An Investigation of Fall Treats

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This editorial is written by Stephanie M. McPherson, science writer and video producer for Joslin.

I’m all about fall. When the air chills and pumpkins adorn doorsteps, my tastebuds turn to cravings for caramel apples, pumpkin seeds, and cider donuts. With such a short window to celebrate this season, I try to cram as many of these treats in while I still have time.

But since I started working at Joslin, I’ve become acutely aware of nutrition and calories. So this year I decided to find out—What exactly am I eating? How many calories do those crunchy seeds have? How many carbs am I consuming in that delectable donut?

Pumpkin seeds pack a lot into their small husks. Full of good things like anti-oxidants, vitamin E, protein, potassium and magnesium, they’re also fairly high in calories, coming in at a little more than 700 per cup. But don’t let this high number dissuade you. With everything else they’ve got going for them, a smaller serving more along the lines of 2 tablespoons (100 calories) will satisfy you.

To make this classic fall snack, I put all the pumpkin innards from Jack-o-Lanterns aside (I usually carve at least two per year, so I have plenty of supply!) in a big bowl with water. Most of the seeds will float to the top. Scoop them out, give them another good rinse, and either lay them out overnight to dry fully, or pat them dry with paper towels.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the seeds on a baking sheet and dress lightly with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with salt. I like to add some cinnamon or cayenne pepper (or both!) for extra spice. Put in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until seeds are golden brown and crunchy. I like to put handfuls of them in plastic bags to bring to work for snacks. These also make a great topping for pumpkin chili.

Nutrition Information for 1 ounce of roasted pumpkin seeds: 163 calories, 8.5g protein, 13.9g fat, 1.8g fiber and 4.7g carb

Caramel apples
are the fall treat I look forward to the most. I’m a traditional girl—I don’t need my caramel apples dressed up with candy or nuts. As delicious as they are, and as healthy as their base may be, I figured that draping an apple in sheath of caramel can’t be good for you.

And I wasn’t wrong. One medium to large apple on its own comes in around 100 calories. The caramel covering contributes about 120 to 150 to that, depending on how much caramel you use, or if you opt for those pre-rolled caramel sheets. Overall, the grand total comes to around 250 calories. Add some sprinkles or crushed nuts and you’re looking at another 40 to 100 calories, respectively.

Caramel is made by heating a sugar mixture over high heat for a long time. So the major problem with caramel apples, of course, is the carb content. Between the 20 and 30 grams of carb per serving from the coating alone and the approximately 20 grams of carb in an average apple, this treat can be tricky for people with diabetes. Instead of a full-fledged caramel apple, you can snack on a few apple slices in fat-free caramel dipping sauce. You can get this snack at Sonic for 100 calories and 25 grams of carb (when you substract the fiber).

Nutrition Information for 1 medium-large caramel apple, no toppings: approx.250 calories, 4g fat, 4g fiber and 40-50g carbohydrates.

It’s not Halloween without Dirt Cake, that visually disgusting but quite delicious mash-up of pudding, Oreos, gummy worms, cream cheese and whipped cream. I almost didn’t want to investigate the contents of this nutritional disaster for, as they say, ignorance is bliss.

Dirt Cake, Image from

But here it is. There are variations on the theme, of course, with different recipes calling for differing ingredient amounts. So depending on which recipe you go by, one serving of dirt cake will set you back between 500 and 800 calories, using full-fat ingredients.

One website managed to get it down to 318 calories by using lighter versions of each ingredient, which is still higher in calories than many of us would like. So if you truly must consume dirt cake, stick with a half serving (most recipes will tell you what fraction of the whole equals one serving).

Nutrition Information for 1 serving (1/12 of a whole) of dirt cake: 509 calories, 31g fat, 29mg cholesterol, 478mg sodium, 53g carb, 1g fiber, 5g protein.

I refuse to go through September without purchasing some orchard fresh Apple Cider. notes that cider differs from plain juice in that it’s unsweetened and unfiltered, making it slightly more nutritious than apple juice.

Cider contains potassium, iron, and pectin (which is linked to lower cholesterol levels). An 8-ounce glass has about 120 calories, so keep it to one serving at a time.

Nutrition Information for 1 8-oz glass of apple cider:  120 calories, 30g carb

One of the best parts about going to an apple orchard is the smell of the freshly baked Apple Cider donuts wafting from the bakery. Unfortunately, this year I arrived at my favorite orchard to a one hour wait for these treats. They’re good—but they’re not an hour’s wait good. So instead, I used some of the apples I picked that day to make my own.

Steph's Apple Cider Donuts

The recipe I used produced excellent donuts—sweet, cakey, and a little tangy from the cider glaze. It claims to make 12 donuts, but I made each donut smaller than recommended, winding me up with closer to 20. And after I figured out the calorie count, I’m glad I did. (**Instead of using buttermilk, I used a milk/lemon juice mixture, and the top of a drinking glass to punch out the shape.)

If I had stuck to the original 12 count, each donut would have been 401 calories. The smaller sizes come in at 240. Compare to the Dunkin’ Donuts Apple n Spice (270) and the Apple Crumb (490), it’s a pretty good deal.

Nutrition Information for 1 homemade apple cider donut: 240 calories, 44.8g carb, 4.9g fat

Candy Corn’s great, because it never seems to go bad. That’s probably because it’s nothing more than sugar, water and corn syrup. First developed in the late 1800s, this candy, with its orange, yellow and white stripes meant to look like a kernel of corn, is now a Halloween staple.

Stephanie M. McPherson is the science writer and video producer for Joslin

Candy corn is not as caloric as you might think—19 pieces come to 140 fat-free calories. But the carbs can be problematic, at 36g.

Nutrition Information for 1 serving candy corn (19 pieces): 140 calories, 36g carb

So this autumn, celebrate with these once-a-year treats in moderation. There’s no need to completely avoid any of these foods as long as you take into account their nutrition information and plan the rest of your meals accordingly.

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