Back in the day, yoghurt and granola was our favourite healthy breakfast. But with refined sugar and processed fats on some ingredients lists, is granola good for you?July 26, 2021 11:14 am February 24, 2021 1:09 pm
What is granola?
Granola, in its most common form, is a type of breakfast cereal or snack which is eaten with milk, yoghurt and fruit. Usually, it is made with rolled oats, which are coated in a sweetener such as honey to bind them into clumps and then baked. The final texture is crisp and crunchy.
Many breakfast cereal manufacturers make granola in a variety of recipes including nuts and raisins, dried tropical fruits or chocolate.
What are the basic ingredients, and are they healthy?
At its most basic level, granola is simply a mixture of oats and honey.
Oats are healthy, especially if you’re consuming the wholegrain variety. They come with an impressive range of health benefits, from supporting your digestive health to lowering your cholesterol levels.(1)
They also contain vitamin E, folate, zinc, iron, selenium and many more vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.(1)
It’s important to source your oats from an organic supplier, to avoid any pesticide residues.
Meanwhile, anyone who has ever experienced a sore throat will know and appreciate the healing power of raw honey. It has been reported to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects and is traditionally used to treat all manner of ailments, from hepatitis to hiccups!(2)
So, given that we’re starting with two nutrient-packed superstars, where does it all go wrong for granola?
Why is granola so bad for you?
In a nutshell, granola’s problems began when companies began diverging from the basic recipe. While the basic ingredients of granola can be very healthy, the brands available in shops tend to contain many more ingredients than just these.
Not all added ingredients are bad, but some produce a granola which is loaded with unwanted extras. Let’s take a look at the good guys and the bad guys.
Added ingredients: the good guys
A quick browse of your local supermarket will quickly reveal that most granolas on sale consist of much more than oats and honey!
Some of these ingredients are added purely for flavour, and it’s pretty obvious that they are there. For example. A tropical granola might contain chunks of dried pineapple or coconut flakes.
Dried fruit is tricky to categorise as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ as, on the one hand, it contains nutrients such as vitamins and minerals which are good for you. It’s also usually quite high in fibre.
On the other hand, it concentrates all the sugar of the fruit down into one tiny morsel – and as such, you eat a lot more of it. Think, for example, how easy it is to eat a handful of raisins than a whole box of grapes!
Generally speaking, dried fruit is considered quite healthy as long as you moderate your intake. (Flavour boosters such as chocolate or caramel, however, have less of a plausible defence.)
The issue is that when you combine carbohydrate-rich oats with the sugars from honey and dried fruit, you end up with a calorific concoction which contains much more energy than many people realise.
Added ingredients: the bad guys
Now we’ve covered the most obvious additions to the oat and honey base, it’s time to delve further into the ingredients list. This is where you’ll find some ingredients you probably didn’t intend on eating!
For example, many commercial granolas contain (unsustainable) palm oil, rapeseed oil, flavourings, refined sugar, sweeteners, flour, syrups, starches and additives.
These are generally added to improve the flavour and texture of the granola. For example, adding oil while baking can help to give the granola a crisp texture. However, it also adds lots of unnecessary fat to your breakfast bowl, perhaps without you realising.
Meanwhile, the sugar, sweeteners and syrups hit our sweet tooth right at the start of the day and offer little to no nutritional value. You may think you’re eating just a small drizzle of honey, when the reality is that you’re eating the amount of refined sugar you’d expect to see in a dessert!
What’s the problem with sugar?
Most children and adults in the UK(/US) eat too much sugar on a daily basis. In fact, in the UK, 61% of adults, 75% of children and a whopping 83% of adolescents get more than the recommended amount of energy from ‘free sugars’.(3)
Free sugars are the sugars found in processed food, which are more easily available for your body to absorb. Sugars found in unprocessed fruits and vegetables don’t count as free sugars. So, a glass of orange juice would contain free sugars, but an orange would not.
A high sugar diet is linked with obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay(3). It can also increase your risk of heart disease.(4)
Often, people who consume too much sugar simply don’t know how much of it the food they eat contains, versus how much they should be eating.
For example, the average man in the US consumes about 24 teaspoons of sugar a day. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 9 teaspoons (36g) per day. That’s about the amount contained in one can of fizzy drink, so you can see how easy it is to pass over our sugar limit without knowing.
In the UK, the NHS recommends eating a maximum of 90g of total sugars per day. This includes 30g of free sugars per day, which equates to about 7 sugar cubes.(5)
While food packaging currently makes it really hard to distinguish how much of the sugar in food is classed as free sugars, you can get a general idea from the nutritional values.
For example, a 45g serving of prepackaged granola could easily provide around 10g of sugar. It’s likely that a high proportion of that is added, or ‘free’ sugar.
Is granola processed?
Technically, all granola is processed to some degree because it’s a food made out of ingredients which you have combined and cooked.
However, there are huge variations in the amount of processing used across different brands. Health experts are concerned about ‘ultra-processed’ foods which have been made at an industrial scale.
Of course, if you make your own granola at home, you’re in the best position as you can control exactly which ingredients you use and how you make your granola.
