional fruitcake features the preserved rind of citron, a bumpy, yellow-colored fruit. With or without citron, if you make your own, you can combine a potpourri of colorful fruits - such as cranberries, cherries, figs, and pineapple - to make a fruitcake rich with antioxidants and fiber. Cranberries, for example, are packed with antioxidants. In the laboratory, extracts from cranberries were found to stop breast cancer cells from multiplying.

  • Sugar plums: Originally these Christmas sweets may have featured bits of sugared plums, but modern recipes include a variety of fruits. Figs, for example, are a common main ingredient in many recipes. Figs are a rich source of fiber, along with potassium, iron and calcium. They contain the highest mineral content of any common fruit.

    Did you know that scientists recently found evidence figs may be the oldest domesticated crop?

  • Chocolates: A lot of attention and research has been paid to the cacao bean due to two types of flavonoids: flavanols and procyanidins. These two substances are antioxidants, and cocoa has them in rich supply. Studies have found antioxidants can improve circulation, protect heart health, and help control inflammation, which may increase the risk of cancer.

    The darker the chocolate, the more cocoa and flavonoids it contains. (White chocolate contains no cocoa.) Dark chocolate can contain more than twice as much cocoa as milk chocolate, and far less sugar and fat. Look for the percent of cocoa on the package and aim for a cocoa content of at least 70 percent.

    To learn more about the health and history of chocolate, visit here.

  • Mixed or Candied Nuts: A handful of almonds, walnuts, and/or macadamias are some of the nuts that contain plenty of healthful substances. Studies have found a link between people who regularly eat small amounts of nuts and low incidence of heart disease. Most of the fats in nuts are mono- and polysaturated, as opposed to the saturated fats found in animal products. These types of fats can lead to lower LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol. Preliminary studies have found some substances in nuts associated with a reduced risk of colon and stomach cancers. Walnuts, for example, contain ellagic acid, which laboratory studies have found can cause certain cancerous cells to die. Nuts are also a source of zinc, magnesium, vitamin E and selenium.

Branching Out

Numerous studies have found that eating a wide diversity of fruits and vegetables provides greater health benefits than focusing on a few, no matter how many of those few you eat. To add some healthful substances to your feasts, find some colorful fruits or vegetables that you typically don’t eat and find a dessert recipe for them. For example:

  • If you are a pie person, try some unique pie fillings, such as butternut, squash, rhubarb, or banana. (Look for a pie crust recipe that is low-fat, such as the New American Plate Pie Crust.)

  • With dark melted chocolate at hand, you can dip any number of fruits, such as figs, dried peaches, bananas, and oranges.

For some sweet recipes ideas, visit AICR's Recipe Corner.

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