Julia Moskin’s latest “Recipe Lab” in the New York Times food section revisits one of my (cranky, irascible) pet peeves: the “healthy” muffin. She claims her version, filled with an expensive and lengthy list of the latest buzzword ingredients and yet supposedly lighter-textured than most bakery offerings, is healthy, always a warning sign, especially when paired with the instruction to make sure it’s well-leavened and to use “unprocessed” oils. These are code words for a heavy dose of baking soda and baking powder on the one hand and coconut oil, the newest darling of the hipster food world, on the other.
But–benefit of the doubt–I looked at the recipe and scrolled down to mouse over the nutrition stats. They’re provided in a popup link you can’t copy, with a very faint “i-in-a-circle” watermarked icon below the ingredient list. Not a good sign, generally: hiding the nutrition stats signals that they’re kinda suspish, or at least unflattering. But okay, at least they’re posted here.
Edamam provides the analysis–and per average muffin, 20 to the batch, claims the following stats:
318 cal, 16 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 trans, 9 g monounsaturated, 4 g polyunsaturated, 39 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 19 g sugars, 4 g protein, 38 mg cholesterol,260 mg sodium
Something didn’t sit quite right with that. I looked up at the ingredient list.
Sure enough, the fat was provided by 1 1/3 cup of coconut oil. Yick. But never mind. The point here is that Edamam lists the saturated fat at a very improbable 1 gram per muffin.
There is–being kind about it–no way this is correct. The only thing I can think of is that Edamam used the soybean or canola oil option for the calculation, but why would that be? Coconut oil is listed as the much-preferred fat. And it’s got more saturated fat per gram than lard. About 82% saturated fat by weight, if you check the most reliable lab analysis at the USDA National Agricultural Library’s nutrient database. And actually, the mono and poly stats suggest something closer to olive oil than soybean or canola.
The correct calculation for 315 ml of coconut oil is 260 grams of saturated fat for the recipe. For 20 muffins, that’s almost 14 grams of saturated fat per muffin, not 1. And 14 grams is pushing the recommended daily max of 20 grams of sat fat for a 2000 calorie-per-day diet. Just for a muffin.
Given the nice way the New York Times provided the grams as well as cups and spoons measures in the recipe, here’s what I came up with, direct from the USDA NAL database and averaging a bit for the different options between apples and carrots and between walnuts and pecans.
- Total calories for the recipe: 7213, per 1/20th (1 muffin): 361
- Total saturated fat: 273 g, per muffin: 13.7 g
- Total monounsaturated fat: ~50 g, per muffin: 2.5 g
- Total polyunsaturated fat: ~50 g, per muffin: 2.5 g
- Total cholesterol: 744 mg, per muffin: 37 mg
- Total carb for the recipe: 699 g, per muffin: 35 g
- Total sugars: 390 g, per muffin: 19.5 g
- Total fiber: 49 g, per muffin, 2.5 g
- Total sodium: ~4670 mg, per muffin, 234 mg.
And yes, it’s kind of a pain to navigate all the USDA data chart by chart, ingredient by ingredient, put in the actual amounts in grams, have it recalculate the whole chart, add the totals up nutrient by nutrient, and then divide by 20. It would be so nice to find an accurate and complete free recipe-style app to pull all the relevant data and stick it in a single spreadsheet. The myfitnesspal.com recipe calculator is about the best I’ve found so far, but it’s not as complete, and neither unfortunately is the USDA’s Supertracker calculator, as far as I can tell.
How did Edamam and the New York Times Food Section do? The sodium, though a bit much for a single bready item (4 t. baking powder, 1 t baking soda and half a teaspoon of salt on top of that, plus whatever’s in the buttermilk), came out about right at 260 mg (I got 234 per muffin). The carbs are about right too, if kind of a lot. Sugar at 19 grams is about half the total carb and makes it no great bargain (not to mention, brown sugar plus maple syrup? cha-ching, and the maple flavor probably disappears with all the other stuff. Kind of a waste.). This is still a pretty cakey item, despite Moskin’s protestations to the contrary and all the grated carrot and blueberries and multigrain ethos. Edamam’s calorie estimate is a bit low by 40 cal per muffin. You could probably live with that.
But you shouldn’t. Because with the trendy, expensive coconut oil option, the published saturated fat estimate is way, way, way off. Way off. Bizarrely off.
I visited Edamam’s web site to see if I could figure out how they calculated this–whether their own calculator would give me the right result if I input “315 ml. coconut oil,” or whether their API, which features natural language processing, somehow makes errors this big when it parses a recipe and does the lookup in the USDA database. Did it pull the wrong ingredient, or did the NY Times staff type the wrong thing into their recipe submission? Or what?
So we’re just going to have to go direct and believe the USDA database stats for coconut oil, adapted for the quantity in the recipe.
No one under 40 is going to believe me instead of whatever garbage is being bandied about in the popular press about the supposed health benefits of coconut oil, but just you wait. I hear your gallbladders calling you, babes. I give you ten years or so to discover the joy for yourselves. Why?
Any of the reputed health advantages of coconut-specific lipids are pretty minor compared to the fact that it’s so saturated. By the time the coconut oil gets digested enough to enter your bloodstream from your gut, it’s no longer labeled as coconut, it’s just mostly-saturated fatty acids with a little mono- and polyunsaturated decoration. Your body doesn’t care at that point whether it came from a pig or a palm tree.
Fat is a bulk ingredient, especially in cup quantities, and it has a direct bulk effect on blood lipids. When I was still young myself and working in a biomedical lab, one of the postdocs told me about an experiment he’d run in grad school: he got a bunch of students to give a test-tube-sized blood sample before lunch, go out and eat a cheeseburger at one of the big-three chains and come back for another blood draw an hour later. His lab spun down the blood samples in a centrifuge and he said you could actually see the sizeable triglyceride layer floating on top of the post-burger samples. Not nice.
And, I mean–muffins? At 360 cal per muffin, you would really do better–maybe even on the sodium–with a cup of bran cereal and some skim milk. Or even, let’s be honest, a plain medium-sized croissant and some jam. If you’re gonna be decadent, do it right.