When it comes to snack foods, America has had a long love affair with cookies. In 2012, shoppers in the United States bought over $1 billion dollars worth of Oreos alone. Like so many other popular foods, however, cookies are hardly the cornerstone of a healthy diet. Your typical store-bought brand of cookie is choked full of sugar, a notorious ingredient that can lead to everything to obesity to diabetes. Based on this fact alone, it would seem that cookies can only be safely enjoyed as occasional treats.
Crazy as it may sound, cookies don’t have to calorie-packed sugar bombs. While you probably won’t find too many nutritious cookie brands at the grocery store, it’s not much of a challenge to make healthier cookies in your own kitchen. Following some simple guidelines can turn cookies from junk food into something less harmful to the body.
Add Fiber to the Mix – While shopping for groceries, you might have seen various products highlighting their fiber content. Fiber’s sterling reputation is certainly well-deserved; once inside the digestive system, fiber works to control blood sugar, lower cholesterol and ensure smoother bowel movements.
It’s a snap to work fiber into your cookie recipe. In lieu of using white flour, opt for whole-wheat flour or whole-wheat pastry flour instead. Either of these options will increase your cookies’ fiber content by about four fold. The one potential drawback is these white flour alternatives can alter the taste and texture of some types of cookies.
In order to increase your cookies’ fiber content without sacrificing too much taste, you might consider using a combination of white and whole-wheat flour. For example, suppose you use a cookie a recipe that calls for two cups of white flour. This step can be altered by using one cup each of white and whole-wheat flour instead.
Aside from changing the recipe’s flour, a cookie’s fiber content can be markedly increased by the addition of flaxseeds. The appearance of these tiny, brown and ovular seeds belies their tremendous impact on the body. Just two tablespoons of flax seeds contains over 20 percent of the fiber your body needs each day. The next time you bake a batch of cookies, try mixing two to four tablespoons into the batter.
Go Easy on the Salt – In addition to consuming too much fat and cholesterol, Americans have long had a tendency to eat an excessive amount of sodium. Sodium is synonymous with salt, a completely understandable association given salt’s chemical makeup (salt is nearly 40 percent sodium). When the body stockpiles an overabundance of salt, it invariably experiences a spike in blood pressure. The reason for this cause-and-effect relationship is salt’s tendency to draw water into the bloodstream. This additional water serves to boost volume of the body’s blood supply, thereby elevating the patient’s blood pressure to unhealthy levels.
Some cookie recipes call for sizable amounts of salt. Those who are concerned about their health should add no more than ½ a teaspoon of salt per each batch of cookies. This advice rings especially true for those with hypertension (high blood pressure).
Keep an Eye Out for Artificial Junk – Over the last decade or so, much has been made about the devastating impacts of trans fats on human health. Trans fats were originally used as a replacement for several common cooking oils, which tended to be loaded with saturated fat. What followed, however, was a case of the cure being worse than the disease. Far from providing a healthier alternative, trans fats proved to be even more damaging to the body than saturated fat, simultaneously causing “good” cholesterol levels to drop and “bad” cholesterol to rise.
When it comes to making cookies, trans fats can sneak their way into the recipe via margarine and vegetable shortenings (vegetable shortenings are solid fats made from vegetable oils). While shopping for cookie ingredients, make sure to pick up spreads that are trans fat-free. Margarine can still be used as an ingredient in cookie recipes, as there are a number of margarines that do not contain trans fats.
A second artificial ingredient used for cooking is food dyes. Food dyes can do wonders for the cosmetic appearance of cookies and other pastries, allowing them to take on colors more fitting of the season. Unfortunately, some research indicates that manufactured food colorings may also leave their mark on the body, and not in a positive way. A 2007 study, for example, linked food dyes to increased hyperactivity in children.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that you’ll be stuck with drab-looking cookies; shoppers do have the option of buying food coloring made with natural ingredients. For example, you can give a batch of cookies a reddish hue with dye made from beets.
Cut Down on Sugar – It’s easy to see why so many people just can’t seem to lay off of sugar. This powdery white sweetener can make everything from coffee to cereal taste eons better. The drawbacks of sugar consumption, of course, are something that many Americans are all too familiar with. Sugar-rich diets invariably lead to noticeable gains in weight, and play a huge role in the ever-growing number of Americans with diabetes. As if those facts weren’t worrisome enough, studies have also found that excessive sugar consumption can damage the heart, and may also reduce the effectiveness of the immune system.
Now for the good news – you can easily get away with reducing the amount of sugar in a cookie recipe. Using only two-thirds of the recommended amount of sugar will likely not affect the taste of most homemade cookies.