For centuries, families have come together during Christmas to build, decorate and possibly devour gingerbread houses, a custom believed to have boomed thanks to the tale of Hansel and Gretel, in which the protagonists come upon a house made entirely of sweet treats. While the early gingerbread homes were simple projects — gingerbread decorated with some foil and gold leaf — the ones we design nowadays tend to be much more, well, capable of inducing diabetes.
After all, none of us consider the nutritional value of these edible architectural masterpieces; we just want to see how many gumdrops we can stick to the roof and pipe icing into our mouths while doing so. That said, if you plan on going Godzilla on your creation once you finish making those final touches, maybe you should think about how all those ingredients could impact your health. Lame, I know, but these things are important if you want to stay alive for a while.
Bearing that in mind, I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank common gingerbread house components by how unhealthy they are — from maybe kinda okay to disgustingly unhealthy.
Now, I should mention that when I first sent Friedman my list of gingerbread house ingredients — which consisted of items like gumdrops, candy canes and sprinkles — he made it extremely clear that none of these are even remotely healthy. “Ranking these would be like ranking which gun would be most likely to kill you if you got shot in the head: A 38 special, a rifle, a shotgun or an AK-47,” he explained. “Sprinkles, gumdrops and icing are all made out of sugar, and there’s no lesser of all evils.”
Therefore, rather than ranking these components as we normally do — from best to worst — Friedman suggested we separate them into two sections: The top 10 healthiest ingredients in gingerbread houses, followed by the bottom 10 unhealthiest ingredients. You can find both lists below.
The Healthiest Ingredients in Gingerbread Houses
1) Ginger: One of the main ingredients that differentiates gingerbread from just bread, Friedman says, “Ginger is one of the healthiest spices on the planet. It gets its name from the compound gingerol, a substance that has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.” Moreover, ginger has a long history of treating nausea, vomiting and morning sickness, “and is more effective than anti-nausea medication,” says Friedman.
“Ginger is a spice I recommend to my patients who work out, because it can help reduce muscle pain and soreness after exercising, and can even decrease joint pain (osteoarthritis),” Friedman continues. “Ginger is also great for digestive health: It stimulates saliva and bile production, and suppresses gastric contractions as food and fluids move through the GI tract.” As such, evidence suggests that ginger could help prevent colon cancer.
2) Cloves: Another spice commonly used in the making of gingerbread, Friedman says, “One teaspoon, or two grams, of ground cloves contains 30 percent of the recommended daily intake of manganese, an essential mineral for maintaining brain function and building strong bones.” Cloves are also high in antioxidants, with studies suggesting that the compounds in cloves can reduce the growth of certain cancers, and Friedman mentions, “Studies show that cloves may promote oral health, because their antimicrobial properties kill bacteria in the mouth.”
3) Eggs: Eggs are a necessary component in the baking of gingerbread, and while they have a complicated reputation, as far as Friedman is concerned, “Eggs are a wonderful source of protein and healthy fats — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. One egg contains six grams of high-quality protein, as well as all nine essential amino acids, and is one of the few foods that contain naturally occurring vitamin D.” He also adds that eggs can improve eye health due to their high carotenoid content, specifically the presence of nutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin. Still, he recommends purchasing pasture-raised, USDA-certified organic eggs.
4) Nutmeg: Yet another spice in gingerbread, “Nutmeg contains many healthful compounds that may help prevent disease and promote overall health,” says Friedman — that includes a whole bunch of antioxidants. “Nutmeg is also rich in monoterpenes, anti-inflammatory compounds.” Moreover, Friedman mentions that nutmeg contains an antidepressant-like compound called n-hexane, which could help boost your mood.
5) Honey: A common sweetener used in gingerbread, Friedman says, “Honey offers natural antibacterial and antiviral properties, and is chock-full of many health-enhancing nutrients and antioxidants.” Strangely enough, Friedman explains, “Honey can also be good for your teeth. Unlike white processed sugar, which causes cavities and gum disease, studies have shown that manuka honey attacks harmful oral bacteria associated with plaque formation and tooth decay.”
