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6 ways to tame the modern muffin

Start by downsizing it. Then swap out some of the white flour, use plenty of vegetable oil, and add whipped egg whites, zest, and nuts.

If you want to see a good example of where the American diet has gone wrong, you needn’t look any further than the morning muffin. It used to be smaller than a coffee cup, short and stout. Now the muffins you buy at a supermarket or coffee shop are big, top-heavy things, brimming out of the corrugated paper that cinches in their bottoms. Always sweet, now they are sweeter, sometimes with sugar sprinkled on top. Salt is added to enhance the flavor.

The Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department and The Culinary Institute of America have joined forces to come up with a healthier muffin that’s still appetizing and retains its muffin-ness: sweet, moist, and airy. The “Great Muffin Makeover” collaboration has resulted in five recipes. The one for blueberry muffins is below, and you can find the other four on the nutrition department’s website, Co-workers here at Harvard Health Publications have brought in the results of several of the recipes, and they’ve passed the taste test with flying colors — and flown right out of the office kitchen.

Blueberry Muffins

Recipe courtesy of The Culinary Institute of America

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

¾ cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup almond flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon orange zest

2 cups fresh blueberries

2 eggs, large

1 ¼ cups low-fat (1%) buttermilk

½ cup brown sugar

6 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon orange juice

½ teaspoon vanilla

Place the rack in the top third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F. Line muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and orange zest. Add the fresh blueberries and toss gently to coat the blueberries in flour. This will help keep the blueberries suspended in the batter versus falling to the bottom.

In a medium mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then whisk in the buttermilk, brown sugar, canola oil, orange juice, and vanilla. Don’t be concerned if the mixture looks curdled or lumpy.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until most of the flour is incorporated. The mixture can be slightly lumpy; don’t over-mix. Divide the batter among the 18 prepared muffin cups.

Bake 12 to 14 minutes, or until the muffins are golden brown around the edges.

We spoke with Amy Myrdal Miller about the culinary challenges of coming up with a healthier muffin. Myrdal Miller, a registered dietitian and the director of programs and culinary nutrition for the institute, oversaw creation of the muffin makeover recipes. Some of the techniques and ingredient swaps she described might be applied to other baked goods and perhaps to other kinds of dishes.

1. Make them smaller. Reducing portion size is often the first step toward making a dish healthier. Muffins sold at supermarkets and coffee shops weigh up to 5 ounces. The recipes created by the institute’s chefs cut the size down to about 2 ounces. If you use a standard muffin tin, not a jumbo one, each cup holds the right amount of batter, so it’s not difficult to make a smaller muffin. The hard part is adjusting expectations and appetite. We’ve gotten so used to large portions that what used to be a standard size now seems small. From personal experience at the Health Letter offices, we know it’s tempting to eat two — even three — of these smaller, healthier muffins.

2. Replace all-purpose white flour with other types of flour. All-purpose white flour makes for a muffin that’s high in refined carbohydrates. Blood sugar spikes after we eat refined carbohydrates, and epidemiologic studies now show that refined carbohydrates may be just as bad, and possibly worse, for heart health as the saturated fat in meat and dairy products. Myrdal Miller says it’s easy to get a light, tasty muffin if you replace half of the all-purpose flour in a muffin recipe with whole-wheat flour; replace much more than half and the cooking challenges increase, because the muffins get too dense. Using whole-wheat pastry flour, which has less protein, can help with that problem. Other substitutes for some of the all-purpose white flour include cornmeal, buckwheat flour, and almond flour, which can be made by grinding up almonds in a blender. Bean flours are another choice, but you can’t exchange them one-for-one with grain-based flours.

Blueberry muffin matchup: Dunkin’ Donuts vs. HSPH/The Culinary Institute of America

Dunkin’ Donuts

Harvard School of Public Health/
The Culinary Institute of America

Approximate weight

5 oz.

2 oz.





