Nutrition | Holidays | Food

Ask the Nutritionist: How to Make Holiday Treats Healthier


By Leika Suzumura, R.D., PCC Nutrition Educator

Q: How can I make our holiday treats healthier?

ask_baking_cookies_2751A: One simple way to make holiday treats healthier is to use the best quality ingredients, starting with sweeteners. We emphasize the use of natural sweeteners — many actually have nutrients that are beneficial to our bodies!

Maple syrup — The dark amber sap from certain maple trees is one of the least processed sweeteners you can choose from. Once the water is evaporated and filtered, this rich syrup is ready to use. There are several important nutrients naturally found in maple syrup including manganese, iron and zinc. Manganese, a less commonly recognized nutrient, is a strong antioxidant that keeps cells protected from free radical damage. Interestingly, it also helps maintain blood sugar levels. Beyond the classic use of maple syrup on pancakes, you can add it to cake recipes, granola or to sweeten your hot chocolate!

Whole cane sugar — Made by dehydrating and granulating the juice of sugar cane, this dark sugar is full of beneficial nutrients including iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium. The dark color reflects the natural molasses found in sugar cane and tastes more distinct and less sweet than brown sugar. It can be used in place or in combination with brown sugar in baked goods.

Honey — We get the sweet benefit of bees’ hard labor in the thick and sticky goodness of honey! Another minimally processed sugar, honey is rich in phytonutrients, enzymes, and is a natural antibacterial. Honey can have noted flavors depending on the flower source of nectar the bees collect. Honey can have various textures and viscosity depending on whether it is raw or processed. Using processed honey is preferred for baking as the health benefits of raw honey will be lost in the cooking process.

Molasses — This dark and robust-flavored sweetener captures all the goodness left behind when making white sugar, boasting significant amounts of both iron and calcium. Similar to maple syrup, molasses also contains manganese, which is a nutrient that helps maintain blood sugar. It works well in cakes and cookies that use spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or ginger. Try adding it to your pancake batter with some cinnamon, or in small amounts to chili or to teriyaki sauce!

ask_cookies_250Fruit — With natural sugars that make them sweet and fiber to help slow down the sugar rush, fruits are always a great choice for holiday treats, whether they are eaten by themselves or as a baked dessert. You also can use fruit juice to sweeten desserts as another natural sweetener option.

Learn more with PCC’s Natural Sweeteners brochure.

We often find ourselves overwhelmed with options and grapple between pleasure and guilt during the holidays. The key to health (and sanity) during the holidays is moderation. You can model this for your children by trying small pieces of the sweets you want, stopping when you’re done. And if you find yourself eating pumpkin pie for breakfast ONCE a year, well, make it a special occasion and keep it to a once-a-year tradition! Perhaps most important to our health at this time of year is the enjoyment of celebrating with family and friends, nurturing ourselves with quality time spent together and quality food in our bellies. Try the below wonderful recipe from PCC, which incorporates the sweet signatures of maple syrup and molasses!

Gingerbread Cake

gingerbread-cakeThis easy-to-make cake uses molasses, which provides significant amounts of iron and calcium. The whole-grain flour and maple syrup also help make this a nutritious treat.



  • 2 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ cup oil (safflower, sunflower, or other neutral oil)
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • ½ cup molasses
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs

Preheat over to 350 degrees F. In a blow, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and cloves. In another bowl, mix together the oil, maple syrup, molasses, water, vanilla and eggs.

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until well incorporated. Pour batter into an 8x8-inch oiled baking dish and bake in the over for 35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

leika_suzumura_125About the Nutritionist
Leika received her undergraduate degree in nutrition at Bastyr University. She has dedicated her career to community nutrition with an emphasis on childhood nutrition and parent education as a way to support the livelihood of the next generation. Her approach focuses on bringing kids and parents into the kitchen so that learning nutrition is fun and delicious!

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