Is carrot cake really good for you?
That all depends on what you mean. “Good for you” and “cake” are words that don’t really go together, since cake is almost by definition an indulgent, once-in-a-while treat. All cakes, even “healthy” ones, contain large amounts of concentrated carbohydrates and fat. All those things are nutrients, albeit nutrients which in large enough doses can cause our hind ends to expand prodigiously.
When carrot cake came back into vogue in the 60’s, the idea was that it was a healthy alternative to a traditional American-style layer cake. Carrot cakes from those days tended to have less sugar than they do now, which made them lower in calories. Since they were made with oil instead of butter they contained very little saturated fat. If made with whole wheat flour, they contained more vitamins and fiber. Served without the cream cheese frosting, they were dairy-free. I remember a flower child-inspired neighbor in my hometown, she made hers with half the sugar, replacing the rest with ground wheat germ. And she was surprised when her children grew up to be maladjusted.
The point is that while yes, you can scale down the level of indulgence and sneak in a few extra nutrients, a cake will still be unhealthy by the standards of present-day nutritionists, or at least it will be if it offers the eater any pleasure at all. So why not go all the way? That’s my view, and it’s one which is evidently shared by the majority if present-day carrot cake makers. Most modern recipes — thankfully — ignore the health component entirely and include plenty of sugar and fat. They treat the carrot component less as a vitamin and fiber delivery system than as a novelty sweetener and moistener. Which is why modern carrot cakes are tasty.
So then carrot cakes aren’t any healthier than regular cakes?
Mmm…that’s not entirely true. Via an interesting and largely accidental confluence of factors, it turns out that carrot cake delivers an unusually high amount of beta-carotene in every slice. How so? Well, as most of us know, carrots are loaded with beta-carotene, an important source of vitamin A. The trouble is, very little of it is bioavailable, i.e. absorbable by our systems. Only about three percent of the beta-carotene in a raw carrot is bioavailable.
However a study published in 2002 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that the bioavailability of beta-carotene increases as a carrot is processed and cooked. If you grate the carrot your system gets quite a bit more beta-carotene out of the experience, up to 21% of the total nutrient depending on how finely it’s reduced. Cooking the carrot raises the bioavailbility to 27%, and adding oil to the equation boosts total beta-carotene bioavailability to 39% (because carotenoids are soluble in fat).
Carrot cake hits every one of those markers. It calls for grated carrot, and delivers it to the body in cooked form along with a healthy dose of vegetable oil. Which means that in addition to the pleasure, you get a large dose of vitamin A when you eat carrot cake. And that, as they say in the world of business, a nice value-add.