For a good portion of the world’s population, the Mid-Autumn Festival started in earnest yesterday. That means it’s mooncakes a plenty in Asia and the Asian diaspora. Families will be coming together to feast and get reacquainted. Unfortunately, in recent times, the pastry associated with the celebration has come under serious attack as an unhealthy — even harmful — part of the annual ritual.
Also known as the Mooncake Festival, the event is a traditional festival with a history dating back over 3,000 years, when the Emperor of China worshipped the moon for bountiful harvests. In that sense, it is very similar to harvest festivals celebrated around the world at various points in fall. In Chinese culture, it is second only to New Years celebrations in importance.
The Mid-Autumn festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar with a full moon at night. This tends to occur around mid-September to early October of the Gregorian calendar. It is believed that the moon is at its brightest and fullest size, coinciding with harvest time in the middle of Autumn.
Traditionally, lanterns are carried and displayed, symbolizing that light people’s path to prosperity and good fortune. Mooncakes, a rich pastry typically filled with sweet-bean, yolk, meat or lotus-seed paste, have been eaten during this time for thousands of years. In terms of originary myths, the Mid-autumn festival is based on the legend of Chang’ E, the moon goddess.
Like many traditional foods found in cultures around the world, the mooncake is an ill fit for today’s health conscious, low-fat, low-sugar eating trends. It’s up there with using lard to fry foods. The following list (conveniently ripped from Wikipedia) are some of the fillings can be found in traditional mooncakes:
- Lotus seed paste (蓮蓉, lían róng): Considered by some to be the original and most luxurious mooncake filling, lotus paste filling is found in all types of mooncakes. White lotus paste commands an even higher premium. Due to the high price of lotus paste, white kidney bean paste is sometimes used as a filler.
- Sweet bean paste (豆沙, dòu shā): A number of pastes are common fillings found in Chinese desserts. Although red bean paste, made from azuki beans, is the most common worldwide, there are regional and original preferences for bean paste made from mung beans, as well as black beans.
- Jujube paste (棗泥, zǎo ní): A sweet paste is made from the ripe fruits of the jujube (date) plant. The paste is dark red in color, a little fruity/smoky in flavor, and slightly sour in taste. Depending on the quality of the paste, jujube paste may be confused with red bean paste, which is sometimes used as a filler.
- Five kernels (五仁, wǔ rén) or mixed nuts: A filling consisting of 5 types of nuts and seeds, coarsely chopped, is held together with maltose syrup. Recipes differ from region to region, but commonly used nuts and seeds include: walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds, or almonds. The mixture for the filling also contains candied winter melon, jinhua ham, or pieces of rock sugar as additional flavoring.
Mooncakes have gained the reputation as being absolutely, unambiguously bad for you. According to an article in Channel News Asia,
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.
Officials in Hong Kong have also warned against ingesting specific mooncakes in the past. They pointed out that “Snowy mooncakes were found to have the highest sugar content with 42.7g. Traditional mooncakes came in second with 37.6g of sugar.”
If that still hasn’t convinced you that over-indulging in mooncakes should be avoided, none other than China Daily, one of the many mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party and defender of all things traditional, assumed a similar approach, quoting a nutritionist’s warning:
“Zhang said that mooncakes are delicious festival deserts, but when it comes to health, they should be classified as junk food, so it is better to eat them moderately.”
So just how far down the junk food hole are mooncakes?
If going strictly by fat content, Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load, they aren’t actually the wost of all foods. That said, they’re a far cry from being healthy.
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Obviously, it’s not great. What mooncakes are is very high in all “undesired” categories, whereas others are high in just one. For the record, Salted meat rice dumplings blew everyone out of the water when it comes to Glycemic Load, registering a whopping 81 Glycemic Index and 113 Glycemic Load. Needless to say, the solution isn’t to cut mooncakes out completely. Rather, moderation is the key.
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