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Bunfights: How healthy are hot cross buns?

Chocolate or fruit? How to choose a healthier hot cross bun.

A good-looking hot cross bun. Photo/Paperboy.

Question: How healthy or otherwise are hot cross buns? Also, our two children expect Easter to involve lots of chocolate. Can you suggest ways to cope with the standard Easter treats?

Answer:

Hot cross buns were traditionally served during the season of Lent, which is the 40 days leading up to Easter. Unfortunately, supermarkets aren't in the habit of observing Lent. Consequently, Easter eggs and hot cross buns start appearing ever earlier on shop shelves, much to the horror of parents doing the family shopping with little ones in tow.

The buns are made from sweet, spicy dough containing raisins and currants, topped with a cross made from flour paste, icing or a simple cut in the dough. An average hot cross bun weighing around 68g contains 714kJ of energy, according to Crop & Food Research's nutritional analysis. That's equivalent to two pieces of bread, making one bun a sizeable snack, even without butter.

The good news is hot cross buns generally contain just 2-4g of total fat per 100g. Sugar content is higher, though, with 12-20g of sugar per 100g of bun, depending on the brand. However, much of this comes from the raisins and currants, - so buns without fruit (a recent market addition) typically contain less sugar.

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The fruit-less buns are often marketed with kids in mind, which seems a great idea because of the lower sugar content. A success story for marketers has been the invention of the chocolate hot cross bun, but it's certainly not welcome from a parent's perspective, as milk chocolate is about 50% sugar and 30% fat. And why are the hot cross buns targeted at kids the same size as standard ones?

Which brings me to my main points:

Size does matter. If the bun is bigger, we'll eat more. When it comes to eating, humans are suggestible, so package sizes will suggest what a normal serving is, according to food psychology expert Professor Brian Wansink. So, we'll consider a pack of six hot cross buns enough for six servings, regardless of whether the individual buns weigh 50g, 65g or 80g. Buy the smallest buns you can find or, better still, serve half a bun per person.

The same principle applies to chocolate eggs. The bigger the chocolate bunny, the more chocolate your family will eat. Hollow eggs are a great option - they look impressively big, but contain a lot less chocolate (and therefore less fat and sugar) than filled eggs. Compare the weights of the different eggs and choose a lightweight hollow egg or bunny.

Limit the extra fats. Whatever you spread on your bun - low-fat spread or butter - it's all extra fat. Hot cross buns are usually served hot, but I suggest letting them cool a little before applying any spread; the spread won't melt as rapidly when slathered on, so you won't be tempted to add more.

Food is a fun and important part of special celebrations, so it's okay to have treats on occasion. If you'd like your children to enjoy a hot cross bun but they hate raisins and currants, choose the fruit-less ones over those containing chocolate. But it's all a matter of balance. If your children eat a healthy diet, treating them to one small chocolate bun at Easter is fine. Just keep Easter treats to Easter weekend.