Article by: Beth Blessing
The winter holidays are often associated with cookies. In our house we enjoy making Christmas cookies together throughout the month of December. Being a health conscious family, we do our best to make healthier versions of the classic sweets. Our focus is on three of the most common ingredients: sugar, flour, and fat.
Sugar: In cookies, sugar is important for structure and texture. When creamed with fat or beaten with an egg, it produces air bubbles which help lighten the texture. It contributes to the crisp of a cookie, but in the form of honey, molasses, maple syrup—it helps to create a moist, chewy cookie. Most of the classic cookie recipes call for white sugar. A slightly better choice to processed white sugar is sucanat (or rapadura), evaporated cane sugar, light brown sugar, or coconut sugar. All of these sugars can be used in a one to one ratio when replacing white sugar. They are close to 80% sugar and the remaining 20% makes up minerals and other nutrients. But let’s be real folks, sugar is sugar and it shouldn’t be consumed in high amounts on a daily basis. One trick you can do to lower the amount of sugar in a recipe is to cut the sugar in half. This shouldn’t compromise the role sugar plays in the structure and texture of the cookie, plus it allows you to taste other flavors besides just sugar. I tend to cut sugar in half (sometimes even reduced to ¼ the original amount), and then add either an additional egg yolk for moisture or an egg white to contribute to the crispiness of the cookie.
Flour: White flour is heavily processed and void of any nutrients. It breaks down quickly into sugar molecules and can lead to the very same problems caused by eating too much refined sugar. My extended family has many health related issues associated with consuming gluten containing grains. Because of this, we have done a lot of experimenting with gluten free grains like almond meal and coconut flour. My nutrition philosophy is aligned with the Weston A. Price foundation, so you will also find sprouted grain flours in my kitchen. My favorite being certified gluten free sprouted oat flour—my Irish roots are to blame for my love of oats. Sprouting grains accomplishes two goals: first, it reduces phytic acid which is an anti-nutrient found in grains that binds up and makes important minerals unavailable to the body. Then, it changes the difficult to digest starches in grains into easy to digest vegetable sugars (this makes them sweeter to the taste). This traditional preparation of grains neutralizes the negative effects of phytic acid, but also increases the nutritional value of the grain—definitely a healthier choice than processed white flour. When using sprouted grain flours, it is a one to one ratio when replacing white flour. They are better suited for quick breads, cookies, pie crust, scones, and rustic style loaves of bread.
Fat: Fat provides richness, moistness, and suppleness in cookies. It helps the cookie to spread and thin which is sometimes desirable and other times not. The lower the melting point, the more the cookie will spread. Something to consider when replacing low quality fats like margarine and shortening (high melting points) with higher quality fats like butter or lard (lower melting points). The high quality fats that I recommend for baking are butter, lard, coconut oil, and avocado oil. My go-to is grass-fed butter with a second place going to organic coconut oil.
Regardless of what kind of holiday cookies and sweets you are consuming, you have to remember moderation. Increasing your sweet eating during the holiday season should be balanced out with staying active, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and staying hydrated. Also, making cookies from scratch instead of buying from the store will cut down on the amount you have around the house. The less cookies, the less chance for indulgences.
Try one of our favorite healthy cookie recipes: Gingerbread Cookies with Lemon Icing
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. Scribner, 2004.