In terms of shop-bought brands, the best thing you can do is check the ingredients on the label. Remember: all you need to make a classic granola is oats, honey and perhaps some nuts or dried fruit.
A good rule of thumb is that If the list contains any ingredient you wouldn’t have in your kitchen at home, don’t buy it. It’s quite common to find artificial colours and flavours in shop-bought granola, but you can find options without these if you check the label.
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"For example, the average man in the US consumes about 24 teaspoons of sugar a day. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 9 teaspoons (36g) per day."
Is granola a healthy breakfast?
For many years, granola was marketed as a healthy breakfast option. However, once consumers became a bit more savvy about the ingredients and caloric content of prepackaged granolas, some brands responded by producing a ‘healthy’ version of their original recipe.
However, once again we’d advise you to take a careful look at the back of the packet.
Many granolas marketed as ‘healthy’ are still very high in sugar, even though some of it may come from natural sources.
Remember, any food which contains more than 22.5g of sugar per 100g is considered ‘high sugar’.(5)
Many of them also contain unnecessary oils.
There are some very good, healthy options out there, but make sure you’re doing your own research. Just because a product has the word ‘healthy’ on the label, it doesn’t guarantee that it actually is.
Is organic granola good for you?
At Erbology, we believe that organic foods are always better. This is because no pesticides or chemicals are used in their production. If you’re trying to be healthy, the last thing you’d want is to eat foods which may contain traces of these!
If you do eat granola regularly, we’d argue it’s definitely worth going organic. Not only is it potentially better for you, organic farming methods take less of a toll on the environment, too.
However, many of the reasons that shop-bought granolas can be bad for you is related to their high sugar content and level of processing. Although it’s great to source organic ingredients, organic granolas can still be highly processed and contain lots of sugar. So, it’s wise to still check the nutrition content on the label to be sure.
Always remember to look for products with:
- No added sugar
- An organic certification
- No unnecessary fats or oils (especially unsustainable palm oil)
- Whole grain ingredients and mineral-rich nuts and seeds
- An acceptable calorie content, depending on your own personal needs
Is homemade granola good for you?
If you make your granola at home, you have a lot more control over what you’re eating. There are lots of recipes available online for making your own granola.
If you decide to go down this route, think carefully about what you’re adding. Make sure your ingredients are whole grains, nuts, seeds and a bit of dried fruit if you like. Use minimal honey or maple syrup to bind them together and simply toast in the oven on a baking tray until crisp and golden.
You can store your granola in an airtight jar for up to a month, and it takes under half an hour to prepare and bake it. That’s a perfect Saturday morning baking activity, in our book!
Be prepared that your homemade granola might be a bit more crumbly and less sweet than the prepackaged stuff – but this is because you’ve skipped out all the extra oil and sugar. Once you have adjusted, you will wonder how you ever managed to eat the supermarket stuff!
How much granola should I eat a day?
Many brands recommend a serving size of about 45g of granola. This is roughly three tablespoons of granola per portion, although it will vary depending on the brand.
Watch out for portion sizes, as it is notoriously easy to eat too much of almost any breakfast cereal. This can push you towards your daily limit of sugar before you’ve even left the house!
We’d recommend weighing your granola out once so you can get a feel for what the right portion size should look like. Then, next time, it’ll be easier to judge based on how many spoonfuls you use or where it comes up to on the side of the bowl.
Granola: good or bad?
In summary, granola can be good for you if you stick to the original ingredients of oats with a little honey and some dried fruit.
However, granola can rapidly become much less healthy if you choose recipes with lots of sugar or which have been heavily processed. It’s also very easy to eat far more than the recommended portion size, unless you’re careful.
Granola done differently
At Erbology, we took a different approach to creating our granola. We started right from the basics: what is the healthiest, most flavourful combination of whole foods we can eat for breakfast?
While we love the classic combination of oats and honey, we knew that there were other ingredients out there which could nourish our bodies even better.
That’s why we swapped out the oats for sprouted buckwheat and prebiotic tigernut. We packed our granola flakes with healthy activated seeds and added apples, dates and raisins for sweetness and flavour.
A 45g serving of our Tigernut Granola with sea buckthorn clocks in at 150 calories. 3.6g fat (1.35g of which is saturated) and 7.2g of 100% naturally-occurring sugars. We don’t use any oils to make our granolas, and all our ingredients are certified organic.
Plus, the prebiotic tigernut helps to nourish the beneficial bacteria in your gut. The tigernut and buckwheat base makes our granola flakes very filling, so you will probably find that you need a smaller amount than your usual granola.
It’s a nutritious gut-friendly breakfast that will set you up for the day ahead, without the sugar crash.
Ways to enjoy our granola
Just as we wanted to think big when we developed our granola, we didn’t want to relegate it to the breakfast bowl!
It works fantastically in lots of different recipes, too. For example, blitz it up in a food processor with a little almond milk to make a delicious, healthy and gut-friendly pie crust, like the one we use for our blueberry tarts and pumpkin pie recipes. Our activated chia and nopal flavour is particularly good here.
However, our favourite way to enjoy our granola flakes is simply to snaffle a handful of our rich cacao and Jerusalem artichoke granola as a guilt-free afternoon snack.
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