How to Bake Healthier

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We all have our weaknesses when it comes to food, what’s yours?

For someone who loves food, it’s truly hard to pick just one. Sushi, ice cream, Nutella sandwiches…basically most foods are weaknesses. But among all of my favorite foods to eat, there’s one that has made it to the top of the list. Freshly baked goods. Warm cobbler, gooey chocolate chip cookies, and don’t even get me started on bread. The smell of freshly baked bread should be an air freshener scent. Really.

When it comes to baking, it’s tempting to grab a box of cake, brownie, bread, you name it, mix from the grocery store. But consider why baking from scratch is better:

  • You have total control! You know exactly what is going into your food.
  • You decide on the type and amount of sugar, fat, and flour used the baked product.
  • Most mixes contain partially hydrogenated oil (yes, that’s trans fat!), food coloring, and preservatives.

While baked goods are often seen as diet splurges, you can still satisfy your cravings while still incorporating healthy fat, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. Here are some tips to modify any baking recipe to make it more nutritious! These tips can also be applied to baking mixes.

Oil or butter

Fat is used in baked goods to provide moistness, flavor, and texture. Fat is a necessary nutrient for our bodies; make healthy changes by reducing the amount of unhealthy or excessive fat consumed. Try substituting some or all of the fat in a recipe with:

  • Mashed ripened bananas
  • Pureed pumpkin
  • Pureed sweet potatoes
  • Fruit puree (prune, peaches, etc.)

For ideal texture, substitute half of the fat in the recipe with:

  • Plain yogurt
  • Applesauce

Sugar

Sugar plays an important role in baking because it contributes to moistness, browning, and sweetness.

Alternative sweeteners?  Some sweeteners are advertised as being healthy because they are “all natural”. For example, Agave syrup is from blue Agave plants native to Mexico, South America, and part of the United States. The syrup you see sold in stores is a processed product made from the natural sweet liquid that comes from the plant. Little evidence shows that Agave syrup is significantly healthier than sugar. When it comes to sweeteners the bottom line is to focus on the amount that is added rather than the type of sweetener.

  • Overripe bananas are sweeter so you can reduce the amount of sugar you add
  • Cut back on ¼ or 1/3 of the amount of sugar the recipe calls for
  • Top cake with sliced fruit and a light dusting of powdered sugar instead of using frosting
  • Use spices and extracts such as vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, etc.
  • Choose a recipe that has less sugar

Flour

Typically white flour is used in baking but unfortunately much of its nutrients are stripped away during processing. The US Dietary Guidelines recommends half of the grains we consume each day to be whole grains and what better way to incorporate that than with baked goods! Instead of opting for the usual white flour, experiment with new flours by visiting the bin aisle of your local health foods store.

1 cup of all-purpose flour can be substituted with:

  • ½ cup whole wheat flour and ½ cup all purpose flour (note: whole wheat pastry flour will work better in cakes and muffins)
  • Buckwheat flour works well in bread recipes
  • Barley flour can be used in pancake recipes
  • Almond flour is high in vitamin E, copper, protein, and more! Read more about it here

If the recipe calls for 2 or more cups of flour you can substitute ¼ or ½ cup of it with flaxseed meal. Flaxseeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and lignans, which have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.

Lastly, add nutrient dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to baked goods as a subtle way to increase the nutrition profile. Try these black bean brownies to satisfy your chocolate craving while consuming fiber-rich black beans!

Ask a Dietitian! We are compiling a list of nutrition-related questions readers have for a special post in September. Simply fill out your name, email, and question in the feedback form below. 

What is Your Food Package Telling You?

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Growing up I loved reading mystery novels and playing mystery board games. Yes, I was a Nancy Drew and Clue type of girl. I was captivated by the thrill and challenge of solving crimes with just a few hints…Mrs. Peacock in the library with a candlestick. It was fun decoding things that didn’t always mean what they appeared to be on face value.

Now that I’m older, sometimes I feel like I’m playing a confusing mystery game whenever I shop for groceries. Food packages have a variety of health claims and what do they really mean anyways? Is multigrain better than whole grain? Are organic cookies better for me? And if it says no trans fat then I can eat as much of it as I want, right?

This post is going to walk you through some of the challenges of understanding food packages. So grab your detective gear and let’s get started!

Multigrain vs. Whole Wheat Bread

When shopping for bread, we often automatically assume brown is good and white is bad. This may not necessarily be true. The key to understanding the difference between types of bread is to remember the word whole, which means the bread contains the entire grain. The reason why we look for whole grain is because the outer layer of the grain, the bran, is high in nutrients and dietary fiber. Without the word “whole” listed on packages, you won’t be receiving the health benefits associated with the bran.

  • Whole grain bread includes any grain. Examples of grains include quinoa, bulgur, rye, oats, and wheat.
  • Whole wheat bread only contains wheat as the grain.
  • Multigrain bread simply means that different types of grain were used to make the bread but it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily more nutritious. Remember that the key is to look for the word “whole”!

Remember to look at the ingredients list. You want to see that the first ingredient contains the word whole, such as whole grain, whole wheat, etc.

No Trans Fat

When one serving of the product contains less than 0.5 g of trans fat, it can be labeled as 0g or no trans fat. However, if you see the words partially hydrogenated in the ingredients list, the food contains trans fat. Unlike saturated fat, trans fat is artificially created by the food industry and does not naturally occur in most foods. Try avoiding foods containing partially hydrogenated oils because trans fat has been associated with increased bad cholesterol, decreased good cholesterol, and increase risk of heart disease.

Lightly Sweetened

Products that are lightly sweetened don’t necessarily mean it’s low in sugar. It may surprise you to know that the FDA doesn’t regulate the term lightly sweetened. The FDA does regulate sugar-free and no added sugar, but what’s the difference?

  • Sugar-free: less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving
  • No added sugar: no sugar was added during processing

Organic

The term “organic” means plant foods are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals used for meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products aren’t given antibiotics or growth hormones. There are three categories for labeling organic foods:

  • 100% organic
  • Organic: made with at least 95% organic ingredients
  • Made with organic ingredients: made with at least 75% organic ingredients

Keep in mind that foods labeled as organic can still be in high in fat, sugar, salt, or calories. Don’t depend on the organic label to tell you if it’s nutritious, always read food labels carefully!

Natural

The FDA defines foods without added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances as natural. However, these requirements don’t make a huge impact on ensuring the nutritional value of the food. For example, salt and sugar are natural ingredients but it doesn’t mean we should consume them in excess. To avoid falling into the all-natural trap, steer away from products with ingredients you can’t pronounce, which contain preservatives and food additives.