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Is That Right? Cancer Society Birthday Cake

What to make of the American Cancer Society's new birthday cake recipe?

The ACS had a nice, though kind of unsettling, idea with its campaign to celebrate birthdays as a remarkable achievement for cancer survivors. As part of that campaign, the organization sponsored a competition for students at the Culinary Institute of America to devise a cake that would become the ACS's official birthday cake. "Because healthy living is key to creating a world with less cancer and more birthdays," the ACS Web site says, the Society urged the chefs "to create a better-for-you birthday cake."

But as the L.A. Times health blog "Booster Shots" points out, the cake's not exactly health food.

We were a tad disappointed to learn that the ingredients weren't very specifically selected because they had super-duper cancer-fighting powers. The idea, we were told, is more general: that you can live longer if you eat more healthfully and also don't consume too many calories so you don't end up overweight. Obesity is linked to a higher cancer risk, and dietary changes such as upping your intake of fruits and vegetables are linked to a lower risk of cancer....But this cake isn't a health food, and it's not a diet food either.

The ACS responded to the blog's criticisms, pointing out that they hadn't promoted the cake for any cancer-fighting capacity or other health benefits, but just as a lightened-up version of a festive birthday cake.

Booster Shots conceded right up front that a birthday's no day to fuss over calories and fat; it's a day to indulge and celebrate. And the ACS cake does feature some smart substitutions: It cuts back on eggs and oils and uses whole-wheat and quinoa flours, dried cherries, applesauce and roasted beets to add both fiber and color. Its reduced-fat cream-cheese frosting contains no butter.

On the other hand, the recipe calls for a ganache made with two ounces of heavy cream. A single slice of the cake (one-tenth of the whole thing) has 650 calories (down from 1,010 in a traditional red velvet cake), 34 grams of fat (down from 67) and 40 grams of sugar (down from 72).

I have nothing against splurging on special treats now and then, especially on your birthday. But this seems to me a big blunder for the ACS. Sure, the Web site offers tips for fiddling with the recipe to make it a bit more healthful. But to my mind, the words "heavy cream" are incompatible with the goals of any health-promoting organization. It's not likely that eating this cake on your birthday will contribute to your getting cancer, of course. But shouldn't the ACS have seized this opportunity to come up with a more healthful cake recipe, or even suggest a non-cake food item that feels celebratory? One without a cream-based ganache, for instance? (A friend once made me the most fantastic almond-tinged angel-food cake for my birthday; topped with some fresh raspberries, it was plenty indulgent.

Am I being a jerk about this? Or do you agree that the ACS blew it on the birthday cake?

Please take the poll and add your comments -- including any healthful-cake ideas -- below.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 14, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cancer , Is That Right? , Nutrition and Fitness  
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The only way to make cake truly into a "health food" would sort of defeat the purpose of cake and make it bread (and even then the carbs would scare off some people).

Not that there is anything whatsoever wrong with bread, I bake it frequently, but if I want a cake it's just not the same thing.

Posted by: | August 14, 2009 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Um, Jennifer, it's just a birthday cake. The problem with diets that suck ALL the "bad" yet fun stuff out of eating is that they're incredibly difficult to stick to. It's far better if we have a healthy yet reasonable eatin plan -- one that does not preclude some tasty and not-so-great-for-you food.

Posted by: rlalumiere | August 14, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

It's a BIRTHDAY cake, which means that you should eat it once a year, not every day for lunch and dinner and then a late night snack.

Lighten up, and let cancer survivors enjoy their victories, please. They get enough nutritional advice from their health care providers.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | August 14, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Two ounces of heavy cream in the entire cake? Let's see, 2 oz divided by 12 slices--ye gods, that's a teaspoon of heavy cream per slice! That's 17.3 calories. I don't think anybody should worry about 17.3 calories in a birthday cake.

Posted by: fxli1 | August 14, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Umm, wow. So let me get this straight: these guys come up with a cake that contains 40% fewer calories, almost half the fat, fruit and applesauce, and even BEETS, yet still sounds like something I'd be happy to have at a birthday party. And you fixate on the fact that it contains 2 oz of cream? Wow.

I think you have your priorities mixed up. I'd be more worried about the 1200+ calories in the sugar than the 200 calories in the cream.

Posted by: laura33 | August 14, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Yes, we should absolutely lighten up. As soon as the obesity epidemic is over.

Until then, we need to work *hard* to build a culture of healthier eating.

And the ACS, which is *paid* by its donors to help lead that fight, shouldn't be a poster child for the "I'll start eating healthy ... tomorrow" mentality.

Posted by: DupontJay | August 14, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

What WashingtonDame said ...

Posted by: bethmcc1 | August 14, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

So, umm, Jennifer, what exactly were you expecting...exactly? A cylindrical sculpture resembling a birthday cake made entirely of raw fruits and vegetables with tofu as icing and an organic soy candle in the middle? You're more than welcome to use this idea on YOUR birthday. My birthday cake is going to have lots of sugar and cream and refined flour and eggs.

Posted by: forgetthis | August 14, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

It seems like they could have done better by asking CIA to come up with a party menu of healthful foods, instead of a cake. By the way, just because angel food cake is low in fat doesn't mean it's good for you in any way, or even that it's less bad for you than other cakes. It's got a ton of sugar, and it has to be made from cake flour--can't substitute whole wheat for any portion of it--which has had every speck of nutritive value removed. If you're going to eat cake, you might as well go for a small portion of a rich treat you'll enjoy rather than a dry pillow that has to be choked down.

Posted by: ZF-MD | August 14, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

It's a birthday cake and one assumes you eat a slice once a year. They survived cancer; I'll let them be the judge of their food intake.

Americans have the darnedest time doing anything in moderation.

It's either all or nothing. Cake and fatty foods to the extreme or raw foods.

Birthday cake once a year and this author is over the top about it?

Just remember Prohibition and how well that worked out.
It didn't.

Take a deep breath and let it go.

And about these obesity studies; are they still using the bogus body fat as a measure?

Gotta keep those stats measuring what "they" want to measure.

So all "fat" people are sick people?
Slim people never get cancer or heart attacks or kidney disease?

Sure they do and I agree we should try to eat in moderation.

Posted by: Chatelaine | August 14, 2009 9:16 PM | Report abuse

instead of worrying about birthday cakes why don't they spend the money on getting the word out about vitamin D and how it prevents cancer, probably the biggest finding of the century, but one that they missed!!
take a look at for some good summaries of the data and get yourself some vitamin D

Posted by: mbarnes012 | August 15, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

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