A bowl of granola and fresh fruit, no coffee or tea: That’s what Dr. James Caleb Jackson, inventor of granola, prescribed as a healthy American breakfast. Alas, it’s no longer “health food,” as you’ll read below. Photo courtesy EatCaliforniaFruit.com.
STEPHANIE ZONIS is a contributing editor.
Page 4: Is Granola Healthy?
The Whole Grain Oats Are Good For You, The Sugar Isn’t,
But It’s Still Nutritious Food
This is Page 4 of a seven-page-plus article on granola cereal, plus reviews of 44 granola cereal brands and nine muesli brands. Not everything tasted was reviewed. Click on the black links below to visit other pages.
Here’s the scoop: Whole oats and rolled oats are whole grain cereals (packed with fiber) and good for you. Almonds, other nuts and dried fruits are also doctor-, nutritionist- and FDA-approved (nuts). Muesli has no added sugar; granola can be sweetened with natural products like honey and maple syrup or refined products like brown sugar, white sugar and molasses.
Any milk, yogurt or fruit juice you eat with these cereals adds benefits of its own along with those additional calories (bonus points for consuming your muesli or granola with added fresh fruit!).
Regardless of whether you care if your sweetener is natural or refined, sweeteners add calories. Nuts and dried fruits add calories, too.
So while most granolas and mueslis are not especially low in calories, they are nutritious, whole grain foods that contain vitamins and minerals.
In general, muesli tends to be lower in fat than granola, but some granolas are significantly higher in fat than others.
- While many granolas have some form of sweetener added, mueslis typically do not. However, the use of dried fruits increases the sugar content of both types of products.
- And some granolas contain trans fats, “natural flavor” (companies aren’t required to tell you exactly what’s in this) or even artificial flavorings, and preservatives.
A bowl of granola or muesli might not be Mother Nature’s perfect food, but if your idea of breakfast or a snack is a doughnut and coffee—or grabbing something at a fast food outlet—it’s likely that muesli or granola will be an improvement.
How Much Sugar Is Appropriate?
Nobody wants to hear this answer, because it’s very low: The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calories allowance. For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons (as a benchmark, there are 10 teaspoons of sugar in a can of regular soda).
The average American currently eat about 22 teaspoons of added sugars* each day, whether incorporated into frozen yogurt or cookies, or spooned into a cup of coffee. This represents an almost 20% increase over the past three decades.
Sugar is on the AHA’s black list, along with saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. These are “negative nutrients” that need to be limited for your heart’s sake (details).
Your healthcare provider can do an individual assessment and discuss which measurements are right for you.
Why don’t all granola and muesli manufacturers provide nutrition information on their packaging? The answer is, they are not required to, and to do so is costly.
- Small businesses may be exempt from providing nutrition labels depending upon their sales or number of units of product made in one year or the number of full-time employees they have.
- Further, nutritional assays are costly; and the packaging needs to be changed to include nutrition information, another expensive proposition.
- Many smaller producers cannot afford these steps, at least when they’re getting started.
A suggestion: Check the brand’s website.
- It’s a relatively easy and inexpensive matter to put nutrition information on a website (as opposed to putting it on packaging). If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, contact the producer, although he or she might not have the information you seek.
How About The Salt Content?
The American Heart Association recommends 1,500 milligrams of sodium (salt) per day. But the average American’s salt intake is more than twice that: 3,436 mg of sodium daily.
A single teaspoon of salt contains approximately 2,000 mg of sodium. If you think that this doesn’t apply to you since you don’t salt your food (or add just a slight shake of salt), it’s the processed food—canned, prepared and frozen meals or components—that make us consume more salt than deer at a salt lick.
One of the biggest surprises I found in the products I tried was the addition of salt—often sea salt, which is usually thought to be healthier. Although sea salt is less (or not at all) refined and has trace minerals that are removed in table salt, in terms of daily sodium intake it has the same basic value as table salt.
Some granolas I tried tasted salty as well as sweet (no mueslis had this issue).
- A lot of Americans enjoy the combination of salt and sweet (such as salted caramels, kettle corn and M&M/salted peanut mixes).
- A minimal amount of sodium in a granola is just fine (it picks up the flavor, which is why salt is an ingredient in cookies and cakes), but I personally don’t want to be able to taste it.
- Some granolas had a noticeable amount of salt. One granola from Cascadian Farm Organic contained 150 mg of sodium per one-half cup; Purely Elizabeth’s Original Granola contained 172 mg of sodium in a half cup.
Read the guidelines below and the labels of your granola to determine if the amount of sodium is within your dietary preferences.
Sodium-Level Definitions From The American Heart Association
- Sodium-Free: Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving
- Very Low-Sodium: 35 milligrams or less per serving
- Low-Sodium: 140 milligrams or less per serving
- Reduced Sodium: The usual sodium level is reduced by 25%
- Unsalted, No Salt Added or Without Added Salt: Made without the salt that is normally used, but still contains the sodium that’s a natural part of the food itself.
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