SINGAPORE: Mooncakes might be physically small, but they can have a big impact on your waistline - just one could contain the same number of calories as a full meal.
For example, an average-size 192g baked lotus mooncake with two egg yolks has about 890 calories, according to the Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) nutrient analysis.
That is equivalent to about four bowls of rice, said Ms Bibi Chia, principal dietitian at Raffles Diabetes and Endocrine Centre. She added that one of these mooncakes has the same amount of sugar as about 1.5 cans of cola.
Other types of mooncakes, like those covered in snowskin, do not fare much better. A bite-size portion of an eighth of a snowskin mooncake is worth 93 calories, which works out to about half a bowl of rice.
All this spells bad news for people looking to enjoy the tasty treats of the Mid-Autumn Festival while still following a healthy diet. The challenge can be further intensified with more unusual fillings like durian and champagne truffle, which are potentially sweeter or more calorie-laden.
So, with the war on diabetes being stepped up in Singapore, is it time to moderate how many mooncakes we are munching on?
HOW HEALTHY ARE MOONCAKES?
Chief dietitian at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital Natalie Goh said the sugar used to make mooncake is usually the refined type. While sugar content varies depending on the individual variety, those with more nuts or egg yolks in the filling generally contain less sugar compared with a plain lotus, red bean or yam paste version, she said.
"Mooncakes are typically considered as unhealthy because of the high calorie, sugar and fat content," she said.
One way to assess how healthy a mooncake is is to look at its glycemic index (GI). The GI measures how a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood glucose level. A lower GI content is better, especially for diabetes patients.
Information on the GI of mooncakes is limited, but in any case, Ms Goh said that the index alone is not a good measurement to decide if the food is healthy or suitable for someone with diabetes.
Explaining why, she compared a low-sugar lotus seed paste mooncake with pine nuts to a low-sugar lotus seed paste mooncake with salted egg yolk.
While they contain the same amount of carbohydrates per serving, a 22g piece – about one-eighth of a mooncake – of the one with pine nuts has a higher GI of 40 compared to 30 in the salted egg yolk mooncake, she said.
"This doesn’t mean the mooncake with pine nuts is less healthy. The fats in nuts are of unsaturated type, a better type of fat than saturated fat. Mooncakes with salted egg yolk contain more sodium. So when choosing mooncakes, it is about balancing choice and amount," she said.
While mooncakes may be tempting in their hues of pink, yellow and green, and pretty designs and packaging, dietitians advocate eating just a small portion.
Ms Chia suggested cutting the mooncake into eight pieces to share with others, and to choose those with less sugar or with nuts and seeds.
Nutritionist Karin Reiter recommended making mooncakes at home with natural sugar substitutes like Stevia, or going for a walk immediately after having a small portion in order to regulate any spike in blood glucose levels. In diabetic patients, high blood glucose levels after a meal has been linked to heart disease.
LOW-SUGAR MOONCAKE OPTIONS AVAILABLE
While mooncakes should be consumed in moderation, Ms Goh pointed out that there are more low-sugar baked mooncakes available compared with five to 10 years ago.
One retailer who has started offering healthier alternatives is Bakerzin. This year, all Bakerzin mooncakes have been made with low-sugar lotus paste, a spokesman said.
“A lot of time and effort is spent on researching and development hence this is the first year we have succeeded in introducing low-sugar mooncakes as a healthier options,” he said, adding that it took more than six months to a year to get it right.
He said that one distinct difference in the low-sugar mooncakes is that they “do not linger in the aftertaste”.
He said that the introduction of low-sugar mooncakes came after feedback from customers asking for healthier options, and coincides with the Government’s call to fight diabetes.
Shangri-La Hotel Singapore’s Chinese restaurant Shang Palace has been selling low-sugar baked mooncakes for the past two years. These include the low-sugar white lotus seed paste with quarter yolk, red bean with almond and low-sugar white lotus seed paste with quarter yolk.
They contain 30 per cent less sugar than regular mooncakes, a spokesperson said. The mooncakes are made using maltitol, a natural sugar alcohol instead of normal sugar. Maltitol has low energy and does not easily form fat and does not stimulate the body's insulin secretion, and therefore will not cause blood sugar levels to spike, she added.
“We offered the low-sugar mooncake options last year, to address some guests’ preferences on healthier options. This year, we promoted this option more, to address the trend on overall health and wellness,” she said.
The Ritz-Carlton Singapore, which said the lotus seed paste used to make its traditional mooncakes contain reduced sugar, this year introduced the white lotus seed paste with five grains mooncakes.
“The addition of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, oats and sesame seeds to the white lotus seed paste makes this new flavour a healthier and nuttier option for those who enjoy traditional baked mooncakes,” the hotel said.