Nutrition Action Healthletter
June 1996


Sweets to Die For

BY BONNIE LIEBMAN & JAYNE HURLEY

You've been so good.

Breakfast was cereal and skim milk. Lunch was soup and salad with low-cal dressing. Dinner--you promise--will be flounder, baked potato, and broccoli.

Don't you deserve a little reward? Say, just one of those tempting Cinnabon rolls they sell at the shopping mall...or maybe a Double Fudge Brownie from Mrs. Fields? What harm could they do your arteries?

No more than a McDonald's Big Mac plus a Hot Fudge Sundae (that's the Cinnabon) or two slices of Domino's Extra Cheese & Pepperoni Pizza with two pats of butter melted on top (if you go for the brownie). That's what we found when we tested some of the most popular sweets sold at malls, coffee houses, and sandwich shops.

Surprised that a brownie or cinnamon roll packs as much fat as an entire meal--not to mention ten to 12 teaspoons of sugar? Don't be. Those two aren't even the worst.

We're getting fatter. During the 1980s, the percentage of obese Americans leaped from one out of four to one out of three.

We're also becoming a nation on drugs...cholesterol-lowering drugs, that is. Since 1980, prescriptions for drugs like Mevacor have jumped tenfold. By 1992, doctors were writing 26 million of them a year.

Yet so many people say they're more careful about what they eat. What are they doing wrong? Maybe--just maybe--all our "little splurges" deserve a slice of the blame.

You know: cookies, muffins, croissants, scones, and other mouth-watering sweets. They're no longer just in the dessert section of the menu, on the coffee break tray, or baked from scratch in the family kitchen.

They're everywhere--in airports, shopping malls, Starbucks and other trendy coffee or sandwich places. Some eating establishments--like Mrs. Fields or Cinnabon--sell nothing but sweets.

And they're bigger. On average, a typical pastry from an upscale restaurant is at least twice the size of a similar item by Entenmann's, Little Debbie, Pepperidge Farm, Sara Lee, you name it.

How do we know? We tested 16 popular sweets sold at Au Bon Pain, The Cheesecake Factory, Cinnabon, Mrs. Fields, Starbucks, and Vie de France.

Mind you, we weren't expecting the nutritional equivalent of Brussels sprouts. But we also didn't expect a pecan roll to have 11 teaspoons of sugar and more artery-clogging fat than an entire breakfast of two eggs, two slices of bacon, two sausage links, and two pancakes.

Here's the run-down, from least to most saturated plus trans fat (they both clog arteries). At least now when you splurge, you'll know the cost.

AU BON PAIN Lowfat Triple Berry Muffin (260 calories & 4 grams of fat--1 of them saturated).

Au Bon Pain makes the lowest-fat item we analyzed. It weighs four ounces--twice the size of a "typical" muffin. Nevertheless, its four grams of fat are within striking distance of a McDonald's Fat Free Apple Bran Muffin. Not bad.

The 260 calories are about what you'd get in some low-fat frozen entrees or a low-fat fruit-flavored yogurt--not negligible, but a lot fewer than what you'll find in most pastries. We didn't test Au Bon Pain's other low-fat muffins, but their numbers are probably as good.

AU BON PAIN Blueberry Muffin (430 calories & 18 grams of fat--4 of them saturated or trans).

Here's why you should make sure that your muffins are low-fat. Thanks to added margarine and butter, this four-ounce muffin harbors 18 grams of fat and 430 calories...not unlike a Dunkin' Donuts Chocolate Frosted Donut plus a one-ounce bag of potato chips. According to numbers from the company, its Carrot, Corn, and Chocolate Chip Muffins are even worse.

MRS. FIELDS Debra's Special (Oatmeal Raisin Walnut) Cookie (240 calories & 12 grams of fat--5 of them saturated).

With 600+ bakeries, Mrs. Fields sells more fresh-baked cookies than anyone else. Unfortunately, she bakes some of the fattiest ones on the planet.

True, the oatmeal cookies are two to five times larger than those made by, say, Pepperidge Farm. But even ounce-for-ounce, the "Mrs." squeezes in twice as much saturated fat. She may call it Oatmeal Raisin Walnut, but it's really a White-Flour-Butter-Sugar-Egg cookie with a Smidgen of Oatmeal.

STARBUCKS Cholesterol Free Blueberry Scone (420 calories & 15 grams of fat--7 of them saturated or trans).

Want a little something with your Tall Caffè Latte? Starbucks's scones--they're oversized biscuit-like pastries--look innocent enough, especially the ones that carry a "cholesterol free" label.

If you're one of those people who think "cholesterol free" means "safe for your heart," this scone will trick you. Its seven grams of saturated or trans fat use up a third of your daily limit...not exactly "heart-healthy."

Even so, the "cholesterol free" scone has about half the fat of Starbucks's regular scone.

MRS. FIELDS Milk Chocolate Chip Cookie (250 calories & 13 grams of fat--8 of them saturated).

It's twice the size of a Pepperidge Farm Nantucket Chocolate Chunk Cookie, and five times the size of a regular Chips Ahoy! But that alone doesn't explain why this two-ouncer contains five teaspoons of sugar and as much artery-clogging saturated fat as a McDonald's Quarter Pounder. Maybe it has something to do with a recipe that calls for butter, whole eggs, and more chocolate chips than flour.

MRS. FIELDS White Chunk Macadamia Cookie (270 calories & 16 grams of fat--9 of them saturated or trans).

Okay, so they taste good. But why would you want to blow half a day's saturated fat on a single cookie? Pepperidge Farm's smaller Tahoe White Chunk Macadamia Cookies aren't exactly inedible. You could eat one of them instead and get only a third of the sat fat.

