With Saint Patrick’s Day right around the corner, let’s take a little detour and enjoy a more lighthearted blog. What does this holiday bring to mind? Beloved Irish cultural tradition, or an excuse to drink enough beer to challenge even the strongest liver? In North America, ways to mark the holiday vary. There are themed “fun runs,” where costumed participants complete a 5- or 10-K race, restaurants temporarily feature corned beef and cabbage on their menus, and in many cities, neighborhood bars and bagel shops add green food coloring to their wares to produce electric green colored beer or bagels for one special day only. And don’t forget the Irish soda bread. Like a Christmas fruitcake, it’s a creation that can be made and consumed any time of year, but you’ll have a hard time finding soda bread in bakeries and supermarkets outside of mid-March.

Irish soda bread is like a scone, in that it can be pleasantly moist or incredibly dry. The dryness, of course, can be corrected by warming the bread in a toaster or oven and adding a pat of butter or apple butter. Whether consumed plain or with toppings, two of the hallmarks of this special food are raisins and caraway seeds, which, depending on one’s taste preferences, can make this a flavor treat or something to be avoided at all costs. 

Raisins may not be ideal for individuals who need to manage their blood sugar, but the overall amount of these sweet morsels in a chunk or two of Irish soda bread is small. Raisins don’t shine in the nutrition department as much as, say, leafy greens, but they’re a good source of potassium and provide small amounts of iron, copper, and manganese. (Golden raisins have a similar profile to black raisins, as do currants, which are sometimes used in soda bread as well.) Even with their relatively high sugar content, though, snacking on raisins may be a better choice than processed food snacks for healthy blood sugar and blood pressure. (In one study, compared to subjects who ate processed snacks, those who snacked on raisins fared better in both of these areas.) And while the removal of water concentrates the sugar in grapes as they become raisins, this concentration process may also result in raisins having higher amounts of certain polyphenols than grapes do.

As for caraway seeds, like other seeds, they’re a good source of minerals, fiber, and healthy fats, although you’d have to eat quite a lot of them before those numbers start to stack up. (And most people aren’t likely to snack on a handful of caraway seeds the way they might with sunflower or pumpkin seeds.) Eat enough caraway seeds, and it’s possible to get appreciable amounts of iron, magnesium, and calcium. Caraway seed oil may be helpful for indigestion and upset stomach. (Caraway is sometimes included in herbal teas designed as digestive aids.)  

So, of course, consuming Irish soda bread by no means will give you substantial amounts of any of these nutrients.  But it’s always enlightening to explore related fun facts that may accompany long-standing food traditions.

While holidays are reasonable times to indulge in foods we wouldn’t normally consume, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with eating an old-fashioned Irish soda bread made the traditional way, individuals with gluten and dairy sensitivities need not be left out in the cold. Creative cooks have come up with gluten- and dairy-free recipes to create Paleo-friendly versions that all can enjoy. 

The name “soda bread” comes from the baking soda used for leavening, as opposed to yeast. The reaction between the alkaline baking soda and a source of acid—traditionally buttermilk—is what helps the bread rise. For the dairy intolerant, however, buttermilk is off the menu, so milk-free soda bread recipes usually call for apple cider vinegar as the source of acid. As in many gluten- and grain-free recipes, the wheat flour can be replaced by almond or coconut flour. 

Here are recipes for healthier versions of this holiday treat, both free of gluten and dairy: a very basic recipe, and one with a little more flair.

If Irish soda bread isn’t your thing…no worries. If you’d like to celebrate St. Pat’s day in a fun way, consider a ‘healthier’ twist on that green beer—no artificial coloring required. You can color your holiday brew with spirulina, chlorophyll, wheatgrass, or matcha powder!


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