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Building a Better Fruitcake

The much-maligned holiday dessert once was and still could be a nutritional powerhouse -- with a few tweaks.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

Holiday FruitcakeThe holidays are upon us, and along with the celebratory atmosphere comes the traditional holiday foods, including the highly anticipated desserts. There’s a downside to the festive gastronomy, however, as the holidays give way to New Year’s weight-loss resolutions.

The general perception is that holiday food can pack on at least 5-10 lbs., but general perceptions are often exaggerated. According to studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, Americans on average gain only about a pound to a pound and a half during the November and December holidays. That’s the good news. The bad news is that holiday weight gains, though slight, are seldom subsequently lost — and there are a lot of holidays throughout the year and throughout a life.

But the festive foods we love may need only a little tweaking to set us on a healthier path. Desserts are a great place to start.

The iconic holiday dessert, the much-maligned fruitcake, can serve as an example of healthful holiday dessert tweaking. At its low point, traditional fruitcake had degenerated into an arid, mass-produced, doorstop-dense, holiday loaf of overly glazed nuts and sickeningly sweet, neon-colored fruits. Its image had become so tarnished that the late talk show host Johnny Carson once remarked: “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world and people keep passing it around.”

That’s a grand fall from grace for a food that once nourished no less than the Roman Army. What we call fruitcake today once served as the “C rations” for hungry, battle-hardened Roman warriors. A combination of mashed barley, fruits and nuts, this ancient “nutrition bar” supplied protein, complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, soluble fiber and phytochemicals to soldiers on the go.

Resurrecting fruitcake to its former glory is easy when we consider the readily available healthy ingredients.

Barley is highly nutritious and has many advantages as a whole grain – something modern USDA guidelines encourage us to increase, points out Grain Millers Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn. Whole grain barley supplies soluble fiber that can remove cholesterol from the body by an amazingly simple mechanism.

Bile, synthesized from cholesterol in the liver, is stored in the gallbladder and squirted into the small intestines to aid in the digestion of dietary fats. When soluble fibers present in the diet, they bind bile, preventing its reabsorption. This forces the liver to pull more cholesterol out of the blood in order to replace the lost bile.

Consistent with more recent traditions, wheat has become the grain of choice for modern fruitcakes. Whole-grain wheat provides insoluble fibers that reduce the transit time of food moving through the large intestines. This helps to lower the internal pressure against the relatively thin intestinal walls, which allow the absorption of water, the primary task of the large intestines. In this manner, insoluble fiber helps to prevent diverticulosis, a degenerative condition that creates weak spots in the colon that are susceptible to infection, leading to the more serious diverticulitis.

Both wheat and barley are glutinous grains. Today, gluten-free products are popular, even though celiac disease, the inflammatory condition of the small intestines that demands adherence to a strict gluten-free diet, affects less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Gluten-free flours include those from rice, potato and a variety of ancient grains, like quinoa, amaranth, teff and oat.

There is little doubt that berries dominated as the fruit of choice for the Roman centurion fruitcake. Berries would have provided much-needed vitamin C, which may have been scarce on long campaigns. For the modern fruitcake, berries provide fiber and antioxidant-rich phytochemicals in a colorful, low-kcal package.

Blueberries, for example, are classed as one of highest rated antioxidant fruits. High in fiber, these versatile fruits are now available in a number of different formats, a reflection of their popularity, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. Recent studies have linked both blueberries and tart cherries, the traditional cherry pie cherries, to protection from age-related memory loss.

The Cherry Marketing Board, Dewitt, Mich., also points out the fruit's anti-inflammatory properties, which have been highly valued by sufferers of arthritis and gout, can ease muscle soreness after exercise – or after conquering a far-away village.

No fruitcake is complete without a healthy portion of nuts. Nuts provide protein, calcium, essential fatty acids, minerals and additional antioxidant-rich phytochemicals. Several recent studies have shown that consumption of nuts tends to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by aiding in the reduction of plasma cholesterol -- even though each nut has its own unique fatty acid profile.

Almonds, always a tradition around the holidays, are rich sources of monounsaturated fatty acids, the kind that are dominant in olive oil. Monounsaturated fatty acids have long been known to lower cholesterol without also lowering HDL, the so-called good cholesterol. Almonds provide calcium, and the skins make an excellent fiber.

Like all nuts, almonds are rich in kilocalories; however research published in the September issue of the European Journal of Nutrition suggests that we naturally compensate by eating less unhealthy food, so points out the Almond Board of California.

