Thursday, December 23, 2010

Making Healthier Christmas Cookies

By Laurin Evans

Christmas means cookie time! Okay, it means a little more, but nearly everyone has that special cookie that reminds them of their favorite Christmas memories. Cookies are everywhere as it gets closer to Christmas – at work, school functions and, of course, all of the parties. What is it about the holidays that inspires people to pull out their mixer and get baking?

Although cookies have the advantage of being mostly bite-sized, they can fool you because they are usually high in calories and low on nutrition. If you take every cookie offered to you in December you'll be forced to make some serious resolutions by January 1st.

I'm amazed at how mostly flour, sugar and flavorings can morph into every imaginable type of tasty treat. With some minor tweaks, you can reduce the fat and calories while upping the nutritional punch of nearly every cookie recipe. I don't try to make a 100% healthy cookie, just one that is a little better for you.

White flour, white sugar and fats are the main ingredients in most cookie recipes, but all three can be reduced or substituted with healthier options.

Flour

White flour is highly processed and offers little nutrition. Substitute whole wheat flour in a one-to-one ratio or replace half of the recipe's flour with a high-quality whole wheat flour that will provide fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Since wheat flour can be denser, sift before using it. Increasing the wet ingredients in the recipe slightly will keep your cookies from being too dry. They may also need less time to bake, so keep an eye on them. If you don't like the consistency of whole wheat flour in your recipe, try whole wheat pastry flour.

Sugar

White sugar is juice from sugar cane that has been highly processed with chemicals to remove all of the color and flavor. The high sucrose level can have a negative effect on the body's blood sugar. The easiest way to reduce the calories in your cookies is to simply use less sugar. You can usually remove up to one-third of the sugar in a recipe without any noticeable difference. Sugar does provide moistness, so increase the liquid in your recipe slightly if you reduce the sugar.

You can also substitute white sugar with the less-processed raw sugar or sugar substitutes. One of the best alternative sugars is called succanat, which contains the whole sugar of the sugar cane and is dark brown. Succanat can be substituted for half or less of the sugar in the recipe. Experiment with replacing part of the white sugar with honey, real maple sugar, molasses or a natural sweetener called Stevia. Many recipes that use these sweeteners recommend adding a small amount of baking soda and less liquid ingredients.

Fats

Ingredients like shortening and butter make for a tasty cookie, but add unhealthy saturated fat, cholesterol and calories. You can replace the fat with pureed fruit. You can also use a healthy ingredient like coconut oil instead, but your cookies will turn out more cake-like than the original recipe.

Nutrition

Many cookies are just empty calories. The healthiest ones contain fruit and nuts, which provide protein, vitamins and nutrients. If your family typically eats a lot of cookies around the holiday, at least there's something good in there for them.

Make recipes for fruit sweetened jam-filled cookies. The natural sweetness of the fruit compensates for reducing the sugar and also provides vitamins. Cookies with nuts are a great way to incorporate protein. Substitute healthier dark chocolate for milk chocolate. A great way to add more fiber and an impressive amount of nutrition is to add ¼ cup of freshly ground flax seed to your recipes.

There are many ways to improve a cookie recipe without sacrificing taste or texture, so give one of these suggestions a try. Have you made your favorite Christmas cookie healthier?