Myth of the Morning Muffin
Late to work again? A quick eight-shot espresso from the local coffee cart will cure that hangover, but there's still the question of breakfast. For a dollar or two more you can free that juicy chocolate-chocolate chip muffin from its cellophane jacket and make it a nutritious part of your complete breakfast. And, without counting that 20 oz. latte in your other hand, you've just consumed nearly 700 calories. The 38 grams of fat rolling around in your stomach represent 40 percent of the government-recommended daily fat intake. A Burger King Whopper actually has fewer calories, but four more grams of fat.Moist, sweet, nearly crumb-free, and selling for $4.99 a dozen, it's easy to see why the Costco muffin has become an ubiquitous fixture in coffee shops. The muffin stays moist for days, even without the wrapping, and resells for at least a buck a piece -- nearly a 250 percent mark-up. Most shops sell them for $1.75, and even at $2 it's a small price to pay for such a huge chunk o' chewy goodness.No other company can offer the sheer amount of dough for the price. While smaller bakeries like Europa and Muffin Break sell their products to coffee carts and shops for around a dollar a piece, Costco and Sam's Club offer theirs for about 41 cents. Of course, half-pound muffins with a shelf-life of several weeks carry a different kind of price tag, both for the consumer and for local bakers.Cafe owner Nicki Shinners makes the majority of her muffins from a basic cookbook recipe. The list of ingredients includes the basic things you'd expect: flour, eggs, butter, vanilla, blueberries, leavening, and sugar. Sorella's is typical of small cafes and bake shops: everything on the stainless steel counter -- except bagels -- is made in small batches in their own small kitchen. The goods change from day to day, and sometimes they don't come out just right. The day I visited, the blueberry muffins had a few too many berries and tended to fall apart. Tethered together by shrink wrap, the result was a yummy, discounted, 50-cent mistake.Although they're made from scratch in a large in-house bakery, a glance at the Costco muffin label reveals a product not so much of baking creativity as food science. Sugar ranks second behind flour for all the Costco flavors (sugar's first at Sam's Club), and it's not long until words like "propylene glycol" appear. To achieve ideal consistency and bulk, some "extra" ingredients are added to the mix.To cut costs, vegetable shortening is substituted for butter. But shortening tends to separate from the finished product, leaving a greasy finish. So emulsifiers -- lecithin and diglycerides -- are added. Shortening also melts thinner than butter, so natural thickeners like guar gum are added to the mix. Propylene glycol is added as a water retainer, or humectant, to keep the muffins moist. And while a permanently moist muffin will ultimately go sour, sodium benzoate helps slow the process.At both Sam's Club and Costco, I was able to compile an ingredient list right off the package. But a full description of the warehouse club muffins' nutritional makeup was harder to find. While visiting the glass-enclosed bakery of an Anchorage Sam's Club, equipped with 8-foot-tall walk-in ovens, I asked for a copy of the nutrition information. Over the din, the answer was "no." Later, store manager Mitch Manzo told me that I would need to wait several days to see if he could get the info. The response at Costco was similar, but I was referred by the head baker to a nationwide service line.It turns out Costco has done a complete analysis of its product, and with a little prodding over the telephone a company representative was willing to give me some details. A Costco blueberry muffin, it seems, contains 32 grams of fat, 71 grams of carbohydrates and has a total of 610 calories. The almond poppy seed variety contains 670 calories per muffin, and the chocolate chip tops the scales with 690 calories and 38 grams of fat. As far as I can tell, the number for Sam's Club muffins should be similar. So much for a light breakfast. The muffin holds about 40 percent of the calories from fat recommended by the USDA for a 2,000 calorie diet.Formulated for shelf life and crumb-free consumption, muffin nutrition falls by the wayside. According to my rough calculations, two eggs and toast, with butter, have fewer calories than one Costco double chocolate muffin. And if you really crave chocolate treats, you can make your own Heavenly Chocolate Cupcakes for about 335 calories each. These "muffins," from the Williams Sonoma "Chocolate" cookbook, are