Healthy Variations on Holiday Classics

Wed, 10 Oct. 2012 - 2:33 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Having heart-healthy holidays doesn’t mean forsaking flavor or abandoning the down-home essence of traditional classic foods. With these simple substitutions, the three holiday recipes that follow will keep you and yours just a bit healthier, without passing up delicious holiday desserts and treats.

There are myriad ways nowadays to replace sugar, fat, salt, and dairy. For starters, several sweetening options fare better than refined table sugar. Consider sugar in the raw, which is unrefined. Its use will alter your recipe’s sweetness, however. An excellent workaround is to bake with artificial sweetener.

Natural vs. artificial sweeteners. Though the term sometimes evokes negative reactions among the many of us on the quest for “all-natural” ingredients, or who even feel that these sweeteners are dangerous, keep in mind that artificial sweeteners are fully regulated by the FDA and need the agency’s approval before they can be sold. According to the National Cancer Institute, there's no scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or any other serious health problems. On the contrary, studies repeatedly confirm that artificial sweeteners are safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women. As a result of newer studies, even the warning label for the once-dreaded saccharin has been dropped. 

Furthermore, many artificial sweeteners are derived from completely natural sources, while what we think of as all-natural often isn’t quite: table sugar is of course heavily refined, but so are many “natural” sweeteners—even agave nectar. If you do choose natural sweeteners to artificial, keep in mind that none of the former have better nutritional value than sugar, and all of them contain many more calories than sugar-free products.

Natural sugar substitutes have vitamin, mineral, and caloric contents very similar to those of table sugar. Honey and sugar, for instance, are nutritionally similar, and both end up in your body as glucose and fructose. 

In addition to honey, molasses is often used in recipes instead of carmalized sugar. Agave nectar, which is sometimes manufactured in a reduced-calorie form, is increasingly popular in many festive mixed drinks, such as low-sugar versions of margaritas and mojitos. Another substitute that has been growing in popularity is yacón syrup, which comes from the tuberous roots of the yacón plant. It has a taste similar to molasses.

Although saccharin (Sweet’N Low) and aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) have been on the market for decades, sucralose (Splenda) and other newer products are manufactured by replacing one chain of the sugar molecule to keep it from being absorbed by the digestive system. These products are considered by many to be an improvement, and also taste closer to sugar than their sweeter ancestors.  

If you choose artificial sweeteners, remember that certain recipes may need modification beyond simple sweetness ratios, because unlike refined table sugar or sugar in the raw, these products provide no volume. You can experiment with different solutions to this; Splenda with Fiber, for example, will add a bit more bulk to your recipes than the original version of this substitute. You may consider adding an emulsifying agent to thicken your recipe, some of which even make for great egg substitutes. (See Faking Fats with Savory Substitutes in the Jul/Aug 2011 Running & FitNews® for more details on cooking with emulsifiers.) For our purposes here, we’ll use actual eggs for the fruitcake recipe below, but no eggs at all for either of the two vegan eggnog recipes that follow it.

Replacing dairy, fat, and sodium. When recipes call for milk, unsweetened soy or almond milk is an easy substitute. Make your own heavy soy cream by following the recipe for it in Veggnog 1 below. Smart Balance Light is an excellent butter substitute; and most people use soybean oil or canola oil spray in leiu of lard these days. And finally, AlsoSalt is a kosher certified salt-free substitute made with potassium and lysine. 

Try a pre-emptive strike. As in the football games to be found on America’s TV sets this holiday season, the best defense is a good offense. So before you sit down for a day of decadent holiday eating, organize some family fun time in the great outdoors. Simply embarking on a morning walk can put you in a much better position to take in all that sitting around and constant parade of treats coming your way later in the day.

Not Mom’s Fruitcake


1 cup golden raisins 

1 cup currants 

1/2 cup sun dried cranberries 

1/2 cup sun dried blueberries 

1/2 cup sun dried cherries 

1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped 

Zest of one lemon, chopped coarsely 

Zest of one orange, chopped coarsely 

1 cup water 

3/4 cup granulated Splenda sugar substitute 

5 ounces Smart Balance Light (equivalent to 1 1/4 sticks butter) 

1 cup apple juice 

4 whole cloves, ground 

6 allspice berries, ground 

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 

1 teaspoon ground ginger 

1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour 

1 1/2 teaspoons AlsoSalt salt substitute 

1 teaspoon baking soda 

1 teaspoon baking powder 

2 eggs 

1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted pecans, broken 


Combine dried fruits and both zests. Add water and microwave for 5 minutes to re-hydrate fruit. 

Place fruit and liquid in a pot with the Splenda, Smart Balance Light, apple juice and spices. Bring mixture to a boil stirring often, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool for at least 15 minutes. 

Heat oven to 325 degrees. 

Combine dry ingredients and sift into fruit mixture. Quickly bring batter together with a large wooden spoon, then stir in eggs one at a time until completely integrated, then fold in nuts. Spoon into a 10-inch non-stick loaf pan and bake for 1 hour. Check for doneness by inserting toothpick into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, it's done. If not, bake another 10 minutes, and check again. 

Remove cake from oven and place on cooling rack or trivet. Allow to cool completely before turning out from pan. When cake is completely cooled, seal in a tight sealing, food safe container. Every 2 to 3 days, feel the cake and if dry, spritz with water. The cake's flavor will enhance considerably over the next two weeks. 

Yields 10 slices


Veggnog 1 (vegan eggnog recipe)


4 cups unsweetened soy milk

1 tbsp sugar-free instant vanilla pudding powder 

1 cup heavy soy cream:

6 oz silken tofu

1/2 cup unsweetened soy milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp AlsoSalt

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp cinnamon



Make the heavy soy cream:

Blend the soymilk and drained silken tofu in a food processor until it is very smooth. 

Prepare the veggnog:

Whisk together half of the soy milk and instant pudding until thickened. Add the remaining soy milk and the soy cream and mix well. Add the remaining ingredients, except cinnamon. Allow to chill overnight before serving, and sprinkle with cinnamon just before serving. 


Serves 6


Veggnog 2 (vegan eggnog recipe)

This additional veggnog recipe uses no soy—and is a great guide to making your own almond milk.


3 cups almonds
4 cups water
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon agave nectar
2 tablespoons yacón syrup
2 teaspoons nutmeg, ground
¼ teaspoon cinnamon, ground
pinch cloves, ground


Soak almonds overnight.

Discard soaking water and rinse almonds in a deep bowl of water, repeating until water is clear. Place soaked almonds and 4 cups of water in a food processor and blend on high for 90 seconds. Strain milk through a fine strainer and discard solids. Place this almond milk in a half-gallon container or mason jar. Add the vanilla, agave, yacon, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, then shake well. 

Refrigerate until cold and serve.

Serves 6


The USDA National Nutrient Database,


Elana’s Pantry, Vegan Eggnog, 2009,


Food Network, “Free Range Fruit Cake,” recipe courtesy of Alton Brown, 2011,


Running & FitNews, July/August 2011, “Faking Fats with Savory Substitutes,” by Jeff Venables


Mayo Clinic, “Artificial Sweeteners,” Oct. 9, 2010,

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® November / December 2011 • Volume 29, Number 6)

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