6 Healthy Holiday Baking Upgrades

by Grace McCalmon


6 Healthy Holiday Baking Upgrades

by Grace McCalmon

The holidays come but once a year, and, at SmartyPants, we don’t believe they should be spent meticulously counting calories or worrying about fat grams. We do, however, believe in a little thing called upgrades, or, using the best possible forms of ingredients that we can find.

So rather than tell you how to make grandma’s famous sugar cookies sugar-free…

Here are 6 ingredient upgrades that will make your naughty holiday treats a little nicer.


How could butter be good for you? Well, get ready for the best news of the century: it is, for several reasons.

  1. Butter is saturated

Butter is a saturated fat. We now know that, when eaten in moderation, saturated fat can have a place in a healthy diet.

When it comes to cooking at high heats, saturated fat is ideal.

Without getting too Bill Nye on you, there are three main types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Fatty acids are made up of chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atoms. A saturated fatty acid has a hydrogen atom attached to every carbon atom. It is “saturated” with hydrogen atoms.

Monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, such as vegetable oils, are missing either a pair (mono) or pairs (poly) of hydrogen atoms in their carbon chains. These missing atoms create gaps. These gaps create weak spots where the fat can become damaged if exposed to high degrees of heat. Research shows that, once inside your body, damaged fats can spark “free radical cascades,” otherwise known as oxidative damage, which has been linked to numerous health conditions.

When you’re cooking up goodies for Santa, remember: saturated means safe.

  1. Butter may boost metabolism

Butter contains a decent amount of short and medium-chain fatty acids, which are burned differently than other fats. These fatty acids break down quickly, so, rather than store them as fat, our bodies use them more like a carbohydrate – as a quick source of energy.

Research has shown that eating a diet rich in medium-chain fatty acids can increase your fat burning ability, boost your metabolism, and help improve muscle function.

Butter is also a good source of iodine and selenium – two nutrients that help support our thyroid and regulate our metabolism.


  1. Butter can support digestion

We know that good gut bacteria play a crucial role in our overall health. In addition to supporting our digestion, brain function, and immune system, our good gut bacteria also help produce butyric acid – the preferred source of energy for the cells in our colon.

Butyric acid has been shown to improve colon health, support healthy blood sugar levels and a healthy inflammatory response – all things that are especially important around the holidays.

The best way to help our bodies make butyric acid is by eating a well-balanced diet that includes probiotics, prebiotics, fiber, and, you guessed it, butter.

The richest dietary source of butyric acid is butter.
(That’s how butter got its name!)

But why “pastured”? Research shows that dairy products from cows raised in pasture, that are able to graze on grass all year round, can be richer in omega-3 fats, vitamin E, beta-carotene, calcium, and conjugated linoleic acid – another nutrient that has been shown to increase metabolic rate and reduce fat!

Now, this isn’t a license to go on a butter bonanza. While saturated fat is ideal for some types of cooking, we want a balance of all three kinds of fatty acids in our diet. If you like butter, go ahead and enjoy it in moderation. Look for pastured or pasture-raised brands such as Kerry Gold, which you can find at most grocery stores and in Costco.


Veggie Option:
Of course, if you’re a vegan, or don’t do dairy, there are some excellent butter swaps that will add their own healthy flair to your classic holiday recipes. You can try avocados, Greek yogurt, or even applesauce as a substitute for butter.



Eggs are a great source of protein, packing a whopping 6 grams per egg, and don’t ditch those yolks! The yolks contain half the protein, all of the fat-soluble vitamins A, E, and K2, and choline, an important nutrient for liver function (hello, New Years!), brain development, energy levels, and a healthy metabolism. The yolks are also particularly rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants that support vision and help protect our eyes from sunlight.

Like butter, you can upgrade your eggs by looking for the words “pastured,” or “pasture-raised.” These terms mean that the hens live outdoors year-round, where they can feed on their natural diet of grass, grubs, and other bugs.

According to some studies, pasture-raised hens produce eggs that are higher in polyunsaturated omega 3 fatty acids.

Additionally, the color of an egg yolk is directly influenced by the makeup of the hen’s diet. Egg yolk color deepens when hens eat more yellow, fat-soluble pigments, such as the carotenoids found in dark green plants. Some researchers believe that this rich color indicates both a higher antioxidant content, and a higher nutrient content overall.

The term “pastured,” or “pasture-raised,” may also indicate better, more humane treatment of the animals, and, if you’ve ever been to our SmartyPants headquarters, you know we are animal-obsessed. New legislation has ruled that farms using the term “pasture-raised” can only keep a maximum of 1,000 birds per 2.5 acres – so the birds have space to roam.


Veggie Option:
You can make an egg substitute when baking with either chia seeds or flax seeds! We love chia and flax because they’re great vegan sources of fiber, which helps support digestion and promotes the growth of our good gut bacteria.



