ast month, Tori Spelling, of 90210 and Tori and Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood fame, posted a sponsored Instagram of two of her children eating Entemann’s Little Bites Snacks Strawberry Yogurt Muffins. Spelling praised the muffins for their lack of high-fructose corn syrup while highlighting the inclusion of “real” ingredients such as strawberries, blueberries and bananas.
Needless to say, the internet quickly dissolved into turmoil.
“But it’s selling poison,” commented one follower. “Disappointed.”
“Bags of chemicals,” commented another.
“The first ingredient is sugar!” exclaimed a third.
“I buy these muffins as a snack for my family,” commented one of Tori’s defenders. “What is wrong with the muffins?”
The better question might be what is wrong with muffins in general, or rather, what about them garners so many strong emotions? Are they still considered a breakfast food staple, or have they been usurped by seemingly more nutritious (not to mention more attractive) alternatives like overnight oats and gluten-free avocado toast? Do they have what it takes to be a health food contender in the ranks of the wellness-industrial complex, as suggested by “healthy muffin” brands like Flapjacked Mighty Muffins or VitaTops? Are they simply cupcakes masquerading as non-desserts by virtue of the absent frosting?
“Eating a muffin for breakfast is exactly the same as taking out your heart, putting it in on a serving dish, and then covering your heart with killer bees whose own hearts are filled with spite,” Thrillist wrote in a story entitled, “When the Hell Did We Convince Ourselves Muffins Were a Breakfast Food?”
As it turns out, we convinced ourselves sometime toward the end of the 1970s, when more middle-class women began entering the workplace and were no longer able to stay home and cook a full, sit-down breakfast for their families in the morning. “Grab-and-go” meal consumption was therefore a more common occurrence, and muffins a logical component.
In 2019, though, we are living in an age of what Associate Professor of the Practice and Director of Gastronomy at Boston University Megan J. Elias calls “breakfast eclecticism,” wherein pretty much anything can be a breakfast food and any breakfast food can also moonlight as a snack or even a dinner option. I would add that any breakfast or breakfast-adjacent food can also be co-opted and transformed — with the help of the right marketing — from dubious indulgence to wellness darling, which is why there are over 107,000 posts with the hashtag “healthy pancakes” on Instagram and Special K Protein Cereal is now a thing. If pancakes and cereal, why not muffins?
My own relationship with muffins is rooted in childhood nostalgia. I remember my mom using my grandmother’s bran muffin recipe when I was a kid to make batches in bulk, which she would then freeze so we could reheat them for breakfast over the course of months. In middle school, there was always a huge clamor at morning recess to nab one of the cafeteria’s famed cinnamon chip muffins. In high school, the dining hall would sometimes have chocolate-chip muffins at breakfast that we liked to put through a commercial conveyor toaster so the crusted sugar would melt on top and the chocolate chips would get warm and gooey. (This practice was later banned when someone’s muffin caught on fire).
As an adult, I view muffins with equal parts intrigue and suspicion. I eat them for breakfast as a treat on occasion, but not often because I’ve found they don’t typically make me feel my best (my best being full and energized). When I do eat them, I prefer ones that are crisped on top, moist in the center and not too sweet. My favorites are from The Butcher’s Daughter on Kenmare street. They’re advertised as gluten-free and sugar-free, which isn’t the reason I like them, but I’ll admit their relative “healthiness” makes me feel better about consuming them first thing in the a.m. That being said, I have no idea what’s actually in them because they taste heavenly, so who’s to say? Is it even possible for muffins to be a health food, or that just another one of 2019’s scams? Do people still eat them regularly for breakfast — “healthy” or not — despite their now-dubious reputation?
“They’re usually so sugary I don’t think they have an identity in today’s health food trend landscape,” one person told me when I posed my muffin queries to Instagram. “When’s the last time you saw a muffin on a brunch menu? Never. They’re barely hanging on.”
“I honestly feel as if muffins are a less exciting cupcake, and therefore not a breakfast food but a dessert,”another said. “So I’d rather just eat a cupcake. I’m not saying I’m against eating cupcakes for breakfast, just that I’d rather be honest about it.”
“Muffins are the dessert of my breakfast, after eggs or oatmeal,” another concurred.
“I love muffins!!!!!” said another. “They get a bad rap because most of them out there are trash, but I love making a batch of healthy ones for the week because they’re basically portable oatmeal (whole wheat/rye/almond flour, sourdough starter, oats, eggs for protein, nuts or seeds, fruit, maple syrup as sweetener, etc.”
“I feel too guilty to eat muffins that often,” said another. “For some reason they feel much unhealthier than something like a croissant. But when I do eat a muffin, I am so thrilled to be eating that muffin.”
To get some clarity around how healthy a muffin can truly be, as well as whether or not they make for decent breakfast fodder (nutritionally speaking), I turned to the experts. Meghan Carney, a registered dietician, has an open-minded approach when it comes to muffin culture:
“I think a muffin can make a delicious breakfast food if you find yourself craving a warm, baked good before your busy day begins,” she told me. “Not all muffins are created equal in terms of nutritional value, but I encourage people to explore foods that bring them enjoyment and to remove the labels ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from foods.”
While Carney consented that some muffins that are marketed as healthy may in fact have the same ingredients as a cupcake, a muffin made with oats, walnuts, carrots, dates and olive oil would be full of healthy fat, fiber, vitamin A and protein. As for brands like Mighty Muffins, she acknowledged that they offer a great healthier alternative to a typical bakery muffin in terms of nutritional value, but with the caveat that they might not satisfy in the same way if you’re truly craving the latter.
I also spoke with Erica Zellner, a health coach at Parsley Health with a Masters of Science in Nutrition and Integrative Health, who was quick to dismiss the purported healthiness of gluten- and sugar-free muffins:
“Gluten-free tells you that they are using a flour option that does not contain glutinous grains, which is great if you’re sensitive to gluten but does not automatically make it a healthy option,” she said. Sugar-free labels always give me pause as a nutritionist, because I’m very cautious about what they’re replacing the sugar with.”
If you’re looking for a more nutritious muffin, Zellner says your best bet is to make them yourself at home: “There are ways to make muffins healthy and balanced, but you’re most likely not going to find them in your corner coffee house. There are many recipes online that involve healthy ingredients such as banana or zucchini for nutrients and fiber, nut flours for healthy fats, and eggs or collagen powder for protein!”
Over the course of my muffin investigation, enough people told me they ate muffins regularly for breakfast that I’m confident this ritual is in no danger of going extinct, even if they don’t make for an obvious wellness trend. What I do wonder, though, is how muffin culture will continue to evolve — or, more specifically, mutate. A Mighty Muffin is “made” by stirring water into a prepackaged mixture and microwaving for a designated period of time. A VitaTop is — as you might suspect — just the top of the muffin, and comes frozen. In contrast, the American dream of having your new neighbor show up at your doorstep with a basket of face-sized muffins, perfectly proportioned and homemade, seems like a forgotten fantasy.
But the trappings of that fantasy still persist in the caramel scent of a freshly-baked banana muffin, and the gentle feel of the steam that wafts toward your face when you break it apart and it’s still too warm to eat, and the nostalgia of your first bite, transporting you back to a simpler time when a food was just a food, a muffin was just a muffin, and all you cared about was how delicious it tasted.
Photos by Heidi’s Bridge.