If you visit a coffee shop for your morning cup, chances are you will be met by an array of baked goods—including the ubiquitous muffin. Dotted with fruit or sprinkled with nuts, they may appear to be a better breakfast than their donut neighbors, but with a range of other ingredients (often refined flours, high sodium, and plenty of added sugar) and large portion size, they’re far from the optimal food choice to start your day.
At the same time, the low-fat muffin masquerades as a “better-for-you” choice, yet represents everything that’s wrong with the “low fat is best” myth: Most fat in muffins comes from plant oils, which are rich sources of “good” fats—the unsaturated fats that are healthy for the heart. When the fat’s cut back, what’s left? White flour and usually even more sugar. The body breaks-down these refined carbohydrates in a flash, leading to a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin, followed by a rapid drop, and an all-too-quick return of the hunger pangs that led you to eat that muffin in the first place.
Low-fat baked goods (and other low-fat processed foods) also aren’t as flavorful as their full-fat counterparts, so food-makers often bump up the salt. That’s bad for the heart—as is eating lots of white flour, sugar, and other heavily-processed carbohydrates: Diets high in refined carbohydrates increase the risk of heart disease as much as, or perhaps more than, diets high in harmful saturated fat. [1,2]
In 2012, chefs and registered dietitians at The Culinary Institute of America worked with nutrition experts at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health to give muffins a makeover—and to further debunk the low-fat myth—creating muffin recipes that use healthy fats and whole grains, and have a lighter hand on the salt and sugar. Fortunately, fewer commercial muffins are emphasizing low-fat these days, but the average coffee shop muffin is still in need of a tune up. As a result, the original five muffin recipes have been improved even further:
Beyond these recipes, you can create more healthful versions of family-favorite muffins and baked goods in your own kitchen. If a recipe calls for butter, start by replacing half the butter with healthful oil, such as olive oil. Then see if you can replace half of the refined, all-purpose flour with whole grain flour. From there, you can continue to experiment with increasing the percentage of healthy oils and whole grains.
Here are a dozen tips and test-kitchen insights that home bakers can use to build “better-for-you” muffins that taste great.
- Downsize the portions. The mega-muffins that have become so popular in bake shops are really two to three times the size of the muffins your grandmother would have baked. Use a standard-sized muffin tin that holds about 2 ounces per cup, line the cups with paper liners, and fill the cups halfway with batter. That way you can “stretch” a standard 12-muffin recipe to make 18 smaller muffins.
- Go whole on the grains. You can easily substitute whole wheat flour for 50 percent of the white, all-purpose flour in your favorite muffin recipe, without compromising the taste or texture. And with some tweaking, you can replace all of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour. If you use all whole wheat flour, you’ll need to add an extra tablespoon or two of liquid, either vegetable oil, buttermilk, or fruit juice, depending on the type of muffin you’re making. The Great Muffin Makeover uses several different types of whole grain flours: whole wheat pastry flour (which has less protein than standard whole wheat flour, giving baked goods a more tender texture); white whole wheat flour(which is lighter in appearance and milder in flavor than standard whole wheat flour); and cornmeal(make sure to use non-degerminated cornmeal, with a coarse grind, to get all of the whole grain goodness). Rolled oats, buckwheat flour, and other whole grain flours can also be incorporated into muffins and other baked goods. Make sure to store whole grain flours in your refrigerator: The healthy unsaturated fats these flours contain can go rancid if stored at room temperature.
- Slash the sugar. You can cut at least 25 percent of the sugar from most standard muffin recipes without any negative impact on flavor or texture, and in some recipes, cut back even more. When you cut back, try substituting brown sugar, honey, or agave nectar for some of the white sugar (in most recipes brown sugar can replace all the white sugar without other modifications); although they are all added sugars, these sweeteners have more complex flavors than white sugar, so you can use less but still bake up muffins with a pleasingly sweet taste. Adding sweet spices, such as cardamom, cinnamon, and vanilla, has a similar effect. Using fresh or dried fruit or fruit purees can also help satisfy a sweet tooth. The Great Muffin Makeover recipes use these techniques to reduce added sugar by 50 percent or more from standard recipes.