VIE DE FRANCE Butter Croissant, large (350 calories & 18 grams of fat--11 of them saturated).

Think a butter croissant is like a roll with butter? It is if you usually smear on almost five pats. Blowing half a day's saturated fat on one food is a recipe for coronary overload. Even a medium Butter Croissant has enough sat fat (8 grams) to make your arteries shiver. Save the 250 calories and 13 grams of fat for something better.

STARBUCKS Cinnamon Scone (530 calories & 26 grams of fat--13 of them saturated).

It may not look like two pork chops with mashed potatoes and butter. But that's how your arteries--and hips--will see it. The 500+ calories is a quarter of a day's worth for men over 50 and all but the most-active women. And the 125 mg of cholesterol gobbles up a third of your daily max.

VIE DE FRANCE Chocolate Croissant (430 calories & 23 grams of fat--14 of them saturated).

Let's see. What could you have in place of this little treat? A corned beef sandwich? A six-inch Subway Cold Cut Combo or Steak & Cheese sub? Nope. None has as much artery-clogging fat. The subs can't even match the croissant's 430 calories.

CINNABON Cinnabon (670 calories & 34 grams of fat--14 of them saturated or trans).

The sweet aroma of Cinnabon's Indonesian cinnamon seduces millions of shoppers, air passengers, and others each month. At some locations you can even watch the cooks slather margarine on the raw dough and cream-cheese frosting on the fresh-from-the-oven rolls. (It's mostly the margarine that supplies the trans fat, which raises cholesterol about as much as saturated fat does.)

A quick snack to tide you over to dinner? Only if you think of a McDonald's Big Mac plus a Hot Fudge Sundae as a snack. Maybe you know someone who can afford to use up half a day's fat and nearly 700 calories on a nutritionally worthless food. We don't.

If you can't just turn your head and walk on by, at least go for a smaller Minibon instead. That way, you're likely to blow only 250 empty calories and 13 grams of fat--five of them saturated or trans.

MRS. FIELDS Double Fudge Brownie (420 calories & 25 grams of fat--15 of them saturated).

Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, and Little Debbie don't come close. Their brownies have no more than three grams of saturated fat in smaller, far-more-sensible servings. Mrs. Fields turns a brownie into a meal. Her 2" x 3" mixture of sugar, butter, whole eggs, chocolate liquor, flour, and chocolate chips may seem petite. But it's got the fat and sat fat of two slices of Domino's Extra Cheese & Pepperoni Pizza plus two pats of butter.

THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY Lite Cheesecake (580 calories & 29 grams of fat--16 of them saturated).

The Cheesecake Factory specializes in excess. In addition to a complete dinner menu, it offers more than 30 kinds of cheesecake.

The Lite Cheesecake lives up to its promise. It's got about half the fat of The Cheesecake Factory's Original Cheesecake. That's a little like having to pay "only" half of a $500,000 hospital bill.

Down just one slice and you can kiss goodbye almost 600 calories, two-thirds of a day's cholesterol, and three-quarters of a day's sat fat. At that rate, you couldn't stay under a day's quota even if you followed your dietitian's advice to eat cereal with 1% milk for breakfast, cottage cheese and fruit for lunch, and chicken breast with spinach for dinner.

AU BON PAIN Almond Croissant (630 calories & 42 grams of fat--18 of them saturated).

A Banquet Extra Helping Meatloaf Dinner may look worse. But an almond croissant is worse. More than 600 calories and 18 grams of saturated fat. Guess you could just eat celery for lunch and nothing but kidney beans for supper to shoe-horn this little baby into your diet.

And that's for the average Au Bon Pain Almond Croissant. It seems that the pastry chefs don't make each one precisely the same size. Of the 12 we sampled, the largest supplied 23 grams of artery-clogging fat, seven teaspoons of sugar, and 820 calories.

AU BON PAIN Pecan Roll (800 calories & 45 grams of fat--20 of them saturated or trans).

A breakfast platter like a Denny's Grand Slam has two slices of bacon, two sausage links, two eggs, and two pancakes. It uses up three-quarters of a day's fat and saturated fat. So does a single Au Bon Pain Pecan Roll.

Nearly all of its key ingredients are fatty: pecans, almonds, shortening, margarine, partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil. And lotsa fat--plus 11 teaspoons of sugar--means lotsa calories. Surely, your trim, muscular physique can handle an extra 800.

AU BON PAIN Cheese Danish (520 calories & 31 grams of fat--23 of them saturated or trans).

Eat just one cheese danish and...poof! There goes your quota of bad fat for the day. For that much fat and that many calories you could have had half a pint of Ben & Jerry's Vanilla Caramel Fudge Ice Cream. You can always jog for an hour to work off the calories, but the fat will still break your heart.

THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY Original Cheesecake (710 calories & 49 grams of fat--28 of them saturated).

It's not easy to find a food that fills up all of today's--and half of tomorrow's--quota of artery-clogging saturated fat. A Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza plus two Dairy Queen Banana Splits would do it. So would a single slice of The Cheesecake Factory Original Cheesecake. Yet, every year, millions order one to finish off a full dinner. Enjoy it now...it won't be on the menu at the Coronary Care Unit.


Ingrid VanTuinen coordinated the food purchasing and testing. Juliann Goldman, Wendie Rosofsky, and Trish Treanor helped purchase and process the food.

How We Got Our Numbers

We tested samples of 16 popular sweets at 70 restaurants in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. We made a "composite" from 12 samples of each item (equal portions of 12 Cinnabons were mixed together, for example), and analyzed the composites for calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sugar. We also tested some composites for trans fat.


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