When the Hell Did We Convince Ourselves Muffins Were a Breakfast Food?

Given the long-running national consensus surrounding breakfast’s vital place in our lives, it's an absolute travesty that we (all 325.7 million Americans on earth) treat it with such negligence. One symptom of said negligence: an invasive species of pastry that has scraped its way through the food chain and laid its crumbly hands over the necks and stomachs of hungry people everywhere. We’re talking about the muffin.

With an average muffin packing more than 400 calories and a mind-melting 40 grams of sugar in one serving, 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. The muffin as a whole isn’t a bad thing: convenient, delicious, easy to snack on when you’re rushing for the train, but let's be honest about it, it's nothing more than a frosting-less cupcake masquerading as a sensible adult breakfast choice.

Let us curse the day the ludicrous concept of a muffin as a means to a balanced breakfast entered the mainstream -- which begs the question: when did this all happen?


A taste of muffin history

According to author, muffin aficionado, and Associate Professor of the Practice and Director of Gastronomy at Boston University Megan J. Elias sheds, it all starts with the British.

“Muffins were originally a small, yeast-risen breadstuff, pretty common in English homes. With the rise of the middle class in the 19th century, families could afford to hire cooks, If you have someone who you can command to wake up before you, you can have hot food for breakfast without any trouble to yourself, so gems and muffins became popular.” Elias continues to say these little “yeast-risen breadstuff” items were originally called “gems” and became particularly popular in the 1830s. But when did the modern muffin as we know it enter the American breakfast scene? More than 100 years later.

“The shift away from full breakfasts at home became noticeable toward the end of the 1970s,” continues Elias. “As more middle class women entered the paid workforce, there were fewer people at home to prepare and clean up a full breakfast in the morning, so the concept of ‘grab and go’ entered middle class culture. Working class people have always had it and wealthy people have staff to make them a full breakfast (and clean up). A small muffin or other hot bread might have been a kind of breakfast side dish in the days of full breakfasts at home, so it could be recognized as breakfast food. Sara Lee offered frozen muffins that could be heated up in a toaster oven, which was itself a new item in the 1970s.”

Incidentally, the change in breakfast culture evolved alongside (and perhaps, because of) the change in gender roles. Moms were working more, giving them less time to eat at home, leading to the kinds of meals kids and mothers alike could prepare and eat quickly. Now, the very same enlightening period is leading to the decline of the breakfast muffin -- hopefully.

“We are in a phase of breakfast eclecticism,” adds Elias, “which probably includes some healthy and some not healthy options, but since I’m not a nutritionist I don’t dare to say which are which. Definitely as the US becomes more and more diverse, we see wider variety of breakfast options. And now that McDonald’s serves the egg mcmuffin all day what is breakfast anyway?”

yogurt and granola breakfast
Ekaterina Kondratova

What to eat instead?

So, what in the name of all that’s holy does one eat for breakfast instead of stuffing a 500 calorie dessert in disguise into your mouth? Well, it turns out there are loads of choices for those inclined to -- ya know -- live a long time.

“First of all, I love muffins,” says Andrea Goergen, MHS, RDN, LDN, Owner of Cultivate Healthy in Washington, D.C. “They are tasty and an convenient grab-and-go option. Truthfully, though, commercially prepared muffins are often some of the worst breakfast options out there. Muffins are usually high in fat and sugar which means they're loaded with calories, but none of the good stuff to get you full and keep you satisfied. Even a low fat muffin from a national donut shop is 460 calories with 43 grams of sugar!”

Goergen is a clinical dietitian who assists patients and clients in weight loss, diabetes prevention and management, and realizing that muffins are not who you thought they were.

“Check out this blueberry muffin from Dunkin Donuts,” says Jen Scheinman, RDN. “The first two ingredients are flour and sugar. It's full of simple carbs which will cause blood sugar to skyrocket first thing in the morning. Chances are after eating this you'll be hungry in an hour, and seeking out the next sugary snack.”

So, what do Scheinman and Goergen suggest you do in lieu of these crumbly time bombs?

“I encourage my clients to start their day out fueling on healthy fats and protein rather than a breakfast full of carbohydrates,” continues Scheinman, “A few of my favorites are protein shakes, eggs, plain Greek yogurt with some fresh fruit. Healthy homemade muffins are totally okay too.”

FWIW, Scheinman offered to send over a recipe for her famous homemade muffins. I respectfully accepted her offer. Goergen also believes in a well-rounded -- and homemade -- breakfast filled with protein and fiber.

“Add in whole grains like oats or fruits like apples and pears. Replace oil with applesauce to cut some of the calories, and consider pairing it with high protein options like eggs or low sugar Greek yogurt,” adds Goergen.

Okay fine so maybe not ALL muffins are bad -- but next time you ask for one from the pastry display at least you'll know what you're getting yourself into -- a potentially crippling dessert-for-breakfast habit.

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Jeremy Glass is a Brooklyn-based writer dabbling in advertising, branded content, creative strategy and so much more. Follow or die: @candyandpizza.