Linda Crampton is a former teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
Pumpkin: A Nutritious and Healthy Fruit
Pumpkins are colorful and nutritious fruits that are loaded with beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A. They are a good source of other vitamins and of minerals. Pumpkin muffins are excellent at any time of the year, but they are especially nice during autumn harvest festivals and the Halloween and Thanksgiving celebrations. They’re easy to make and can be a healthy food if they're made with the right ingredients. They can also be turned into a special treat when a cream cheese topping is spread on the baked muffins. Ingredients added to the cream cheese can create a wide range of tastes.
The large and fine-grained cake muffins that can be bought in stores and restaurants are usually loaded with fat and sugar. They often contain artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and other unhealthy ingredients. I prefer the more rustic bread muffins. It's quick and easy to make them at home, where ingredients and size can be controlled. Muffin recipes are very versatile because their ingredients can be changed to produce new flavors and nutritional value. My recipe below is the one that I use when I want to make pumpkin spice muffins.
Pumpkin Spice Muffin Recipe
Muffins are quick to make for a snack or for part of a meal. They are the items that I bake most often. I love their versatility. Pumpkin spice muffins are a delicious variety. The ingredients can be tweaked each time the muffins are made in order to try different variations or to change the proportion of the ingredients. You can probably think of new things to add to the muffins and their toppings. It’s always fun to experiment with recipes.
Yield: 12 moist and spicy muffins
- 2 cups stone-ground whole wheat flour (or of a flour combination; e.g., 1 cup ordinary whole wheat flour and 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour)
- 1 cup unsweetened canned pumpkin puree
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1/4 cup high or mid-oleic sunflower oil
- 1/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce
- 1/3 cup blackstrap molasses or brown rice syrup
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Note: You can replace the spices with two teaspoons of a pumpkin pie spice mixture.
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup raisins, blueberries, or other berries
- 1/2 to 3/4 cups chopped nuts (I think pecans are especially nice)
- 3/4 cup chocolate chips (I buy chocolate chips that are sweetened with malted grains instead of refined sugar; you can find these at a health food store)
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Mix the pureed pumpkin, buttermilk, sunflower oil, apple sauce, and blackstrap molasses or brown rice syrup together.
- In another bowl, mix the dry ingredients together.
- Mix the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients. Stir until just combined and don’t over-mix. The muffin batter will be quite stiff (but the interior of the baked muffins will be soft and moist).
- Divide the mixture into 12 lined, oiled, or nonstick muffin cups. Fill each cup about three-quarters full.
- Bake the muffins for 20 to 25 minutes. When they’re ready to be removed from the oven, the muffins should feel firm when touched and a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin should look clean when it’s removed.
- Leave the muffins in the cups for about 10 minutes, then remove them and cool them on a wire rack.
Options for Spreads and Toppings
I sometimes cut a muffin in half and spread low-fat cream cheese on each half. Cream cheese also makes a delicious topping for baked muffins, especially when it's mixed with a small amount of one or more of the following substances:
- whole, unrefined brown sugar
- maple sugar
- maple syrup
- brown rice syrup
- honey (I like buckwheat honey, which has a dark colour and a strong flavor)
- canned pumpkin
- shredded coconut
- instant coffee
- vanilla extract
- lemon extract
- peppermint extract
- pumpkin pie spice
- nut or seed butter
A layer of cream cheese topped with sliced fruit or nuts is also nice on top of a muffin. Nut and seed butters on their own make great muffin spreads and toppings. They are nutritious foods, even though they contain fat. I make my favorite nut butter spread by mixing hazelnut butter with cocoa and a sugar-free sweetener such as erythritol. Adding spices to toppings or to recipes not only provides a nice taste but can also supply additional health benefits, which depend on the spice.
Pumpkin as Part of a Healthy Diet
Pumpkin is a nutritionally rich food and has many health benefits. I eat canned pureed pumpkin all year long as a dessert. The addition of a healthy sugar substitute and spices makes a delicious mixture. Pumpkin is very low in fat and low in sugar. Like all foods from plants, it's cholesterol free.
The colour of pumpkin comes from beta-carotene, which is an orange pigment that is also abundant in carrots. One half cup of pumpkin provides more than our daily requirement for beta-carotene. Beta-carotene in food (but not in supplements) seems to have a number of important health benefits, including improving the functioning of the immune system and reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Pumpkin is also rich in vitamin C. In addition, it's a significant source of vitamin E and a variety of B vitamins. It contains a range of minerals, including useful amounts of potassium, copper, manganese, magnesium, iron, calcium, and zinc. Beta-carotene and vitamin E are fat soluble, so a small quantity of healthy oil should be eaten with pumpkin to promote the absorption of these nutrients.
Pumpkin is a good source of soluble fiber. This type of fiber forms a gel when it mixes with water in the small intestine. The gel is believed to lower the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood. The substance is a normal part of our body, but if it’s present in an excessive amount, it increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. (HDL cholesterol is beneficial and is believed to decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes.)
