Chefs, nutrition experts give the low-fat muffin a makeover


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

The breakfast decision made by millions—donut or muffin—seems like a no-brainer. Donut bad, muffin good, right? Not necessarily. Most store-bought muffins deliver the same wallop of highly processed flour and sugar as donuts. Low-fat versions, which many people see as healthier, may actually be worse, since they contain extra sugar and salt.

To restore the muffin to its rightful place as a healthy breakfast or snack option, chefs and dietitians from the Culinary Institute of America worked on a muffin makeover with nutrition experts from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). They created recipes for five muffins: blueberry, cranberry orange, jalapeno cheddar corn, lemon chickpea, and banana nut. (The recipes, and more, are available on The Nutrition Source, an excellent Web site from the HSPH Department of Nutrition.)

One reason for redefining the muffin was to help dispel the widely held notion that low fat means healthy. “It’s time to end the low-fat myth,” said Dr. Walter Willett, who chairs the department of nutrition at HSPH. “The lesson contained in these healthy muffins—that foods can be both tasty and good for you—can literally be life saving.” (I’ll explore the “low-fat myth” next week.)

Remaking the muffin

The average low-fat coffee shop muffin has several nutritional drawbacks. It is made with rapidly digested white flour and sugar, which the digestive system breaks down in a flash. This causes blood sugar and insulin levels to rise quickly, then drop quickly, causing you to feel hungry again, sooner rather than later. Fat, which provides taste and texture, is replaced with sugar and salt. (Check out the table below comparing regular, low-fat, and makeover blueberry muffins.)

The members of the makeover team wanted to create healthier muffins that are just as tasty, or even tastier, than low-fat muffins. They replaced half of the white flour with whole wheat or other whole-grain flours. It takes the body longer to digest these, which smooths out the blood sugar–insulin roller coaster. They used heart-healthy oils, like canola oil, in place of some or all of the butter. When possible, they included nuts—another health food—or nut flours, which added another dollop of healthy fat and extra protein. Protein and fat take longer to digest, which helps stave off hunger pangs.

The team also cut the size of the muffins. That makes sense, since the 4- to 5-ounce muffins sold in coffee shops equal two servings, according to the USDA’s food composition database.

So I tried it, and…

It took the Culinary Institute/Harvard team several tries to turn out what it says are moist, tender, and delicious muffins.

I made a batch of the blueberry muffins. It took just over 30 minutes, start to finish. The end result was as promised—moist, muffin-y, and tasty. Even my kids said they were “okay”—high praise from teenagers.

Do it yourself

If you want to make healthier muffins, here are some tips from the muffin makeover team:

  • Downsize the size of your muffins.
  • Use some whole-grain flour, and even some whole grains.
  • Slash the sugar.
  • Use oil instead of butter.
  • Add nuts when possible.
  • Scale back the salt.
  • Add fruits and vegetables.

Comparing muffins


Regular blueberry muffin

Reduced-fat blueberry muffin

The Muffin Makeover blueberry muffin





Carbohydrates (g)




Sugar (g)




Fiber (g)




Total Fat (g)




Unsaturated Fat (g)




Saturated Fat (g)




Protein (g)




Sodium (mg)




Nutrition information from Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source


  1. Jonathan

    White cctohlaoe and cranberries are one of my favorite combos. And I love cardamom – but don’t use it often enough. I have had it in banana bread and it was delicious.

  2. David

    We all know what we need to do, but eating right is not something we want to do. From a restaurant perspective, everyone says they want low-fat options, but the reality is they never become top-sellers. But anytime you can create healthier recipes without sacrificing flavor and texture, you’ve got a winner. Good job!

    David A.

  3. R Johnson

    BTW this just in, Deen, 65, after revealing her condition on Tuesday although she was diagnosed three years ago. She admits that while she hasn’t given up desserts altogether, she has changed her eating habits and is now trying to help her fans eat healthier too.

  4. R Johnson

    This brings to mind recent news about Paula Deen, host of the Food Network’s “Paula’s Best Dishes,” put rumors to bed Tuesday by confirming on NBC’s “Today Show” that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago, even though she continued to tout her buttery, artery-clogging Southern cuisine.
    I think the recipies contains are what folks should consider when making the choice about selecting muffins and so on.

  5. Rich Shamrock

    Muffin or donuts are extensively used as breakfast by many people. And the makeover of a muffin really makes it exciting and tasty. Thanks for a yummy makeover muffin.

  6. Ann

    Just ate one. Smaller than the store-bought variety, but much more flavor and way more satisfying — especially when I looked at the calorie count.

  7. Robin

    Canned pumpkin can be a good substitute for oil. I bet that would add some nice flavor to some of the muffins (Blueberry, Banana Nut) too.

  8. Anonymous

    Great idea, love to eat a muffin that’s good for me!

  9. TC

    So where’s the final recipe for the 130 cal low sugar healthy muffins?? I would like to try making them myself.

  10. Ruth

    “extra” protein? Looks like less than half the protein…3 g vs 7 g.

    • Avatar
      P.J. Skerrett

      That’s because the “improved” muffin has fewer calories (130) than the others. In the makeover muffin, protein accounts for almost 10% of calories, compared with about 5% for the regular and low-fat muffins.


  11. Katherine

    This is a helpful model for working in ways on nutrition and public health.

    • Lene

      wonderful iuesss altogether, you just received a new reader. What may you recommend in regards to your post that you made some days in the past? Any positive?

  12. Polly

    Why replace the butter with canola oil – an industrial oil high in “bad” omega 6 fatty acids? I thought that the stabler saturated fats were actually now seen as a better choice.

    • Carine

      “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.”

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