I came home to a batch of glossy, fudgy brownies on the counter that looked the picture of decadence. The baker behind the batch? Rosie, my middle daughter, who soon appeared in the kitchen to report that they were healthy brownies. “They’re vegan, mom,” she said, rattling off the ingredients. “cocoa powder, coconut oil, walnuts, dates, dark chocolate….”

She proceeded to pop one in her mouth like she was eating an apple slice.

“Hmmm,” I thought, “this is going to take some explaining.”

For every over-the-top marshmallow-oozing/butterscotch-drizzled layer cake that ticks across the screen of my Instagram feed, there is an equally beguiling bowl of chocolate avocado pudding or pile of honey date coconut cookies.

Does the refined sugar and white flour of the former make it off limits and the nuts and dried fruit of the latter mean a green light for a sweet tooth free for all?

Not exactly.

Sure, it’s preferable from a nutrition standpoint to eat foods made with less processed ingredients without additives or artificial colors. Indeed, there are significant upsides to using whole grain and nut flours instead of  bleached white flour, and of choosing olive oil in place of Crisco, or maple syrup in lieu of white sugar. But keep in mind a couple of things:

  1. Some less processed ingredients being lauded for baking also happen to be high in calories. Coconut, coconut oil, nuts, nut butters, dried fruits, and avocado are all calorically dense. In fact, certain healthier trades actually have more calories than their more processed counterparts. This isn’t to say don’t use them, it’s just to know they’re not a calorie freebie.
  2. Sugar is still sugar, whether it’s minimally processed (honey) or highly processed, (white cane sugar). When it comes down to it, all of these sweet foods are simple carbohydrates that can cause a spike (and then a nosedive) in blood sugar. They also have calories, mostly fairly empty ones. Plus, sugars of every stripe can cause tooth decay.
  3. In some cases, healthier treats can mess with your head. Suddenly, when you might not normally reach for a second cookie or indulge in a thick slice of cake, you do just that because, well, “it’s healthy”. It’s not so different from the fat-free cookie craze of the 90s when we thought we could down half a box because, after all, it was fat free.

My take?

I enjoy sweets. If I can seamlessly work good ingredients into my baked goods, I will. Consider these Chocolate Chip Makeover Cookies, for example. They’re more nutrient dense than typical cookies yet still taste like a treat, but I’m fully aware that they’re indeed cookies. And these Double Chocolate Cupcakes are still dessert, even if the recipe does call for a couple of grated zucchini.

As for the vegan brownies? They were actually quite tasty, better, in fact, than some conventional brownies I’ve eaten. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to start popping them into my mouth like I’m eating apple slices. Treats have a place in a balanced diet, whether they’re healthy or Instagram-worthy decadent. Choose what you love and enjoy every bite…just not the whole batch.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Mikhail Makovkin