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Flour Choice for Muffin Recipes
I like to use stone-ground whole wheat flour for baking, as shown in my photo above. This type of flour is coarser than other kinds and contains more of the grain’s nutrients. In addition, when grain is stone-ground it undergoes less oxidation than when it’s milled by conventional methods.
Flour substitutions work if whole wheat flour produces too dense a muffin for your liking. You may be able to find a stone-ground whole wheat pastry flour, which has a finer texture. Combining all purpose white flour with ordinary whole wheat flour will also produce muffins with a lighter texture. This combination is probably best if you haven’t eaten high-fiber muffins before or if you don’t like baked goods that are high in fiber. If you choose to use white flour in your baking, it’s a good idea to ensure that it’s unbleached.
Healthy Oil for Baked Goods
Sunflower oil is a good source of vitamin E. The high-oleic version is rich in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, including oleic acid. Regular sunflower oil is high in polyunsaturated fats, which aren’t quite as healthy for us. The oil has a neutral taste.
A healthy eater doesn’t need to avoid fat, but he or she should eat the right kind of fats and also eat them in moderation. Our bodies need good fats to function properly. In addition, the fat or oil in a meal helps the absorption of certain nutrients in the small intestine.
Apple sauce can be used instead of oil in baked goods. In my muffin recipe, the apple sauce reduces the amount of oil that’s needed and also adds some sweetness. This means that less sweetener is needed in the recipe. I don’t replace all of the oil with apple sauce because I like to get some of the oil’s health benefits and because even unsweetened apple sauce is high in sugar in the form of fructose. A different vegetable oil can be used in the recipe if you prefer. The apple sauce and the pumpkin help to create a moist texture in the muffin.
Blackstrap molasses contains sucrose (table sugar). This is the substance present in refined white sugar. It shouldn’t be eaten in large amounts. Unlike refined sugar, however, blackstrap molasses is a good source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. It has a strong and distinctive taste, which some people love. It also has a very dark color. Despite its nutrients, it’s a good idea to use as little of it as possible in recipes. You might need to train your brain to enjoy only a little sweetness in baked goods, but the rewards could be important
In the recipe above, brown rice syrup can be used instead of molasses. Brown rice syrup is one of my favourite sweeteners. It has a golden color and a toffee-like taste when it’s eaten on its own. It gives a mild sweetness to baked goods. In this recipe it has the advantage of letting more of the pumpkin colour and flavor appear in the baked muffins. When blackstrap molasses is used as a sweetener, the batter is darker. Brown rice syrup is a concentrated source of glucose, however. Like molasses, it’s useful in recipes, but it shouldn’t be used in large amounts.
Stevia would be a good substitute for molasses because it doesn’t contain sugar. Where I live, stevia is most often sold in small packets to add to hot drinks. One supermarket near my home does sell large packets of stevia for bakers, though these aren’t as full as the bags of sugar. Another problem is that they are relatively expensive. The price of stevia used in baked goods would quickly add up for someone who does a lot of baking. The substance could be beneficial for occasional use, though.
If a reader decides to use stevia in my muffin recipe, they should follow the instructions for using brown sugar given below. Though I haven’t tried this, mixing brown sugar and stevia might be effective in the recipe and would reduce the required amount of each substance.
Buttermilk generally isn't high in fat, despite its name. It's usually made from low-fat milk that has been fermented by bacteria. Artificial buttermilk can reportedly be made by adding one tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to a cup of milk and letting the milk stand for five to 10 minutes. Buttermilk helps to make baked goods light and moist. It can also add flavor to muffins. Regular milk could be used in my recipe if you prefer, but I prefer to use buttermilk in order to enrich the taste.
"1703, moofin, possibly from Low German muffen, plural of muffe 'small cake'"
— Online Etymology Dictionary (with respect to the word "muffin")
Erythritol as a Healthy Sweetener
Erythritol occurs naturally in some fruits and fermented foods. It's made for consumers by yeast fermentation of glucose. It’s virtually calorie-free and doesn’t cause tooth decay. It also has no effect on blood sugar.
Erythritol is one of the sugar alcohols, like xylitol, maltitol, and sorbitol. Unlike sorbitol, erythritol doesn’t have a tendency to cause diarrhea. Xylitol is a healthy sugar substitute, but it’s dangerous if dogs eat it and can even be deadly for them. It causes a dangerous drop in their blood sugar level.
The erythritol sold in my local stores is expensive, but I was pleased to find some reasonably priced single-serve packets in a supermarket recently. I consider erythritol to be too expensive to use in baked goods, but in small quantities such as in a muffin topping it’s great for perking up foods or drinks that need a bit of sweetening.
- Nutrients in cooked pumpkin from SELF Nutrition Data
- Carotenoid (including beta-carotene) information from Oregon State University
- Facts about cholesterol from the American Heart Association
- Soluble fiber information from the Mayo Clinic
- Nutrients in high-oleic sunflower oil from SELF Nutrition Data
- Monounsaturated fat information from the American Heart Association
- Blackstrap molasses facts from WebMD
- Stevia safety from WebMD
- A dietitian discusses erythritol on the Today show website (from NBC)
© 2011 Linda Crampton