By Matthew Thompson, Associate Food Editor for EatingWell Magazine
For several years, when I was getting started in the New York magazine world, my regular breakfast was a muffin -- usually purchased from a fast-food chain and scarfed down on my all-out sprint from the subway to the office. Not so coincidentally, these were also the years in which I steadily, gradually gained weight.
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My assumption, in ordering a wholesome-looking, berry-studded muffin virtually every day, was that I was making a healthy choice. It turns out, however, that that's not necessarily the case.
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Even the most cursory glance at the nutrition info for various fast-food muffins will show you that there is an at times massive discrepancy between the healthiest and least healthy option. While some can make a good on-the-go breakfast, others pack in close to half of your saturated fat allotment for the day, while offering very little nutritionally in return. Simply put, it pays to know what you're about to bite into.
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Since I know that not all muffins are created equal, I thought I'd offer a comparison of some of the top fast-food chains' healthiest and least healthy muffins on their current menus:
In recent weeks I've been seeing commercials for McDonald's new line of baked goods, which includes danishes, scones and, of course, muffins. The restaurant is initially rolling out the offering in New England and depending on how well they do here, they're considering national availability. McDonald's Multi-Grain Berry Muffin (pictured) is a pleasant surprise: it has the lowest calorie count of all the muffins I looked at and boasts a healthy 6 grams of fiber. Watch out for their Blueberry Muffin, however, which packs in 45% of the daily value of saturated fat (based on a 2,000-calorie diet).
Best: Multi-Grain Berry Muffin (280 calories, 1 g saturated fat, 7 g protein, 51 g carbohydrates, 290 mg sodium, 6 g fiber)
Worst: Blueberry Muffin (390 calories, 9 g saturated fat, 5 g protein, 57 g carbohydrates, 290 mg sodium, 2 g fiber)
Au Bon Pain
Though Au Bon Pain's Triple Berry muffin delivers less protein and fiber (two nutrients that keep you feeling fuller longer) than their Double Chocolate Muffin (the worst choice health-wise at this eatery), you'll save 320 calories with the berry muffin and not consume any saturated fat (the chocolate muffin delivers 40 percent of your daily limit of heart-unhealthy saturated fat). Don't get suckered in by their healthy-sounding Carrot Walnut Muffin (pictured) either, which has 560 calories!
Best: Low-Fat Triple Berry Muffin (300 calories, 0 g saturated fat, 4 g protein, 65 g carbohydrate, 720 mg sodium, 2 g fiber)
Worst: Double Chocolate Chunk Muffin (620 calories, 8 g saturated fat, 11 g protein, 86 g carbohydrate, 540 mg sodium, 4 g fiber)
You'll save 140 calories with the Starbucks Apple Bran Muffin (pictured) and get 5 more grams of feel-full fiber than if you chose the Zucchini Walnut muffin.
Best: Apple Bran Muffin (350 calories, 2.5 g saturated fat, 6 g protein, 64 g carbohydrate, 520 mg sodium, 7 g fiber)
Worst: Zucchini Walnut Muffin (490 calories, 2.5 g saturated fat, 7 g protein, 52 g carbohydrate, 480 mg sodium, 2 g fiber)
Cosi's Raisin Bran Muffin (pictured) boasts more fiber and protein (two super-satisfying nutrients) and significantly less saturated fat than their Chocolate Chip Muffin -- and for 180 fewer calories to boot!
Best: Raisin Bran Muffin (350 calories, 0 g saturated fat, 9 g protein, 72 g carbohydrates, 420 mg sodium, 10 g fiber)
Worst: Chocolate Chip Muffin (530 calories, 6 g saturated fat, 8 g protein, 66 g carbohydrates, 420 mg sodium, 3 g fiber)
There are actually two healthy muffin options at Dunkin' Donuts. Their Reduced Fat Blueberry Muffin (pictured) is their absolute lowest calorie option, but we'd also recommend their Honey Bran Raisin muffin. You'll get the same amount of protein as their least healthy option (the Coffee Cake muffin) but you'll save 150 calories and 5.5 grams of saturated fat, plus you get 3 more grams of fiber, which will help you feel satisfied through the morning.
Best: Reduced Fat Blueberry Muffin (410 calories, 2 g saturated fat, 7 g protein, 75 g carbohydrates, 620 mg sodium, 2 g fiber)
Worst: Coffee Cake Muffin (590 calories, 8 g saturated fat, 7 g protein, 86 g carbohydrate, 480 mg sodium, 1 g fiber)
Panera Bread's best option, the Wild Blueberry Muffin (pictured), essentially delivers the same amount of protein and fiber as their least-healthy version, the Pumpkin muffin, but clocks in at 150 fewer calories and 150 mg less sodium, plus 1 gram less saturated fat. One other thing I like at Panera is their offering of “muffies” -- half-size muffins in select flavors that allow you to indulge in a controlled way.
Best: Wild Blueberry Muffin (440 calories, 3 g saturated fat, 6 g protein, 66 g carbohydrate, 330 mg sodium, 2 g fiber)
Worst: Pumpkin Muffin (590 calories, 4 g saturated fat, 7 g protein, 91 g carbohydrate, 480 mg sodium, 2 g fiber)
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What's your favorite on-the-go muffin?
By Matthew Thompson
Matthew Thompson is the associate food editor for EatingWell Magazine.More from EatingWell: