Granola, for all its popularity, may just be one of breakfast's most controversial foods. The cereal is made from rolled oats, nuts and fruit. It's coated in honey or a sugar syrup, and it's then baked. It is promoted by some as a health food and decried by others as a fat-packed wolf in sheep's clothing. The key to figuring out the health benefits of granola lies in choosing the right type of granola and in paying attention to the ingredients within.
Granola (then called "granula") was first invented by Dr. James Caleb Jackson in 1894. Jackson ran the Jackson Sanitarium, a health spa located in Danville, NY. Made from Graham flour (a type of whole wheat flour pioneered by Sylvester Graham, an early dietary reformer who railed against the common use of processed white flour in American homes), granula was advanced as a health food.
Then, Dr. John Kellogg (the founder of the cereal-making Kellogg Company) came out with a cereal he called "granula." The similarities between his product and Jackson's product were striking, and so Jackson sued Kellogg— and won. Kellogg changed the name of his cereal to "granola" and began developing it for the commercial market.
In the 1960s, there was a boom in granola consumption, mostly driven by the hippie movement and a renewed interest in eating healthy. Today, granola is again seeing an increase in popularity, as consumers continue to seek healthy, organic and inexpensive foods.
Types of Granola
Because the term "granola" really can apply to any baked, sweetened rolled-oats cereal, the health benefits of granola depend on what type you consume. Granolas can range from the very basic (rolled oats, nuts and a little honey) to the lavish and ornate (dried blueberries, yogurt drops, almonds, and beyond).
Therefore, when buying granola at the store, you need to pay attention to the nutrition information on the side, and read the list of ingredients included on the box. Find out how much sugar, fat and calories are contained in your granola. Obviously, if you're looking for a healthy food, you'll want to skip granola mixes that include chocolate, higher sugar content or more oil. Look for brands that are organic and do not include added sugar. If you can't find any that you really like, try making your own. This way, you can control the amount of sugar and oil that gets added to the granola!
If made simply and responsibly, granola can provide some decent health benefits for its consumers. Rolled oats provide lots of fiber, which is important for digestion, and the fruits and nuts in granola can contain important vitamins and promote good health. For example, almonds can help lower cholesterol, and cranberries are associated with urinary tract health. Barley and oats also contain antioxidants, which can help strengthen your body and prevent disease.
Granola isn't all good health news. Modern-day granola bars and cereals can be loaded with sugars and oil, making them deceptively dense in saturated fat and calories. Granola's reputation as a health food is shaky, mostly because consumers tend to prefer processed, heavily sweetened brands to more natural ones.
Remember: everything in moderation! Certain brands of granola can be healthier for you than others, but try to moderate your granola intake. Don't forget that, while it can be a healthier alternative to that sausage McMuffin, granola still brings its own calories to add to your daily intake.
Granola As An Ingredient
Granola is often eaten as a cereal, but it can also be used as an ingredient in other foods. Granola bars are small rectangular snacks made from granola. The health pitfalls associated with granola bars are similar to those of granola itself: in order to appeal to children, many companies pack their granola bars with sugars, starches— even candy! Look for bars with less added sugar, healthier ingredients and no candy content (no chocolate chips or Oreo pieces, for example).
Granola can also be eaten in yogurt in order to add texture and crunch to your breakfast. Again, before you mix in the granola, make sure you're using a healthy brand, and try to find a healthy, low-fat and low-sugar brand of yogurt as well. Greek yogurt (a creamier, whole-milk yogurt type) comes in low-fat varieties and makes an excellent base for a granola-yogurt mix.