Many baking recipes call for you to grease your pan or baking sheet, and one of the most effective and convenient ways to do this is by using a non-stick cooking spray. Unfortunately, many of these sprays consist of canola oil and other vegetable oils. Vegetable oils are made up of mostly polyunsaturated omega 6 fatty acids. Because these fatty acids are unsaturated – missing hydrogen atoms in their carbon chain – they are vulnerable, or, less stable, when exposed to heat and can become damaged.

Additionally, omega 6 fatty acids should be balanced by omega 3 fatty acids, but some research shows that the balance of omega 6 to 3 in Western diets can be as high as 25:1. So, for the most part, we want to keep our omega 6s in balance with our omega 3s, and keep them both away from high heat – this means avoiding the use of polyunsaturated oils when cooking.

Like butter, coconut oil is a saturated fat, so it is heat-stable and ideal for frying and baking. Upgrade your cooking spray by choosing one that is made of a saturated fat, such as Trader Joe’s organic coconut oil spray.  Of course, any spray is going to come with a few questionable ingredients – sprays need propellants to get the product out of the can – so, if you really want to upgrade, skip the spray altogether and grease up with a piece of wax paper and plain butter or coconut oil from the jar.



There are many different kinds of protein powders, but research shows that whey protein concentrate is the most bioavailable, or, the most easily absorbed and used by our bodies, and if you’ve been friends with SmartyPants for a while, you know we’re all about bioavailability. Whey protein has also been shown to help make glutathione – our body’s master antioxidant. But what does all this have to do with holiday treats?

Whey is not just for your blender. You can also use it in baking!

Just substitute one-third of the flour in a recipe with whey protein. For example, if a muffin recipe calls for 1 and ½ cup white flour, you can substitute ½ cup of the flour with whey protein powder. This upgrade will cut carbs by over 40 grams while adding 20 grams of bioavailable protein! Our favorite brands of whey are from pasture-raised cows, such as Tera’s Organic Whey.*

*Note: Baking is a science and an art. Recipe substitutions can be tricky and don’t often pan out (pun intended) the first time. If you want to try this swap, we recommend you do a few trial runs and let us know how they turn out!


Vegetarian Option:
You can swap out the flour in some recipes for beans. Depending on which bean you choose, this substitute could change the look of your finished product, but what you lose in aesthetics, you’ll make up for in fewer carbs, more protein and fiber. We love The Minimalist Baker’s vegan, gluten-free black bean brownies.



Nuts seem to come out at the holidays – and we’re not just talking about your family (LOL). From the crunchy coating on the outside of cookies to the bowls that abound on every party bar top, nuts are a holiday staple. But nuts, while great sources of protein and antioxidant vitamin E, also contain polyunsaturated omega 6 fatty acids. Pine nuts and walnuts weigh in with the most at 11.6 grams and 9.5 grams of omega 6 fatty acids per ¼ cup, respectively.

If you’re eating your nuts raw, this isn’t such a big deal. As we said, nuts are naturally packaged with antioxidant vitamin E to protect the food from oxidative damage. But, if you’re roasting your nuts over an open fire, or, perhaps baking at 350-degrees, you might want to opt for varieties with a lower omega 6 content. The lowest are macadamias, with 0.5 grams per ¼ cup, cashews (2.6 grams), and hazelnuts (2.7 grams). For those of you suffering from almond and peanut fatigue, feel free to switch it up and go nuts!



During the holidays, sugar is king. It’s the granddaddy of all baking ingredients. While you might be able to replace it with applesauce, bananas, or some other non-sugar substitute, let’s face it, that will change the taste.

To keep the flavors that take you back to your days in footie pajamas, simply upgrade your white table sugar for organic cane sugar. The nutritional content will remain the same, but you will be ridding your holiday favorites of some pesky GMOs.

Most white table sugar in North America comes from beets, and, unfortunately, many of the beets grown for sugar are from pesticide-resistant, genetically modified beet seeds. In fact, GM sugar beets made up 95% of the US crop in 2010.

If the package doesn’t say “100% pure cane sugar,” or “organic,” there’s a high chance it contains sugar from GM sugar beets.

Although GM sugar cane does exist, it is not widely used. You can be certain your sugar is GMO-free and ethically produced by buying organic Fair Trade cane sugar like the kind we use in SmartyPants. Read more about why we choose to use 100% organic, Fair-Trade sugar in our gummies.

So there you have it, six ingredient upgrades that are good for your body, your conscience, and, of course, your taste buds. Give them a try and let us know what you think!

Do you know any one who’s baking could use an upgrade? Share this with them! 

What about you? Do you have any awesome ingredient upgrades? We’d love to hear in the comments below!  





Posted on November 13, 2018

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Grace McCalmon

Grace is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and a graduate of Duke University. She received her nutrition certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association, and her training is based on the work of Dr. Weston A Price, as well as the latest peer-reviewed, scientific research.