- Pour on the oil. Healthful liquid plant oils—canola, corn, sunflower, extra virgin olive oil, and others—help keep whole-grain muffins moist and are a better choice than melted butter or shortening. When substituting liquid vegetable oil for butter, use 25 percent less oil (since butter contains water). Use a neutral-flavored oil, such as canola oil, when you want other flavors to shine. Olive oil is a great choice for vegetable-based muffins, such as the Great Muffin Makeover’s recipes for Lemon Chickpea Muffins and Jalapeño Cheddar Corn Muffins.
- Bring out the nuts. For extra protein and another source of healthy fats, add chopped nuts to a muffin recipe, rather than sugary chocolate chips or cinnamon chips. Or swirl in a spoon of nut butter or a splash of nut-based milk. You can also substitute nut-based flour for up to 25 percent of the grain flour in a recipe, without noticing a texture difference, and it will add a subtle nutty flavor. Or, if you have a really good food processor, you can make your own nut flour by grinding whole nuts, such as almonds, into a coarse meal. Be sure to store nuts and nut flours in the refrigerator or freezer, to keep their healthy oils fresh and flavorful.
- Switch from grains to beans and bean flours. Beans (legumes) are slowly-digested sources of carbohydrate that are rich in fiber and protein, so they can be a healthful substitution for refined grains in baking recipes. Beans and bean flours have starches that behave a bit differently from white flour, though, so you can’t exchange them one-for-one with grain flours. But they can substitute well for part of the grain flour. Just remember that you may need to add a bit more liquid to a bean flour batter.
- Scale back the salt. Quick breads, such as muffins, are often sneaky sources of sodium, because they rely on sodium-based leavening agents, such as baking soda and baking powder. The best way to scale back the salt is just to make smaller muffins, and The Great Muffin Makeover recipes do just that. Some of them also incorporate egg whites as a leavening agent (see below). To make sure that your entire meal stays low in sodium, pair muffins with foods that are naturally low in sodium or sodium-free, such as vegetables or fruit. Also, make muffins and quick breads an occasional breakfast treat, not an everyday staple; whole grains that are minimally-processed, such as steel-cut oatmeal, are lower in sodium than whole grain baked goods.
- Pump up the produce—and flavor! Fresh whole fruit and unsweetened dried fruit naturally contain sugar, but unlike other sweeteners, they also contain fiber and nutrients. Using fruit in your muffins means you can have a lighter hand on the added sugar. Cooked or raw vegetables, such as caramelized onions, sliced jalapeños, and snipped chives, can add interesting textures and savory flavors to muffins.
- “Egg” centuate the power of eggs. Eggs have gotten an undeservedly bad rap, but research indicates that an egg a day is generally fine for healthy people, so there’s no need to cut out eggs in muffins and other baked goods. Folding whipped egg whites into a batter can help lighten it up—a great trick to use with whole grain muffins, which often have dense batters. A lighter batter also means that you can use a smidge less baking powder, helping to curb sodium.
- Skimp on the full-fat dairy products. Dairy products such as whole milk can be high in saturated fat, and they’re not essential to make a great-tasting muffin. The Great Muffin Makeover recipes use low-fat Greek yogurt or low-fat buttermilk to replace whole milk, yielding moist, tender baked goods. Soymilk and nut milks can also be used to replace regular milk. Keep in mind that the switch to lower fat dairy items is not done to lower total fat: These recipes emphasize replacing saturated fats with healthy fats.
- Stretch small indulgences. Butter and cheese are high in unhealthy saturated fat, so we want to limit these foods in our daily diets. But using these and other “indulgent” ingredients in small amounts can add zip to muffins, without adding too much unhealthy saturated fat. In The Great Muffin Makeover Jalapeño Cheddar Corn Muffin recipe, a few ounces of sharp cheddar cheese add great flavor.
- Take a stealth health approach. Invite people to taste your revised recipes before telling them about the changes. Many people react negatively to a “better-for-you” version before they even taste it, but if they get the chance to taste first, they will likely agree that they like it just as much as—or even better than—the original.
- Hu FB. Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat? Am J Clin Nutr.2010 Jun 1;91(6):1541-2.
- Jakobsen MU, Dethlefsen C, Joensen AM, Stegger J, Tjønneland A, Schmidt EB, Overvad K. Intake of carbohydrates compared with intake of saturated fatty acids and risk of myocardial infarction: importance of the glycemic index. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Apr 7;91(6):1764-8.
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