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Is Granola Healthy: How to Choose the Healthiest Granola.

Granola is healthy, right? It comes in a brown or green package with natural-looking motifs, it has oats, and by gosh, it is called granola. But maybe this assumption is misplaced. Let's take a deeper look. Is granola healthy?


There are many factors to look at when determining if granola is healthy. First, it is important to recognize that what is healthy for one person might not be for another. People have unique circumstances and nutrition needs. Once those factors are considered, we can look at other general factors we can use to decide if we want to choose a particular product.



bowl of granola



Ingredients


The first step in evaluating an granola product is to look at the ingredient list and see exactly what is in the package.


First ingredient

The first ingredient listed in a packaged product is the ingredient that is present in the largest quantity by weight. Is the first ingredient oats or is it something else? Oats as a first ingredient means that the ingredient that appears in the highest quantity by weight in the product is oats. Oats have vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which are necessary for our health. Sometimes the first ingredient is rice. While there is nothing wrong with rice, it is not a high fiber food, so that is important to consider. Some grain-free granolas will contain various nuts as the first ingredient. Nuts are high in fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.


Sugar

As many people are familiar, added sugar in high quantities is not ideal for health. How close to the beginning of the ingredient list does sugar show up? Often, sugar is the second ingredient, right after oats. This means that sugar is the second to highest quantity ingredient in the product.


As you continue to read through the ingredient list, you can see how many types of sugar are in the product. Often sugar will show up two or three times in the ingredient list, under different names. Types of sugar include cane sugar, brown sugar, any type of syrup, molasses, and honey. By using multiple types of sugar in the product, the manufacturers can make each individual type of sugar fall later in the ingredient list, as that list is by weight. This can make it seem like sugar is present in a lower quantity than it actually is.


To get the most objective information on quantity of added sugar, it is helpful to look at the nutrition facts. As a reference, the American Heart Association recommends a limit of 24gm added sugar for women and 36gm added sugar for men. The US Dietary Guidelines have a more liberal recommendation of less than 10% of calories, which would translate to 50gm for a 2000 calorie diet. Comparing how much added sugar there is in the specified serving size to the recommendations can help you make your evaluation.


Sources of Fiber

Often people assume that granolas are high in fiber, and many of them are. Common granola ingredients that contain fiber are oats, whole grain wheat, millet, buckwheat amaranth, quinoa, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and other nuts and seeds.


For a frame of reference, fiber intake recommendations are 25gm for women and 38gm for men. Comparing the fiber in the product to your needs can help you evaluate how the product can enable you to attain your fiber needs, or if the granola is actually not as high in fiber as you thought. Granolas may have a range of 3gm to 7gm of fiber per 2/3 cup serving. There is no standard serving size for granola, so some packages may list a serving size of 1/4 cup or 3/4 cup, so an accurate comparison will take some math.


One important note is that a product's claim of how many grams of whole grains it contains may not be as awesome as it seems. Some whole grains have more fiber per gram than others, so noting that the product contains, for example, 15gm of whole grains, does not tell you about how much fiber the product contains.


Sources of Fat

Unsaturated fats are essential to our heart health. Additionally, fat is really helpful for maintaining satiety, so it is useful to see what the fat sources are in your granola. Common sources of unsaturated fat in granola are nuts and seeds. Checking how far down in the ingredient list these items fall and how many grams of unsaturated fat are on the nutrition facts can help you evaluate this factor.


Many granolas will contain some sort of oil, often canola oil, sunflower oil, or soy oil. I feel that I must state that oil is OK! In appropriate quantities it can contribute healthy fats, help with satiety, and also make food taste good. All oils contain both saturated and unsaturated fats. Where they differ is in the percentages of the types of fats. Most granolas do not contain that much oil, and either way, the common oils used, canola and sunflower oil, have a decent balance of the types of fat. One high saturated fat oil that is found in some granolas is coconut oil. People who have high blood lipids or high cholesterol might choose to avoid granola with coconut oil.


