Friday, February 11, 2011

Oh-no-no Granola

I recently posted 10 Allegedly Healthy Foods. The day after posting,  I was in a session with a new-ish client. On her food journal I saw she was eating granola. When I inquired about her granola usage she asked “isn’t granola healthy” and I realized I had left a good one off my list. Instead of going into Blogger and editing the post I decided to ask Market Melissa, our grocery store obsessed Foodtrainer, to dish about granola.

When I hear granola, I think Birkenstocks and patchouli. Why the hippie reputation? What's the history here?
The genesis of granola dates back to the late nineteenth century. A posh health spa in New York served what was called “granula,” which was really just graham flour. A fellow by the name of John Harvey Kellogg (ahem, Mr. Fruit Loop) came along, and to avoid legal action, renamed his own version “granola.” In 60s, hippies revived granola and (after a “plant-based” first course) added in dried fruit and nuts. In the 70s Quaker and General Mills hopped on the granola bandwagon, creating their own varieties. The popularity of granola increased becoming all the rage with hikers and backpackers due to its light weight, caloric density and lack of perishability.

“Calorically dense” those are terrifying words to any dieter, what ingredients make it so caloric?
It is the double whammy of sugar and fat that bump up the calorie count in granola. When reading ingredient lists you may find sugar listed in various forms 4 or 5 times (honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, molasses are all code for sugar) Additionally, there’s dried fruit, also loaded with sugar, and you see how granola can have 24 grams of sugar in 1 cup. In terms of fat, most of the fat in granola comes from healthy, unsaturated sources such as nuts, seeds, and canola oil. “Good” fat is still fat and adds up. Certain varieties of granola contain up to 28 grams of fat per cup. This is a food for which portion control is key. Granola should be a condiment and not a main course.

Other than sugar and fat what else is in granola? Any exciting flavors out there?
Most granola brands contain whole grain oats, oat bran and brown rice. Others, such as Kashi and Feed, contain more of a whole grain blend containing oats, barley, rye, triticale and brown rice. For you gluten free readers, Trader Joe’s offers a gluten free fruit and nut option.
You will also find more processed varieties (containing ingredients such as soy lecithin, glycerin and natural flavor) as well as more natural ones. Feed granola wins my least processed award, containing all “real food” ingredients. As for the flavors, the possibilities are indeed endless. Some that peeked my interest were Bear Naked Heavenly Chocolate and Feed Sweet Mango.

So if someone can’t live without granola, which one do you recommend?
Comparing brands can become tricky since they all have different portion sizes listed on their nutrition label (1/4cup, 1/2cup, 2/3cup, 3/4cup).
  • Lowest sugar: Nature’s Path Hemp Plus and Flax Plus wins for the lowest sugar content with 3g per ¼ cup. Bear Naked Fit granola comes in second with 4g.
  • Lowest Calorie: Trader Joe’s Low Fat Mixed Berry Granola and Cascadian Farms Cinnamon Raisin granola snag lowest calorie (70 and 80 calories for ¼ cup portion, respectively).
  • Highest Fiber Kashi and Feed get highest fiber honors each has 4.5g per ¼ cup (you can thank their whole grain blend for that). 
*Whichever you choose remember granola is higher in calories, sugar and fat than most cereals, so keep portion to ¼ cup max.
In case you wish to bypass the mathematical challenge of granola labels, try making your own. This allows you to control ingredients and quantities. Here is recipe from Ellie Krieger that is easy to make and low in sugar. We doctored this a little adding cardamom and unsweetened coconut but it’s a good starting point.

Or try this cool site where you can make your own granola. Pick your base (a gluten free option is available), add in your favorite ingredients and they will even calculate the nutrient content of your creation. 
Are you a granola gal/guy? Do you have a favorite brand or recipe you love? And name that tune “It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world…”


  1. I'll be honest, I never ever buy granola! Yep, that's why I worked so hard to come up with my own granola. I never liked any granola well enough to eat it and get all those calories and sugars. My granola is really high calorie, but REALLY low in sugar, (high in healthy fats) and so tasty I could care less about the calories! Yep, I love it.
    As for your hemp milk question. They milk does come in original flavor. I have never tried it, but I'm sure it's creamy and tasty too!

  2. Thanks for breaking it down, Melissa! The serving size is what always throws me off. Seeing high numbers on the calories, fat, and sugar lines in one thing, but then realizing that it's for a 1/4 cup is another! At the Whole Foods self serve bar I go for the granola that has bits of dried apple in it- adds bulk with less calories.

  3. Gina- ha I always find it hard to believe when people say something like "don't like granola well enough" I love the stuff. In college I adored kellogs granola (being totally honest) but now I know too much to go there. Lisa, even though serv sizes differ the nutrition for the healthier brands wasn't vastly different when Melissa did her spreadsheet (granola spreadsheet yep).

  4. Gina, if you're willing to share your granola recipe, we would love to try it! It is always better making your own anything. You can control what goes into it and bypass any icky ingredients.

  5. La la la la Lola! Love that song.

  6. Apparently, you and I are on the same wavelength, because I posted about granola today too! I didn't focus on the health issues though. It was just a review of a gluten-free granola. Your post provides great information, so I'm going to add a link to this. Thanks!

  7. I never EVER buy granola. Just like I never buy juice. Some calories I can totally live without. Why go there if it's not on my "treat" list? On a side though, Jason Wright who created FEED was our fit model at Nautica for years and I saw him go through the process of creating that company with his business partner. Who better to create a granola brand than two gorgeous, fit male models?

  8. Thanks for the information! I love granola, but eat it in small portions-I either mix with yogurt, or put a little in with other cereals!

  9. Carrie- hysterical about Feed. At first I felt funny about model created food but I guess your right, they know about "clean" eating right?

  10. Very informative. I like homemade granola so I can use healthier sweeteners than what's in commercial granola.

  11. I think granola is crap. I never eat it. I often hear people bemoan the fat in the granola, but the fat is healthy. Granola is really just sugar. Sure it's made of oats, but the oats are so processed I doubt they have much nutritional value. The processing also causes them to digest faster, which will do a number on your blood sugar.

  12. They are tooooooooo sweet for me. I don't eat the store-bought ones, and if I couldn't live without them, then the highest fiber would probably the one.

  13. Interesting and useful information here. I like granola, but rarely eat it. I had one granola "episode" that turned me off of it... It was many many years ago and it was my birthday and feeling like I could indulge and have whatever I wanted to eat that day, I poured a HEAPING bowl of peanut butter granola (thinking it was really healthy). I ate the whole thing and proceeded to feel so impossibly sick throughout the day. Yuck. I looked at the back of the carton later and realized my breakfast was probably thousands of calories. Still makes me sick to think about!

  14. I enjoy granola as a healthy alternative to the candy bar that I loved as a kid. I also use meal replacement bars to get me through the day. I cant wait to try out these granola recipes too! thanks for sharing them!

  15. Great post! I grew up on homemade granola. My mom used to make big batches that contained oats, wheat bran, sesame seeds and walnuts. No dried fruit, but it was coated in a mixture of honey and oil, which I'm sure upped the calorie/fat count tremendously! However, the saving grace is that even a small serving kept me full for HOURS (compared to most cereals, which seem to leave me hungry an hour after eating!). It's definitely about moderation...I like that a little bit goes a long way, but I can see how people easily overdo it, especially because it tastes so good!

  16. Great post. I recently posted on healthy foods that can sneakily make your waistline grow, and granola was mentioned because of the sugar:
    Thanks for your granola recommendations as well. I'll definitely give them a try and recommend to my granola-loving clients!