The sweet treats of summer can be good for you. A Mass General nutritionist offers tips on indulging.

Summer is finally here and with it comes sweet celebration. Deconstruct some of the season’s most iconic desserts and reap their health benefits.

Summer Desserts and Strawberries

Strawberries are the quintessential sign summer has arrived in New England. Yet, these berries are fragile and lose their potency the longer they sit. Eating them in season helps keep their cost down, though they can still be fairly expensive. Luckily, a little goes a long way.

As with the summer sun, sweets of all kinds are best enjoyed in moderation.

Ten fresh strawberries contain more vitamin C than an orange. This important antioxidant is crucial for a healthy immune system and can enhance the presence of other nutrients, like vitamin E and iron. In addition, strawberries contain phenolic compounds, such as ellagic acid and quercetin, which research suggests may help fight diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Pair them with a slice of angel food cake for a light summer dessert.

Cool Down with Frozen Treats

Another way to maximize summer fruits is to give them the deep freeze. Summer peaches can be diced or pureed and layered with yogurt as a healthy homemade substitute for ice cream. Popsicle molds are fairly inexpensive, but small paper cups and popsicle sticks can also be employed to make impromptu frozen treats.

There are also beneficial microbes in yogurt touted to promote a healthy immune system; however, debate exists as to how active they remain once they find your freezer. The freezing process lures cultures into dormancy until they hit your digestive system, but not as many bacteria seem to survive home-freezing compared to the flash freeze process used by frozen yogurt manufacturers. If it is the healthy cultures you are after, the National Yogurt Association has a voluntary labeling program, so look for tangy frozen yogurt with a Live and Active Cultures seal.

Healthy Campfire Classics

S'mores can be healthy too!
S’mores can be healthy too!

Another summer classic is the s’more, which is not typically known for its health virtues. Yet, this campfire dessert can be a source of whole grains, a type of carbohydrate higher in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than refined counterparts. Graham flour is actually made from whole grain wheat; unfortunately, not all graham crackers contain a significant quantity of actual graham.

Look for a brand that lists whole wheat — not unbleached wheat flour — as the first ingredient. And try using dark chocolate for the gooey center — it is higher in protective plant compounds called flavonoids. While it is controversial to suggest eating chocolate offers significant health benefits, you can’t go wrong opting for a higher percentage of cocoa, ideally 70 percent or more. This tends to increase the amount of cocoa flavonoids present and slightly decreases your intake of sugar and fat.

While these desserts do have merit, they are not meant as a cure-all. As with the summer sun, sweets of all kinds are best enjoyed in moderation.

Emily Gelsomin, RD, LDN
Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN

Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN, is a senior clinical nutrition specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a registered dietitian, she counsels on medical nutrition therapy on an outpatient basis and is co-director of Be Fit, the hospital’s employee wellness program.

Jointly sponsored by The Clubs at Charles River Park and MGH Nutrition and Food Services, the 10-week program focuses on helping participants “Be Fit and Eat Right.” Every ten weeks, employees from different departments within the hospital compete with each other as they make a commitment to Be Fit. Through the creation of a social environment at the workplace, participants are supported to make progress in personal lifestyle changes with the help of a unique support system that includes a dedicated nutritionist and personal trainer.

Be Fit strives to create a milieu of wellness that extends beyond the 10-week curriculum by offering features to those who are not part of the intensive program. This includes the creation of Choose Well, Eat Well, a rating system designed to help both employees and patients increase awareness of healthy choices at retail eateries within the hospital. It also includes a monthly e-mail with a timely nutrition tip.