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Are ‘clean’ cakes healthy?

Are ‘clean’ cakes healthy?

The clean cakes movement comes under scrutiny from our team of trainee dietitians. They ask whether cake ever be healthy, even if it is refined sugar free?

Are ‘clean’ cakes healthy?
Well known ‘nutrition’ and fitness gurus are washing their hands of ‘clean eating’, even though many inspired the movement (Deliciously Ella, The Hemsleys and Madeleine Shaw, for example). But just as one extreme diet idea is dismantled, another is born. Enter the clean cakes fad, which is in full throttle – google it and you’ll get thousands of returns.

What are clean cakes?

Top of the pile currently are two friends, Daisy Kristiansen and Leah Garwood-Gowers, who run cake company The Hardihood. Posh, beautiful, slim (of course) and allegedly avid cake eaters, their new cookbook Raw is out now. They claim to be a world away from clean eating, but their cakes tick those familiar boxes: free from gluten, dairy, wheat and refined sugar.

It’s not that we’re averse to gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan cakes (some of our favourites are made by flourless bakery Pearl & Groove in London’s Notting Hill). It’s when it’s claimed these ‘nourishing’ cakes use healthier alternatives to your typical ingredients that we get hot and bothered.

The unnecessary elimination of food groups is something a dietitian would never recommend unless you’ve been diagnosed with a condition that means you need to avoid them. The reason? It’s restrictive and can create fear around eating.

Refined versus unrefined

Let’s be clear: ‘clean’ cakes aren’t necessarily any healthier than regular cakes. For instance, being ‘refined sugar free’, they use liquid sugar – agave nectar, date syrup, honey – but these still count towards our total daily intakes of free sugars, which are capped at 30g for adults. They have the same calorie content as granulated sugar, too.

The advocates of sugar ‘alternatives’ suggest they’re higher in certain vitamins and minerals. But this point doesn’t wash with us, either. If you’re relying on syrups, honey (or any form of sugar, for that matter) as a source of your daily vitamins and minerals, you need to re-think your diet.

A popular ‘cleaner’ alternative to butter is coconut oil. By now it’s been well documented that coconut oil has a higher saturated fat content than butter – yet that simple fact still hasn’t filtered through. Saturated fat has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, so it’s important to limit your intake of foods high in saturated fats. We recommend you make your cake with an oil high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil or sunflower oil, as they do in the Mediterranean. Swapping saturated fats for these has been shown to have cardio-protective effects.

We all know cakes are high in fat and sugar. Research has shown it’s this combination that makes them so delicious! The ‘clean’ cake trend implies these cakes are exempt from fat and sugar and can be eaten to infinity. This is far from the truth.


Cake (regular or ‘clean’) is a treat to be eaten sparingly. If in doubt, bake a Healthy Food Guide cake… It will be lower in calories, fat and sugar – and generally better for you.

The Fight the Fads team is, from left, Elizabeth Cresta, Caroline Day and Harriet Smith. Read more from them at fightthefads.com.

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