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How healthy is your Christmas pudding?

Date Published
 13 December 2006
Author
 Joe Lederman

by Joe Lederman and John Gao © Lawmedia Pty Ltd, December 2006
BALDWINS – FoodLegal
Australian Food Lawyers & Consultants

Christmas is usually a time to enjoy the Australian sun and surf but even in the heat of the day, Australians are traditional enough to enjoy their Christmas puddings. This article examines a recipe for a traditional home-made Christmas pudding and the food laws that are relevant to its consumers.

History

The tradition of the Christmas pudding can be traced back to 15th century Britain when ingredients such as meat, root vegetables, dried fruits and spices were served at the beginning of a meal. The meat content was slowly phased out and the Christmas pudding became a rich dessert heavy with dried fruits and nuts.

The ingredients

A typical traditional Christmas pudding may contain the following ingredients:

  • 250 g stale bread crumbs
  • 1 cup scalded milk
  • 125 g sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 250 g floured finely chopped raisins
  • 100 g currants
  • 100 g finely chopped figs
  • 50 g diced glace cherries
  • 50 g finely cut orange or lemon rind
  • 250 g suet
  • 1/4 cup brandy (or mixed with a sweet wine)
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/3 teaspoon clove
  • 1/3 teaspoon mace
 

The method

The combined ingredients are placed into either a mold or a cloth and steamed for 6 hours. There may be slight variations in the ingredients used but the brandy, dried fruits and suet are common to most Christmas pudding recipes.

The ingredients are generally put together and steamed a few weeks before serving to allow the pudding to mature. During the maturing process, it is common practice to use skewers to make holes in the pudding and to add additional brandy to keep the pudding moist. It may then be steamed once again before being served.

Because of the high sugar and alcohol content in Christmas puddings, it is said that Christmas puddings can have a very long shelf life, and in some families, there is even a tradition of eating the leftovers from the previous year’s Christmas pudding.

Fat content

As set out in the above ingredients list, the traditional recipe for a Christmas pudding contains suet. This is a hard fat sourced from around the kidneys of sheep and cattle.

Suet is a saturated fat that has a melting temperature of 21 degrees Celsius and therefore helps the pudding maintain shape at room temperature but provides the soft melting sensation when eaten.

The above recipe contains 250 g of suet in approximately 1.75 kg of pudding. This means that the saturated fat content will be at least 14%, aside from the additional fat from the eggs and the milk amongst the other ingredients.

The traditional Christmas pudding is therefore by no means a low fat product. Further, the 14% fat from the suet is pure saturated fat, which has been recognized as a contributor to the suffering of high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.

Sugar content

The traditional recipe provided also contains a high sugar content. In addition to the 125 g or 7% sugar added, there is also a high level of sugar in the added dried fruits and some of the other ingredients such as the brandy and milk.

According to the Nutrition Panel Calculator on the Food Standards Australia New Zealand website, raisins are approximately 69.1% sugar by weight, currants are 63.2% sugar by weight, figs contain approximately 8.2% sugar by weight, and glace cherries are 66.6% sugar by weight. This means that the raisins contribute 173 g of sugar, the currants provide 63.2 g of sugar, the figs provide 8.2 g of sugar and the glace cherries contribute 33.3 g, giving a total of approximately 280 g of sugar in 1750 g of food.

Therefore the total sugar content of the Christmas pudding would be at least 23%, which itself is approximately twice the sugar concentration of the average softdrink and approximately the same sugar concentration as ice cream.

Allergens

There are numerous potential sources of allergens in the ingredients of a Christmas pudding.

Under Schedule 1 of Standard 1.3.1 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, dried fruits and vegetables may contain up to 3000 mg/kg of Sulphur dioxide, Sodium sulphite or Potassium sulphite. Sulphites are often used in dried fruits and vegetables to prevent spoilage and oxidation. However, allergic reactions to sulphites can be severe with difficulty breathing within minutes of consumption. Other symptoms can include sneezing, swelling of the throat and hives. Under Clause 4 of Standard 1.2.3 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, foods with more than 10 mg/kg of added Sulphites must carry a declaration on its label that the product contains Sulphites.

The recipe for Christmas pudding also includes eggs, milk and nuts which are all recognized allergens and could result in serious anaphylactic reactions in some people.

Nutmeg and mace are also substances which can cause health problems. It has been claimed that consumption of more than 1 g of nutmeg can cause mild to medium hallucinations, visual distortions and mild euphoria, while consumption of 7.5 g of nutmeg can cause convulsions, palpitations, nausea and dehydration.

Glace cherries

Glace cherries, popular in cakes and puddings, presents another health hazard in your Christmas pudding plans. Glace cherries are the only foods allowed under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code to use the red food colouring Erythrosine. Glace cherries can contain the red food colouring at a concentration of 200 mg/kg. The reason given for the exclusion of Erythrosine from all other foods is a general view that it is a carcinogenic substance and can cause photosensitivity as well as being a alleged factor triggering the development of ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Microbiological risks

Because the pudding is usually left for weeks in the maturation process, there is always the risk of microbiological contamination.

There are no ingredients in the pudding, other than the alcohol in the brandy and the added sugar, which have any preservative effect. The alcohol and sugar in the pudding are not present in sufficiently high concentrations to have any significant preservative effect.

This means that unless the pudding is carefully prepared and thoroughly heated at the end of the maturation process, there is a high degree of risk of contamination from Salmonella, Listeria, Clostridia, E. Coli, yeasts and moulds. Bacteria numbers can increase at a rate of up to 100% every half hour depending on the environment in which the bacteria is growing, and therefore a 6 week maturation process could potentially be very dangerous.

Microbiological contamination can lead to conditions such as gastro enteritis, listeriosis and, in some serious cases, botulism.


Don’t let too much worry you this Christmas. Hopefully, you will now have some interesting banter for the table at your traditional Christmas dinner.


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