If you're short on time and aren't confident in the kitchen, cake mixes are an easy way to whip up a sweet treat. Whether you make it from scratch or out of a pack, a good cake should be slightly moist and evenly risen with an even colour and thin crust. It should melt in your mouth when eaten and not be too sweet or have a chemical or salty taste or aftertaste.

When assessing chocolate and vanilla cake mixes our tester, CHOICE's in-house home economist, found most store-bought packet mixes have sugar as one of their first three ingredients, with more than 15 grams per 100 grams.

Our tester also found that most packet mixes were generally OK across the board for total fat, saturated fat and sodium, with products advertised as 'low fat' likely to have less than three grams or less of fat per 100 gram serving.

What's in the box?

We've checked the ingredients list of commonly available cake mix packets and all use a mixture of additives that play a role in enhancing the colour, flavour or texture of the cake. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) carries out safety checks on food additives before they can be used – of course, making a cake from scratch can avoid these hidden extras. (Check out our home economist's quicker-than-packet-mix recipes for inspiration.)

  • Acids assist in taste and keep a balanced acid level in the cake. Acids aren't commonly used in cake mixes; we only found two that use them.
  • Antioxidants prevent the deterioration of food and the development of rancid flavours that's caused by oxidation when chemicals in the food are exposed to oxygen.
  • Colourings aim to make the cakes more attractive. Only some of the cake mixes used added colours - generally caramel (150d) in chocolate cakes, and annatto (160b) in vanilla ones.
  • Emulsifiers stop oil and water from separating into layers and prevent the oil forming a layer on top of the cake. Almost all the cake mixes we looked at use emulsifiers.
  • Raising agents are used in all cake mixes to increase volume.
  • Thickeners are used to increase the viscosity of the cake and give it a desirable consistency.

Recipes from our home economist

Quick-mix chocolate cake

Our homemade recipe will save you money compared to using dry mix packets - even when taking into account the cost of the eggs and butter (or margarine/oil). The greatest benefit, though, is in knowing exactly what you and your family will be eating.

Ingredients (Serves 8-10)

  • 80g unsalted butter, softened, chopped
  • ¾ cup caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½ cups self-raising flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa, sifted
  • ½ cup water

Method

Preheat oven to 160°C (fan-forced) or 180°C (conventional). Grease and line with baking paper a 20cm round cake pan.

Combine all ingredients using an electric mixer on low speed. Increase speed to medium and beat for four minutes until smooth.

Pour mixture into the pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until risen and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a rack to cool completely.

To serve, dust with icing sugar and serve with thick cream and fresh raspberries.

Nutritional information (per 100g)

Energy - 1281.44kJ

Total fat - 11.87g

Saturated fat - 7.09g

Sugar - 22.51g

Sodium - 239.27mg

Quick-mix vanilla cake

Our homemade recipe is easy to pull together and will cost you a few dollars to make.

Ingredients (Serves 8)

  • 80g unsalted butter, softened, chopped
  • ¾ cup caster sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½ cups self-raising flour
  • ½ cup milk

Method

Preheat the oven to 160°C (fan-forced) or 180°C (conventional). Grease and line with baking paper a 20cm round cake pan.

Combine all ingredients using an electric mixer on low speed. Increase speed to medium and beat for four minutes until smooth.

Pour mixture into the pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until risen and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a rack to cool completely.

To serve, dust with icing sugar and serve with thick cream and fresh strawberries.

Nutritional information (per 100g)

Energy - 1325.47kJ

Total fat - 12.43g

Saturated fat -7.47g

Sugar - 24.27g

Sodium - 244.83mg

Top tips

  • Pre-heat your oven before baking (and make sure you don't confuse fan-forced temperature with conventional).
  • Grease and line your baking pan.
Follow the recommended mixing times – under-beating can result in a cake that doesn't rise well, and may have ingredients that aren't mixed through properly.