“This research suggests that almonds may be a good snack option, especially for those concerned about weight,” says Richard Mattes, professor of nutrition science at Purdue University and the study’s principal investigator. “In this study, participants compensated for the additional calories provided by the almonds, so daily energy intake did not rise.”

Pistachios, also a holiday favorite, have a serious nutrition side to them, according to American Pistachio Growers, Fresno, Calif. Rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, pistachios supply generous amounts of protein, fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin K, vitamin E, and a number of phytochemicals. The unique green and purple color indicate the presence of lutein and anthocyanin. Lutein accumulates in the central region of the retina, called the macula, where it may help to prevent age-related macular degeneration, a condition that that reduces central focal eyesight.

A recent review, Role of Walnuts in Maintaining Brain Health with Age, published in the Journal of Nutrition, suggested the inclusion of walnuts in the diet may help to benefit cardiovascular health and stave off age-related cognitive decline. That paper was presented in a conference sponsored by the California Walnut Commission, Folsom, Calif. Walnuts are rich in essential fatty acids including omega-3s. Over the last several decades the proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids has greatly increased, from approximately 3 to 1 respectively to about 10 to 1 or more. This is problematic because this change in fatty acid consumption may favor greater inflammation.

The long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) are by nature both highly nutritious (important for heart health and brain development) and highly unstable. IngreVita EPA/DHA introduced by Cargill, uses a blend of high oleic canola oil, fish oil and proprietary antioxidants to provide shelf-stable EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids for almost any application.

Coconut is also gaining in popularity. “Coconut in a variety of forms has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity,” says Michael Post, director of sales for Trailblazer Foods, Portland, Ore. “Known for its versatility, coconut is a longtime holiday favorite for baking, but it’s also being incorporated into more dishes on a daily basis to insert additional fiber, vitamins and minerals into a balanced diet. Without a doubt coconut water is the main driver in consumers’ interest in coconut products.”

Sweetening the modern fruitcake in a healthful manner should pose no problem, even though all caloric sweeteners are under intense scrutiny. “Sugar has been getting a lot of adverse attention lately,” explains Cathy Dorko, product manager for active nutrition at DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, Kan. “But that doesn’t mean consumers don’t still want sweet indulgences. They do, and they want them to taste good.”

So DuPont supplies polyols such as xylitol (2.4 kcal/g) and lactitol (2 kcal/g), which can replace sugar in many applications. Litesse polydextrose, a soluble fiber (1kcal/g) can directly replace the bulking effect of sugar.

Stevia continues to grow in popularity with both consumers and food manufacturers. “We find that honey and stevia work to create a synergistic effect in baked goods, says Grace Kim, senior applications scientist for PureCircle Ltd., Oak Brook, Ill. “Stevia has progressed. Nowadays a mixture of stevia glycosides provide the best solution for customers.”

Cargill introduced ViaTech, a line of stevia-based sweeteners that boast a proprietary “taste-prediction model” designed to predict which combination of steviol glycosides deliver optimal taste and sweetness for the given application. “In typical beverage formulations, the quick burst of sourness from citric acid coupled with the slight delay in sweetness onset often times results in a sweet-sour imbalance,” says Wade Schmelzer, a principal scientist at Cargill. “ViaTech improves this balance and yields a better quality of sweetness, allowing for greater sugar reductions.”

It’s a good bet that the Romans sweetened their fruitcake with honey, a traditional sweetener around the holidays, according to the National Honey Board. Certainly honey was an important part of the diet of both Romans and ancient Greeks. This is no surprise given the recent article published in the prestigious Journal of Human Evolution that outlined the importance of honey to the diet of our ancestors.

It is not uncommon for hunter/gatherers to obtain 15 percent of their calories from honey, often going to dangerous lengths to obtain this important source of kilocalories. This counters the present narrative that suggests concentrated sweeteners played no part in the developing human diet. It also gives perspective to recent attempts to blame the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes almost solely on sugar consumption.

The modern hunter/gatherer society native to Tanzania known as the Hadza obtains 15 percent of their calories as pure honey. This is in addition to the berries, other fruits, roots and tubers, bringing the contribution of carbohydrates to nearly 70 percent of their kilocalories.

Fruitcake, along with many desserts, were part of a solid nutritional foundation, and there’s no reason to abandon that tradition. When we consider the ingredients readily at hand, we can look forward to a wide spectrum of healthy holiday desserts along with an expansion of New Year’s resolutions.