Healthy cake?! TV baking competitions actually showcase nutritious recipes

ATLANTA — Think gobbling down cake during the holidays will only lead to weight gain? Think again! If you’re a fan of TV baking competitions like “The Great British Bake Off,” you’re in luck. It turns out that many of these recipes are more likely to decrease your risk of death and disease than raise it.

A team from Emory University and the Yale School of Medicine have found that popular Christmas desserts from “The Great British Bake Off” tend to use ingredients that are generally nutritious and beneficial to your overall health.

The team set out to solve a dilemma faced by many people during the festive season: can we enjoy Christmas desserts guilt-free? Researchers examined the health implications of ingredients used in 48 dessert recipes from “The Great British Bake Off,” including cakes, biscuits, pastries, puddings, and other desserts.

To achieve this, they conducted an “umbrella review.” This type of review is a comprehensive analysis that combines findings from multiple meta-analyses and observational studies. The goal was to assess how different ingredients influence the risk of death or disease. Simply put, are the ingredients in someone’s dessert more likely to contribute to weight gain and disease, or will they actually provide an unexpected source of nutrition for home bakers and dessert lovers?

Holiday and Christmas cookies and desserts
(© Jenifoto –

The team categorized ingredients from the recipes into 17 groups, such as butter, chocolate, fruit, nuts, sugar, and others. After an extensive review of scientific literature, which involved screening over 7,000 studies, they identified 46 relevant umbrella reviews. Out of 363 associations between ingredients and health risks, 149 were statistically significant. Notably, 110 of these suggested that certain ingredient groups could reduce health risks. The most beneficial ingredients were fruits, coffee, and nuts.

On the flip side, alcohol and sugar were most commonly linked to increased health risks. The study humorously noted that Prue Leith, one of the show’s judges known for her fondness for alcohol in baking, might be disappointed. Alcohol was linked to several health issues, including different types of cancer and heart problems.

However, there was a silver lining for dessert lovers. Paul Hollywood’s Stollen, a dessert recipe from the show, showed potential health benefits. It contained beneficial ingredients like almonds, milk, and dried fruits.

“Overall, without the eggs, butter and sugar, this dessert is essentially a fruit salad with nuts. Yum!”, the researchers say in a media release.

The researchers did acknowledge the limitations of their study. They emphasized that their findings were based on observational studies, which have inherent constraints. Additionally, the focus was on specific ingredient groups rather than overall dietary patterns. They also didn’t account for all the ingredients in the desserts, like food coloring. Moreover, the team did not account for the amount of each ingredient in these recipes.

“Any recipe with fruit, even if it was only one berry, was weighted equally in terms of its protective effect in relation to the harmful effect of butter,” the researchers say, adding that a weighted analysis “would have been informative, but less fun.”

“This Christmas, if concerns about the limitations of observational nutrition research can be set aside, we are pleased to report that everyone can have their cake and eat it too,” the study authors conclude.

The findings are published in The BMJ.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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