Low-fat processed foods are often higher in sugar, carbohydrates, or salt than their full-fat counterparts, according to many studies by the Harvard School of Public Health. “It’s time to end the low-fat myth,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH.

Photo courtesy of The Culinary Institute of America


Muffin makeover

4 min read

New recipes use whole grains, healthy fats

Dozens of studies, many from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers, have shown that low-fat diets are no healthier than moderate- or high-fat diets — and for many people, may be worse.

To combat this “low fat is best” myth, nutrition experts at HSPH and chefs and dietitians at the Culinary Institute of America have developed five muffin recipes that incorporate healthy fats and whole grains, and use a lighter hand on the salt and sugar. The goal? To make over the ubiquitous low-fat muffin, touted as a “better-for-you” choice when in fact low-fat muffins often have reduced amounts of heart-healthy fats, such as liquid plant oils, but plenty of harmful carbohydrates in the form of white flour and sugar.

Other low-fat processed foods are not much better, and are often higher in sugar, carbohydrates, or salt than their full-fat counterparts. For good health, type of fat matters more than amount. Diets high in heavily processed carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and a rise in diabetes and heart disease risk.

“It’s time to end the low-fat myth,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH. “Unfortunately, many well-motivated people have been led to believe that all fats are bad and that foods loaded with white flour and sugar are healthy choices. This has clearly contributed to the epidemic of diabetes we are experiencing and to premature death for many.”

A regular blueberry muffin from a national coffee shop chain has 450 calories on average. Most of those come from carbohydrates, primarily white flour and sugar. However, now that national chains have eliminated trans fats, a regular muffin does have heart-healthy fat, usually from soybean or canola oil. A low-fat muffin has about the same amount of calories, but contains more carbohydrates and sugar — and about 60 percent more sodium (700 milligrams) — than a regular muffin.

The new blueberry muffin recipe offered by HSPH and the Culinary Institute of America is less than half the size of a coffee shop muffin and has just 130 calories. It is made with a mixture of whole wheat, white, and almond flour and uses canola oil, a healthy fat.

“These five recipes not only include a wide variety of whole grain and nut flours, they also demonstrate how more unusual ingredients like canned chickpeas and extra virgin olive oil can be used in baking,” says Richard Coppedge Jr., chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute and a certified master baker.

The Culinary Institute and HSPH offer a dozen healthy baking tips that chefs and home cooks can use to build a healthier muffin. Here are a few of their tips:

Downsize portions. The megamuffins popular in shops are two to three times the size of the muffins your grandmother might have baked.

Go whole on the grains. It’s easy to substitute whole wheat flour for 50 percent of the white flour in recipes without harming taste or texture. And with a few recipe alterations, delicious muffins can be made with 100 percent whole grains. See the lemon chickpea breakfast muffin and the whole wheat banana nut muffin recipes as examples.

Slash the sugar. You can cut 25 percent of the sugar from most standard muffin recipes without a negative impact on flavor or texture.

Pour on the oil. Liquid plant oils — canola, extra virgin olive oil, corn, sunflower — help keep whole grain muffins moist and are a healthier choice than butter or shortening.

Bring out the nuts. For extra protein and an additional source of healthy fats, add chopped nuts.

Scale back salt. The best way to reduce salt is to make a smaller muffin and to pair muffins with foods, such as vegetables and fruits, that are sodium-free.

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 important nutrients. Using fruit in your muffins allows for a lighter hand on the added sugar. Vegetables and spices can add interesting textures and savory flavors to muffins.

See recipes for blueberry muffins, cranberry orange muffins, jalapeño cheddar corn muffins, lemon chickpea breakfast muffins, and whole wheat banana nut muffins here.