Q. I see in-store promotions for low-fat muffins almost everywhere. Is there such a thing as a heart-healthy muffin?
A. Yes, there is, but you’re not likely to find it in the typical, store-bought low-fat muffin.
First of all, low-fat muffins get their name by skimping on fats, often the heart-healthy kind contained in liquid plant oils like canola and olive oil. When good fats are reduced, white flour and sugar usually take their place. Your body breaks down those refined carbohydrates quickly, leading to a spike in blood sugar and insulin production, followed by a rapid rebound of hunger. Diets high in refined carbohydrates seem to raise the risk of heart disease at least as much as diets high in saturated fat.
Commercial low-fat muffins also contain extra salt to make up for flavor lost from fat reduction. Finally, a commercial reduced-fat muffin has about the same calories as a standard one.
Muffins made in your own kitchen by altering cookbook recipes with the following tips can be more healthful than mythically healthy low-fat muffins sold commercially:
Downsize the portions: Use a standard-sized muffin tin, and fill each cup only halfway with batter.
Replace refined flour: Substitute half of the all-purpose flour called for in the recipe with whole grain flour. With some trial and error, most muffins can be 100% whole grain.
Cut the sugar: Slashing 25% of the sugar from a standard muffin recipe should not negatively affect taste.
Go nuts: Adding chopped nuts to muffins adds flavor, protein, and another source of healthy fats.
Better yet, go to health.harvard.edu/180 for healthy muffin recipes created jointly by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America.
— Walter Willett, M.D., M.P.H.
Chair, Department of Nutrition
Harvard School of Public Health