Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), starting on 30th September, has been celebrated in China for over 1,000 years. The festival, symbolised by family reunion and the giving and recieving of mooncakes, is to celebrate the moon goddess and her quest for immortality. There is also a myth about rebels hiding secret messages inside mooncakes to uprise against their Mongol rulers.
Mooncakes are typically made of pastry wrapped around a paste. The filling and style are often influenced by the region where they are produced. These pastes include: lotus seed, sweet bean paste, five types of nuts and seeds and salted egg yolk. The paste and design of mooncakes is developing to represent modern tastes, as such an important consumer market has developed; some of these varieties represent the influence of western culture on China. Popular flavours include green tea, chocolate and ice cream.
It is reported however that the sales of mooncakes are declining year-on-year due to the divide between preserving cultural traditions and embracing health messages. Articles in South China Morning post report that many mooncakes are wasted; surprising given that they can be considerably expensive, some costing as much as 700RMB for 10 mooncakes.
Health warnings now seem to surround this time of year with health professionals warning that mooncakes are calorie-laden foods.
So is it time the ‘mooncake’ tradition waned?
Unfortunately, the pastry is often made with lard and sugar syrup and the filling can have high levels of salt, sugar and fat. High levels of the type of fat present in lard can increase your risk of heart disease and salt can increase your blood pressure. Not to mention that sugar and fat are known to increase your waistline.
So called ‘healthier’ options of mooncakes are now being produced. These are often filled with yoghurt, jelly or fat free ice cream and use vegetable fats for the pastry. Sometimes the sugar present in traditional mooncakes has been swapped for a calorie free sweetener and others have been fortified with iron or calcium to improve their nutritional content.
Sometimes ‘the gimmick’ of a reduced calorie/healthier option can be misleading and can lead people to eating a larger quantity, negating the health benefits! I think the best advice is to remember that healthy eating is about moderation. This tradition only occurs once a year, so it would be terrible to miss out.
Just remember, mooncakes do not replace meals; they are just a ‘treat’ to celebrate a much needed holiday with the family. Traditionally they were enjoyed as a small slice with a cup of Chinese tea. Find a flavour you like and remember portion size: one small slice shouldn’t do you any harm!
Sophie Thomas, Dietitian