Friedman does recommend, however, opting for a “high-quality brand of raw honey and not one that’s mixed with any syrup. Check the ingredients, and look for the only ingredient listed as being honey.” One good way to do this, he adds, is looking for foggy honey, “a natural effect of bee pollen.”
6) Molasses: Another gingerbread sweetener, Friedman says molasses is filled with all sorts of vitamins and minerals, and some variations are even diabetic-friendly. “If you have diabetes, research shows that blackstrap molasses can help stabilize blood sugar levels,” he explains. “Blackstrap molasses is high in the mineral chromium, which increases glucose tolerance.”
Moreover, blackstrap molasses can help women with their reproductive health. “Blackstrap molasses is successfully used to help females suffering from irregular menstruation, cramps and PMS,” Friedman explains. “Blackstrap molasses is sometimes referred to as pregnancy tea because of its high levels of iron, folate and other minerals that are essential for the growth and development of a baby.”
7) Cinnamon: Another spice in the making of gingerbread, “Cinnamon has incredibly potent antioxidant properties,” Friedman says. “In fact, the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry lists cinnamon at the top when comparing the antioxidant activity of 26 spices.” Similar to molasses, cinnamon may benefit those with diabetes, too. “Research shows an ingredient in cinnamon called ceylon may reduce blood sugar spikes, increase insulin sensitivity and improve metabolic markers associated with insulin resistance,” says Friedman.
8) Peppermint: Peppermint can be found in several candies used to decorate gingerbread houses, and while candied versions are far from healthy, peppermint itself can be. “Peppermint oil contains a substantial number of antioxidants,” Friedman says. “There has been a plethora of research on the health benefits of peppermint, including helping increase athletic performance. It’s also been shown to be a natural remedy for migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, upper respiratory infections, fatigue and sinusitis.”
Again, though, the candied versions aren’t so great. “When creating a peppermint candy cane, they add fattening sugar to peppermint oil, which lessens its health benefits,” Friedman explains. “However, if you just smell the peppermint candy, it may help you lose weight: Research shows that sniffing peppermint every couple of hours throughout the day can help you to reduce the amount of food you eat by a whopping 2,800 calories per week.” Well, damn.
9) Hershey’s Kisses: While these particular gingerbread house decorations can certainly be high in sugar, “If you go for the dark chocolate ones,” Friedman says, “they actually have some health benefits: They offer naturally occurring antioxidants called cocoa flavanols, which can protect the cells of the heart and brain. In fact, a study from the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology showed that dark chocolate protects the brain from age-related cognitive decline.” He also adds that dark chocolate has the capacity to reduce appetite and help aid in weight loss.
Now, while dark chocolate might have some benefits, Friedman warns against using that as an excuse to go ham on the stuff. “Before you down a box of Hershey’s Kisses to lose weight, keep in mind that they add fattening ingredients, which negate the beneficial weight-reducing cocoa,” he says.
10) Brown Sugar: Another sweetener used in gingerbread, brown sugar is essentially white sugar with some molasses added back in — and as we already learned, molasses has some solid benefits. Plus, as Friedman mentions, “One small benefit brown sugar has over white sugar is that it contains more water, which slightly lessens its caloric value by weight.” This is still sugar, though, so moderation is key.
So, those were some of the healthier ingredients in gingerbread houses — mostly all in the gingerbread itself — which means we can now move on to the super unhealthy ingredients, and sadly, these consist mainly of the candied decorations.
Important note: We’re reversing the running order here, because we’re dramatic like that.
Counting Down the Unhealthiest Ingredients in Gingerbread Houses
10) Marshmallows: “Growing up as a kid,” Friedman explains, “marshmallows were my go-to: I ate them plain, in my Lucky Charms cereal, in Rice Krispies Treats and cooked over a hot fire at camp. After I earned a degree as a holistic physician and nutritionist, I learned that there are actually some health benefits to marshmallows: The root of the marshmallow is a powerful antioxidant that’s been shown to be a natural remedy for coughs, skin irritation, digestive problems and aids in lowering bad cholesterol levels.”
“The reason marshmallows are listed as the best of the worst ingredients is because the ones used to make gingerbread houses are chock-full of white processed sugar,” Friedman continues. “Four marshmallows are considered a serving, which means one serving has 16 grams of sugar, or four teaspoons.”
