UNFORTUNATELY, most people approach bran muffins as a food they should take, like Serutan, as opposed to food they should eat. This has led to a genre of heavy, tough culinary laxatives rather than a complement to Sunday brunch. While bran muffins do indeed add necessary fiber to our diets, there should be no reason why they can't, simultaneously, be good food.

For people plagued by problems in the lower reaches of the digestive system, bran muffins are a folk remedy par excellence (particularly good for pregnant women and people with sedentary life styles). And there is increasing medical evidence that cereal fibers like bran do more than make you feel good.

According to Denis P. Burkitt, one of a number of medical experts on the link between low-fiber diets and disease, scientific studies are revealing that an unusually high proportion of people whose diets are low in fiber suffer from a number of intestinal and chronic noninfectious diseases, including coronary heart disease, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, appendicitis and cancer of the colon.

As it passes through the intestines, fiber acts as a sponge, absorbing water and other materials, hastening the movement of waste through the large intestine and, in theory, cutting down on the time harmful elements might be in contact with the intestinal wall. According to Andrew Chiarodo, coordinator for the Diet and Nutrition Cancer Program of the National Cancer Institute, much of our evidence for this is indirect: "Population groups with lots of roughage in their diet have a lower incidence of colon cancer." Many of the nation's health problems that have been attributed to too much fat may well be associated with too little fiber.

Cereal fibers contain less water than fibers found in fruit and vegetables, and therefore tend to absorb more water,, which keeps things moving through the system. And one study indicated that wheat bran has a greater capacity to bind with certain carcinogens (in rats, anyway) and carry them quickly out of the body than does pectin, the fiber found in citrus fruits (although pectin has been associated with lowering blood cholesterol).

Which is all very well and good, but doesn't make the usual bran muffin any more palatable. Particularly unacceptable in my book are the heavy molasses-and-whole-wheat-flour versions found in most natural foods cookbooks. Recognizing my obligation to come up with a bran muffin my family would look forward to rather than sneak into the compost pile, I began a search months ago for a muffin recipe I could not only live with myself but even recommend. While I haven't found perfection, I have found some good muffins to eat along the way.

Muffin making is a little easier if you apply a few general principles:

* In muffin-making, you don't want to beat the batter too long, or the gluten in the flour will start to develop and you'll get a tough instead of crumbly texture. Therefore, thoroughly mix all of the dry ingredients.

* Disregard lumps in the batter. Muffin batter isn't as smooth and creamy as cake batter.

* Let the mix rest a couple of minutes, then spoon it into muffin tins greased or lined with cupcake papers, filling them two-thirds or three-fourths full, depending on the recipe. If you use pastry flour instead of all-purpose flour (which has more gluten), or add a bit of melted butter to the batter, the muffins might not stick to the cupcake papers, but I've learned to live with muffins that stick to cupcake papers.

* Muffins are generally done when they spring back if you touch them, or when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

* Always preheat the oven before you start mixing the batter. Most bran muffins do pretty well in a 400-degree or 425-degree oven after baking 20 to 25 minutes. They should be slightly round on top. If your muffin slumps, your oven is probably too cool; if it rises to lopsided peaks, the oven may be too hot.

* Muffins are best fresh from the oven but freeze very well. To reheat them (they aren't as good cold), pop them into a preheated 400-degree oven for about five minutes. You can put them in foil first but don't have to.

* It's cheaper to buy bran and whole-wheat flour in bulk from a health food store than packaged in a supermarket, but buy them in small quantities and store them in the refrigerator because they contain natural oils that tend to go rancid.

Coarse bran or millers' bran, the kind sold in bulk in health food stores, is the hull of the wheat kernel--short on nutritional value but long on fiber content. Bran flakes and bran cereal are generally cereal mixed with bran. Most of the recipes below were tested with coarse bran, except for one that calls for bran buds, little pellets of bran that are sold in supermarkets.

