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Razzle-dazzle 'healthy' mooncakes

WHAT used to be good, old-fashioned mooncakes are tarted-up with all kinds of delux ingredients, like caterpillar fungus, to appeal to health-conscious munchers. Tan Weiyun takes a bite.

When delicacies like shark fin, abalone and bird's nest are folded into mooncake paste, the result, some say, is just like a housemaid wearing a diamond crown - it doesn't work.

As the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival has arrived, so have many razzle-dazzle mooncakes with nontraditional (to say the least) ingredients, and they're sweeping the supermarkets.

But is a costly tarted-up mooncake better than an old-fashioned high-sugar, high-fat confection containing egg yolk, pork, red bean or lotus paste, nuts and seeds?

Some health-conscious (or simply rich and ostentatious) urbanites are turning to what's billed as "healthcare mooncakes" containing shark fin, abalone, ginseng, bird's nest, caterpillar fungus and/or myriad nutritional supplements.

However, nutritionists say the so-called healthy mooncakes, though they are a la mode, actually are not beneficial.

"It's just tricky hype by sellers," says TCM doctor Xia Xiang from Ruijin Hospital's Traditional Chinese Medicine Department and vice president of the Shanghai Dietary Therapy Association.

"If shark fin and abalone can be put into a mooncake, they can also be stuffed into bread or a steamed bun. It's just an excuse to raise the price. Money matters. It might be a trendy gift for rich people, but it is by no means health care.

Some of these bling-bling high-end mooncakes are also said to be stuffed with American ginseng, chongcao (Chinese caterpillar fungus), lecithin, dried scallop, and spirulina powder, among other ingredients. They are usually priced at more than 1,000 yuan (US$148) for a package of four to five cakes, compared with a regular package of the same size costing 200 to 400 yuan.

A lecithin mooncake is said to contain choline and various elements that can fight oxidation, help remove free radicals, protect against hardening of the arteries and lower cholesterol. Lecithin, which is common in eggs and soybeans, also helps dispel inner heat and clear toxins, according to traditional Chinese medicine.

A kind of spirulina (glue-green algae) powder mooncake is said by manufacturers to lower blood pressure and cleanse blood fat. "One gram of spirulina can provide the nutrition equivalent to that in 1,000 grams of vegetables," says one package label.

Dr Xia does not accept the health value of such mooncakes.

"TCM holds that yangshen (health maintenance) should focus on a balance of nutrition and long-term practice, but mooncakes are just a seasonal snack. A few pieces of pastry cannot do anything for your health, even if they are rich in nutrition," he says.

The exact ingredients of many "health care" mooncakes are not listed on labels.

Mooncakes are supposed to be delicious, but the addition of nutritional ingredients may affect the flavor; the process of baking may also reduce or destroy the efficacy of the supplement.

"The fact is that no matter what kind of precious ingredients or nutrition are added, mooncakes are still a high-fat, high-sugar and high-calorie pastry," Dr Xia says. "My advice is don't eat too much."

People with high cholesterol, high blood pressure or digestive problems should be especially careful about not eating too much. The fat, oil and sugar raise blood sugar levels and create more gastric acid, worsening existing problems.

The best approach is to cut the mooncake into several small pieces and eat them at different times during the day, not all at once.

An old-fashioned Cantonese-style mooncake now usually weighs around 150 grams. An average man should eat no more than 100 grams of mooncakes a day, the doctor says.

Diabetics should be very careful and ideally avoid mooncakes, the doctor says, adding that children and the elderly should not overeat.

When having mooncakes, a cup of tea is the best companion.

"Any tea is good, red tea, green tea or oolong tea," Dr Xia says. "It helps improve digestion but it also balances the sweet flavor, thus making the cakes taste less oily."


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