9) Baking Powder: Baking powder is used in baking gingerbread, helping the dough rise. “Baking powder is considered a bicarbonate and may help to calm an upset stomach caused by irritation from acid reflux,” says Friedman. “However, lowering acid production too much can erode the stomach’s protective barrier and increase the risk of gastrointestinal infections — the naturally-acidic environment in the stomach provides a protective barrier against pathogens.” This might sound like a big deal, and it can be in some scenarios, but not so much in gingerbread. “There’s not enough baking powder in gingerbread to warrant any of these concerns,” Friedman explains, “so enjoy your holiday treat.”
8) M&M’s: These colorful candies might make good decorations, but they suck for your body. “These sugar-coated chocolate candies are basically sugar, corn syrup and food dye, mixed with milk chocolate,” Friedman explains. “They’ll spike your blood sugar, which can lead to a surge in energy, followed by a crash. This sugar overload can also cause internal inflammation, which has been linked to chronic conditions, like diabetes or hypertension.” Plus, the food dyes in M&M’s can trigger hyperactivity in children, which is the last thing you want to deal with on a hungover Christmas morning.
7) Gumdrops: “Often found adorning a holiday gingerbread house, gumdrops are brightly-colored candies made from gelatin or pectin, often dusted with a light coating of sugar,” Friedman says. “Well, 80 percent of a gumdrop consists of sugar. In fact, a 10-piece serving of gumdrops contains 22 grams of sugar, which is equal to a whopping 5.5 teaspoons.” Yikes.
6) Sprinkles: Similar to gumdrops, while sprinkles make good gingerbread house decorations, they make for terrible eating. “They’re made from sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch and a bunch of artificial colors, thickeners — like xanthan gum, which has been linked to digestive disorders — and a wax coating,” explains Friedman. “Just two tablespoons of sprinkles contain 20 grams of sugar, close to the amount in a can of soda.”
5) Sour Tape: These might make good window decorations on your gingerbread house, but again, their sugar content is crazy high, and they have loads of artificial colors in them. “The primary ingredient is sugar (26 grams per 1.3 ounces), followed by fructose syrup, wheat flour, malic acid and artificial colors,” says Friedman. “Sour Tape also contains a preservative called BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), and some research shows that BHT causes cancer in animals.”
4) Icing: Icing, great for sticking candy to your gingerbread house and even better for giving you diabetes! “One ounce of icing contains 22.1 grams of sugar,” Friedman says. Ugh.
3) Salt: Despite being super low on our ranking, Friedman says he can be a fan of salt most of the time. “The body is 70 percent saltwater,” he says. “We need salt to survive.” But he emphasizes that the white table salt used to make the likes of gingerbread is the real problem. “This type of salt is heated, bleached, heavily refined and all of the healthful minerals are removed,” he explains. “Then, anticaking agents are added.”
“When you consume white salt,” Friedman continues, “it makes you hungry, because it’s void of minerals. That means you end up eating more than one gingerbread cookie. On the contrary, unprocessed, natural salt curbs the appetite. It makes you eat less, because it’s nourishing and not empty calories.”
2) White Flour: Used to bake gingerbread, when white flour is made, all of the healthy bits are removed to increase the shelf life. “This creates what I refer to as empty calories, meaning the flour won’t satisfy the cells of the body, which can lead to an increased appetite and weight gain,” Friedman explains. “White flour also creates inflammation in the body, which is linked to many conditions, like fatty liver disease, high bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, weight gain mood swings and a general progression toward obesity.”
1) White Sugar: Used in just about every part of gingerbread houses, Friedman says white sugar is the absolute worst ingredient. “On my radio show, I’ve had the honor of interviewing the world’s most renowned and respected authors, doctors and scientists,” he explains. “While most of their opinions contradict each other — from advocates of a paleo diet to keto, vegan and fasting — there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on: White, processed sugar is the worst thing you can put into your body. It’s been linked to causing obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.” Plus, it can be incredibly addictive.
So, in the end, the main takeaway is, the more you decorate your gingerbread house, the more likely it is to destroy your insides when you go to eat it. But also, I BET I CAN FIT MORE GUMDROPS ON MINE THAN YOU CAN.