* The following items vary the taste in interesting ways, but you should mix them well with the wet ingredients before combining them with the dry, so you don't "excite" the gluten: walnuts, pecans or other nuts; raisins or other dried fruits such as chopped prunes, apricots or dates; mashed overripe banana, chopped apple, crumbled cooked bacon, grated orange rind or carrot, blueberries (drained if frozen or canned), or spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Although many people associate bran muffins with raisins, most of my tasters liked them better made with nuts. SHILOH FARMS' BRAN MUFFINS (Makes 12 muffins)

As a devotee of Shiloh Farms Seven Grain Bread, I wrote the bakery asking if it had a good recipe for muffins. This recipe, which was the general favorite in a recent muffin tasting, was sent by Kathy Clough, a Shiloh Farms employe.

As an experiment, I made one batch with whole-wheat flour and one with white flour. The batch with white flour was rated more highly than the other, but the difference was marginal. A simple, tasty muffin -- the winner so far. 1 cup flour 1 cup coarse bran 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 cup walnuts 2 eggs 1 cup milk or yogurt (or sour cream or buttermilk) 2 tablespoons butter or oil 1/3 cup honey

Combine the dry ingredients with the moist and stir only enough to moisten. Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 20 minutes. TRENT'S COCONUT CARROT BRAN MUFFINS (Makes 12 muffins)

This is essentially a variation on the Shiloh Farms muffins, and quite pleasant for a side dish at lunchtime. 2 eggs 1 cup buttermilk 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1/2 cup grated carrots 1/4 cup shredded coconut (preferably unsweetened) 1 cup chopped walnuts 1 cup flour (a mixture of white and whole-wheat flour) 1 cup coarse bran 1/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon baking powder

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl, wet ingredients in another bowl (along with carrots, coconut and nuts), then swiftly stir the wet ingredients into the dry ones, until mixture is moist. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, in muffin tins greased or lined with cupcake papers. BEVERLY DAWSON'S BRAN MUFFINS (Makes 30 to 36 muffins)

This recipe is good for people who like a cake-like quality to their bran muffins (in other words, white flour and sugar). It may make bran more palatable to the wary, and as your family gets used to the bran you can gradually decrease the proportion of white flour and sugar and increase the proportion of whole-wheat flour. When your family stops eating the muffins, you'll know you've reached their health-food threshold. 1/2 cup margarine 1 cup boiling water 1 1/2 cups sugar 2 eggs, well beaten 1 teaspoon salt 2 cups coarse bran 1 cup bran buds 1 tablespoon molasses 2 1/2 cups white flour (see above) 2 teaspoons baking powder 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda 2 cups buttermilk 1 cup raisins or nuts (more if desired)

Melt shortening in water, add sugar and cool slightly. Add eggs, salt, cereals and molasses. Mix flour and other dry ingredients. Add flour mixture to egg mixture, alternately with buttermilk. Bake in well-greased muffin tins at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. BAKERY LANE CHEESE BRAN MUFFINS (Makes 12 muffins)

For muffins that taste wonderful at dinnertime, these are hard to beat, and so is the cookbook they are taken from: "Bakery Lane Soup Bowl," by Marge Mitchell & Joan Sedgwick.

1 cup all-bran cereal (substitute coarse bran) 1 1/4 cups buttermilk 1/4 cup shortening 1/3 cup sugar 1 egg 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Combine cereal and buttermilk; set aside. Cream shortening and sugar together in mixing bowl. Beat in egg. Stir flour, baking powder, soda and salt together, and add creamed mixture alternately with bran mixture. Add cheese and stir only enough to mix evenly. Fill greased muffin pans 3/4 full. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until browned. GARY NULL'S BANANA BRAN MUFFINS (Makes 12 muffins)

These muffins are dark, dense and fruit-cake textured. 1 cup whole-wheat flour 2 cups bran 1/3 cup honey 1/2 cup safflower oil 2/3 cup molasses 1 cup water 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 teaspoon allspice 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 2 bananas, mashed 1/2 cup raisins 1/4 cup chopped pecans 1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl; mix well until blended. Pour the batter into a greased muffin tin until each cup is 2/3 full. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes in 350-degree oven, until the tops are golden brown. They don't rise; they look more like lumpy brownies.