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Think Outside the Box, Especially When it Comes to Cake

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Written by Kirsten Hudson

Cake mixes, which were first introduced in the 1930s, didn't really catch on until after World War II. And even then, despite stereotypes of the apron-clad '50s housewife juggling taking care of kiddos and cleaning the house with just enough time to whip together instant baking creations, cake mixes actually weren't popular at first.

Simply adding water to a dry mix wasn't enough to make consumers feel proud of their baking handiwork. So, those crafty manufacturers reformulated their mixes so that consumers had to add fresh eggs themselves. Sneaky.

Today, the same appeal exists. Just add a few ingredients and baking a masterpiece of a cake (that's all your own) becomes a piece of cake. Whether a mix or a homemade cake rates better on the tasty-scale, will probably be a debate that goes on, well, forever. But from a health standpoint, there's no debate. Homemade cakes are healthier, even if it is dessert.

Why? Because you're in control. You can choose what ingredients go into your cake. Using whole, fresh and organic flours, sugars and butter, will blow any conventional cake mixes' ingredients out of the oven.

Need proof? Take a look:

Ingredients in Duncan Hines Classic Yellow Cake Mix:

(I'm going to pick on Duncan Hines, although other popular cake mix brands including Betty Crocker and Pillsbury have similar ingredients.)

Sugar, Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Vegetable Oil Shortening (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Propylene Glycol Mono- and Diesters Of Fats, Mono and Diglycerides), Leavening (Sodium Bicarbonate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate). Contains 2% Or Less Of: Wheat Starch, Salt, Dextrose, Polyglycerol Esters Of Fatty Acids, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Cellulose Gum, Artificial Flavors, Xanthan Gum, Maltodextrin, Modified Cornstarch, Colored with (Yellow 5 Lake, Red 40 Lake).

The Breakdown

Sugar: We all know the health issues with refined sugars. Their high caloric content promotes weight gain, compromises the immune system and spikes insulin levels. It's even been suggested that sugar is toxic to our bodies.

Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour: I know many of you healthy foodies already know the nutritional downfall of eating bleached flour, but let's reiterate. Harsh bleaching chemicals (i.e. chlorine bleach!) strip the whole grain flour of its fiber, minerals and essential nutrients, and leave it as little else than a carbohydrate that your body quickly converts into sugars. As one of the main ingredients in boxed cake mixes (food producers label ingredients in descending order from the largest quantities contained in the food product to the least), that's quite a slice of unhealthy carbs.

Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil: Just because the label on the back of the box states 0g Trans Fat," doesn't mean trans fat isn't sneaking into your cake.

Food manufacturers use a hydrogenation process to increase the shelf life of food products. This process mixes vegetable oil with hydrogen to create a solid fat. While fully hydrogenated oil contains almost no trans fat, that's definitely not the case for partially hydrogenated oil. Partially hydrogenated soybean oil does include those trans fatty acids we all know and hate -- the ones that raise "bad" (LDL) cholesterol and lower "good" (HDL) cholesterol, and increase our risk for heart disease.

How can this be, you ask? Well, the government considers food items that contain less than 0.5g trans fat in one serving to be trans fat-free. Duncan Hines' serving size is 1/12 of a package, with 12 servings per package. Even if you only eat one or two pieces of cake, you're still ingesting trans fat, and even little amounts add up over time.

This is all not including the fact that Duncan Hines uses soybean oil. Now there's a way to add GMOs to your diet. Ninety-one percent of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically-modified, and you can bet Duncan Hines isn't using soybean oil made from organic ingredients.

Monoglycerides and Diglycerides: Called emulsifiers, these additives are used, like trans fat, to keep ingredients that don't typically blend well (think oil and water) from separating. They're also used as a preservative to increase the product's shelf life. While little research exists on health-related issues with these additives, keep in mind they can be derived from an animal source (usually a pig or cow), a vegetable source (usually canola or soybean oil), or synthetically produced -- and are definitely not natural.

Propylene Glycol Mono- and Diesters of Fats: These additives are a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Like monoglycerides and diglycerides, they help unlike ingredients blend together and can be derived from animal or vegetable sources, or are produced synthetically. Just another additive to add to the mix.

Sodium Bicarbonate: Hooray! Sodium bicarbonate is just baking soda's alias. (For when it likes to be incognito.)

Phosphates: These ingredients make that cake-in-a-box super fluffy when it transforms into a cake-in-a-pan. Excessive consumption of phosphates might contribute to bone and tooth decay, but it's unlikely considering phosphates from additives only make up a teeny amount in the typical American's diet. Most phosphate consumption comes from meat or dairy products.

Wheat Starch: Wheat kernels undergo two chemical processes to reach this powdery form. Used as a thickening agent in boxed cake mixes, wheat starch contains mostly carbohydrates. Those with gluten allergies should avoid food products with this ingredient.

Dextrose: This natural sugar is found in fruit and honey. The downside? When added to processed foods as a sweetener, it simply increases calories while providing no nutritional benefit. Dextrose also promotes tooth decay. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Americans consume about 25 pounds per year of this sugar and about 150 pounds per year of all refined sugars. Eeesh. Talk about adding to your waistline.

Cellulose Gum: This carbohydrate isn't harmful. Yay! On food labels, it's often included under "dietary fiber." Just keep in mind that it isn't as nutritious as fiber consumed through natural foods.

Artificial Flavors: These can really be pretty much anything. Junk food producers use chemicals to mimic natural flavors. These chemicals could occur in natural foods, but they could also be various forms of MSG. Vegetarians and vegans beware. These flavorings can come from animal or vegetable sources.

Xanthan Gum: This additive is used to enhance texture and to thicken food products. While it's obtained from natural sources (bushes, trees, seaweed, bacteria), this additive is poorly tested, though the FDA deems it "generally recognized as safe." Though small amounts probably aren't harmful, large quantities can cause diarrhea. In fact, xanthan gum is used in laxatives.

Modified Corn Starch: Simply used as a thickening agent, this additive isn't outwardly harmful. However, it could be made from genetically modified corn.

Maltodextrin: Made from starch, this additive could be derived from a genetically modified source. Those with gluten allergies should avoid it.

Yellow 5 Lake and Red 40 Lake: Artificial dyes have been controversial for decades. Early studies in the 1970s found reason to believe that the artificial colors in processed foods were linked to behavioral issues and hyperactivity in children. Since then research on the subject has had mixed results. But the issue continues to appear.

Several countries in Europe have already banned the use of artificial dyes in food because of the controversy surrounding them. In April 2011, an FDA panel declined to ban artificial food dyes stating that there wasn't enough evidence to do so. However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest maintains that some dyes may be contaminated with cancer-causing substances. Despite the FDA's beliefs, anyone who doesn't appreciate unknown, potentially-dangerous chemicals in their food, should avoid artificial colors. Because, really, who needs 'em?

Confused by the word "lake"? No, it's not a body of water. The "lake" in these color additives simply means that they're more solid than dyes. Processed foods manufacturers use lakes to color products that contain fats and oils.

Sources:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest
http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm

International Food Additives Council
http://www.foodadditives.org/phosphates/q_and_a.html

In The Mix by Laura Shapiro
http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2002/08/in_the_mix

U.S. Food and Drug Administration
http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/ucm094249.pdf

image: Fuschia Foot

Follow Kirsten on Twitter @kirsten_hudson

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