83 grams

16 grams


16 grams

6 grams

Saturated fat

3 grams

1 gram


7 grams

3 grams


2 grams

1.5 grams


500 milligrams

140 milligrams

3. Don’t stint on the vegetable oil. Low-fat recipes are nutritionally misguided for a couple of reasons. First, cooks wind up using more sugar and salt to boost flavor that’s lost because there’s less fat. Second, the secret to a delicious and healthful muffin is to replace the “bad” fats (like the saturated fat in butter and the trans fat in some stick margarines) with “good” fats, the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oils. The good fats protect against heart disease and stroke. The five muffin recipes created by the Harvard nutritionists and the institute’s faculty use between ¼ and ? of a cup of oil. Three of the recipes use canola oil; two use olive oil. Butter is often seen as a necessity in baking, but Myrdal Miller says that’s a myth. One example: butter has traditionally been seen as an absolute necessity in pound cake recipes, but Myrdal Miller says the institute’s chefs have figured out how to make delicious pound cake using canola oil. If you replace butter in a recipe with vegetable oil, you’ll probably want to use about 25% less oil, because butter contains a fair amount of water. You may also need to add a little bit of liquid to make up for the loss of water.

4. Incorporate egg whites. Part of the reason muffins have a nice, fluffy texture is that they contain little pockets of air. Whipped egg whites have a protein matrix that holds air well, so they’re an excellent addition to a muffin recipe. “Egg whites — they’re magical,” Myrdal Miller told us. They help offset the density that can be a problem with the use of whole-wheat flour and other alternatives to all-purpose white flour. Whipped skim milk also holds air, but not as effectively as whipped egg whites.

5. Use brown sugar, agave syrup, and spices to cut down on the sugar. For a muffin to be a muffin, it must have some sweetness. Sugar also helps give it that appetizing brown color. But using brown sugar or agave syrup, a sweetener made from the agave plant, makes it possible to cut down on white sugar and to reduce the salt, which enhances the sweet taste. Brown sugar is still sugar, but it’s more flavorful because of the molasses remnants it contains, so you can use less of it in place of granulated white sugar and still get a great flavor, notes Myrdal Miller. Additions like cardamom, cinnamon, and vanilla add a layer of flavor that makes up for any loss in sweetness from cutting back on sugar and salt. Other sugar-reducing tricks include adding more fruit (what could be easier!) or zest, the grated peel from an orange or other citrus fruit. Zest holds up well in high temperatures and imparts an appetizing citrus flavor. By using these tricks and others, the CIA chefs came up with muffin recipes that contain 25% to 50% less added sugar than the standard muffin recipes.

6. Add nuts or a nutty flavor. Nuts are another way to add flavor and therefore reduce the sugar and salt. They also bump up the protein and fiber content and are a source of healthful monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Roasting nuts in the oven at a temperature of 350°F for 5–8 minutes before adding them to the batter intensifies their flavor. If you just want to add some nutty flavor, you can use a little bit of nut-based butter, milk, or oil. Walnut oil is a good choice and easy to find, but be sure to store it in your refrigerator. Walnut oil goes rancid quickly when stored at room temperature.

Progress to report: Trans fat, obesity trends are headed in the right direction

It’s easy to doom and gloom about American eating habits and waistlines. But results from two studies by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are a good reason to be more optimistic.

Trans fat is bad stuff. Not only does it increase “bad” LDL cholesterol, it also decreases “good” HDL cholesterol. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is made artificially, has been the main source of trans fat in the American diet. The food industry has been switching to substitutes, partly because trans fat content must now be listed in the Nutrition Facts label. Using a subset of blood samples collected from white Americans as part of a national health survey, the CDC researchers found that the blood levels of trans fat had declined by 58% between 2000 and 2009.

The number of obese people (a BMI of 30 or more) in this country started to take off in about 1980. Currently, a little over a third of adult Americans are obese. That’s far too many, but researchers at the CDC who track obesity rates reported in 2012 that obesity prevalence has plateaued since 2003 and, among women, since 1999. Why? There are lots of theories. Health messages may be getting through, or perhaps there’s a limited number of people who are genetically predisposed to get that heavy. Whatever the explanation, it’s good news.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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