Protein

The protein in granolas can come from nuts, seeds, whole grains, and added protein sources of whey or soy. The granola products that contain added protein in the form of whey or soy can contribute a significant amount of protein to a meal. Because granola is often eaten with other protein-containing foods such as yogurt or milk, most people do not need to rely on granola for their meal's protein. While protein content can be a factor of your granola choice, I do not think it needs to be the main factor.


Other Ingredients

Other ingredients that can be found in granola are chocolate, candied fruit, or candies. Many people choose not to have these ingredients in their breakfast.


Another ingredient seen in granola is inulin. Inulin is a prebiotic, which is food for probiotics. It helps the healthy bacteria in our guts thrive.


Soy lecithin is added to granola as an emulsifier. While there are those that encourage its intake as a supplement for health, there is limited evidence that it is effective. It is not a superfood, but it is likely also harmless.


Tocopherols are commonly added to granola as a preservative. Tocopherols are better known as vitamin E, so they adds vitamin E to the product.


Nutrition Facts


Serving Size

The nutrition facts label contains some useful information to help you answer the question of "Is granola healthy?" Starting at the top, you will find information about serving size. The serving size listed will vary from product to product, usually in the range of 1/4 cup to 3/4 cup. To compare two products side by side, you might have to do some math so you can compare equal size portions. Additionally, there is no scientific reason for the serving size listed. It is not necessarily an appropriate portion size for an individual--you may want to have more to give your meal more of the carbohydrates or fiber that are in granola.


Fat

In the section of Total Fat, you will find polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat. These are the fats that are beneficial to our health. In contrast are saturated fat and trans fat. These are associated with health issues. You can look and compare granolas to see which gives you more unsaturated fat.


Carbohydrates

The next section to look at is Total Carbohydrates. Someone with diabetes might want to know this for the purposes of maintaining in-range blood glucose. Dietary fiber is of interest to a larger audience, and for most people, more fiber in a granola can help meet fiber needs for GI and heart health. Total Sugars and Added Sugars can be confusing for some. Total sugar includes both sugar that is naturally found in food, such as the sugar in fruit or the small amount of sugar found in oat grains. In contrast, added sugar is exactly that--added to the product. This number quantifies all the types of sugars listed in the ingredients list into total grams of added sugar.


Protein

Protein is helpful to look at because protein contributes to satiety. A meal with enough protein will help you stay fuller longer. For many people, 15-30gm protein for meal is appropriate. Most granolas will not meet this protein range, but frequently, granola is eaten in combination with other foods that contribute protein.


Product Labeling


Package Design

The package itself is real estate to advertise the product. There are common themes found on granola labels that seem to connote health. Color schemes are often variations of green and brown. These colors are associated with more natural food, which is assumed to be healthy. There are often illustrations of grains, oats, farms, mountains, fields, and trees. These are also associated with health. Be a thought-out consumer, and don't choose based on the packaging.


Common words that connote health that are seen on granola packaging are "crunch" or "crunchy," "natural" or "nature," "protein," "simple" or "simply," "grains," "oats," and "honey." Some of these words may be of interest to you, but validate it against the ingredients and nutrition facts before making assumptions!


A note about organic

This is not the time to delve into the science of if organic is healthier than non-organic. Assuming that there is a benefit of organic granola over nonorganic granola, there are a few points to consider.


First, check if all the ingredients are organic or just some of them. Second, the value of organic is not equal for all foods, so it is important to decide if granola contain ingredients that are significantly increased in health value when organic. Finally, I consider organic to be like the extra credit of nutrition. Focusing solely on organic when choosing foods is like doing the extra credit without doing the assignment. The nutritional bang for your buck you get with organic is way less than the nutritional bang for your buck you get from eating vegetables every day.


Bottom Line: Is Granola Healthy?

By now you can see that I have not given a clear answer to the question, but I have given you the information to use to make that determination yourself. Everyone has different needs and health priorities. What is healthy for one person might not be for someone else. Is granola healthy? That is for you to decide.

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1 Comment


Guest
Jun 20, 2023

Great article, Bren!! Thanks for breaking it down so clearly! -Y

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