richer and tastier and still have fewer calories than the Costco variety.Nutrition seems to be the last thing on the minds of most bakery employees. Of all the bakeries I asked, only Carr's was able to provide me with nutrition information. No Anchorage, Alaska employee knew the caloric content of Carr's muffins, but they referred me to Bunge Foods in Seattle, which makes the mixes their muffins are based on. Bunge Foods' lab analysis found that 100 grams of their fat-free bran muffin mix, for example, contains 370 calories. Since serving sizes vary and Carr's adds its own ingredients at each store bakery, this may or may not reflect the content of the finished product.The other bakeries simply had no idea, and there's really no reason why they should know. According to the 1994 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, "ready-to-eat food prepared primarily on site, such as deli and bakery items" are exempt from mandatory nutrition labeling. Also, small bakeries do not need to offer either nutrition or ingredient information about their products.Many bakeries in town were more than happy to share their ingredients lists with me. Europa Bakery manager Marcy Zufelt cheerfully read down their recipe, which has no artificial ingredients and no preservatives. The response was similar at Cafe Amsterdam, Muffin Break and Illusions -- their products are all natural and baked fresh at least every few days.Although many were ready to defend the freshness and all-natural contents of their products, no bakery employee or manager made any great nutrition claims about their products. Bakeries, for the most part, create muffins along the lines of danishes, eclairs and other dessert items, with enormous amounts of sugar in each item. According to Illusions owner Brian Woodhall, "Some of our muffins, like the pumpkin, even have more sugar than flour." Bakeries don't sell muffins as health food, but customers often eat them as if they were a portable equivalent of a bowl of oatmeal.Only Great Harvest Bread Co. -- which doesn't make muffins -- offers a nutrition breakdown of all its products. Between insistent offers of a free slice of bread, employees at the Benson Drive establishment gladly point out the healthy qualities of their products. The Great Harvest answer to the fat and sugar muffin, the "E-roll," is a cross between a sweet roll and bread. They're low in fat and contain less than half the calories of a Costco muffin. Of course, it was so tasty, I ended up eating three.Consumer disinterest, or at least ignorance, favors the mass-produced Costco-style muffin. A fresh baked product, will last for, at best, two days after its creation. Muffin Break, located in the Dimond Center, makes their muffins fresh each day, and only during the morning of their creation are they fluffy and non-crumbly. After a day exposed to air, they dry solid. After a day trapped in a humid display case, they turn to bran flavored cement. These ephemeral beauties cost more than Costco muffins and shrink wrap will destroy them.To add insult to injury, it seems that some people actually crave the Costco taste. "We started making our own muffins," said Alec Lewis of the Old Firehouse Cafe, "and it wasn't just for a few weeks, either. But people wanted the Costco muffin taste, so we went back to selling them instead." Now, the Firehouse sells several dozen every week.Cheap sweets sell because people like them. Despite all the hoopla about healthy eating and fat-free this and that, consumers still prefer tasty, easy-to-eat items. I used to accompany my friend Matt to Dunkin' Donuts while he downed half a dozen assorted jelly-filled creations. "Dios mio!" I'd exclaim. "You've just consumed 100 grams of fat and the entire recommended amount of cholesterol for a week!" While patting his belly, he'd reply, "Yeah, but these things taste sooo good."Matt, however, was an informed consumer. He knew exactly what he was getting into because Dunkin' Donuts provides nutrition information for each item on the menu. Costco, Sam's Club and other big bakers have done laboratory analyses of their products and simply do not inform either their employees or their customers of the results. Surprisingly few even ask. One of my initial nutrition queries was met with a shrug, a glance at the thousands of muffins rolling out of the shrink wrapping machine, and the comment, "We make so many of them, I guess they must be pretty good to eat." When I asked a Carr's employee what goes into a Carr's Mega Muffin, he laughed and said, "Just look at these things! How healthy could they possibly be?"