Granola Sounds Healthy…But Is It?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Granola is one of those things that have always been associated with healthy, natural living. Most varieties contain a lot of ingredients high in fiber and protein, and some even include fruit.

Surely it’s better than other sugary breakfast cereals and snack foods, right?

I hate to break it to you, but granola—at least in the commercial forms we know it—can be a real trickster when it comes to nutrition and health.

Before you toss another bar into your gym bag, lunch bag, or purse, listen up. There are a few things you need to know…

The Granola Story: Healthy Intentions Corrupted by Capitalism

Granola was first invented around the time of the Civil War by Dr. Caleb Jackson. He named his unsweetened graham flour concoction “granula,” but his recipe was stolen by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who changed the name to “granola.”

Dr. John Kellogg wanted to keep granola as an unsweetened food, but his brother Will had different plans. Will, who went on to launch the Kellogg’s cereal empire, saw dollar signs in sweetened breakfast foods. You can guess where the story went from there!

Today, I’m not sure Drs. Jackson and John Harvey Kellogg would recognize their creation—a mix of nuts, seeds, oat or bran flakes, and perhaps a bit of dried fruit, held together by a mix of oils and sugary syrups.

Some of those ingredients are healthy, for sure. Take nuts, for example. Almonds and peanuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other phytosterols, which help reduce inflammation and promote heart health. And assuming they’re not too processed, whole grains, such as oats, add fiber that helps stabilize insulin levels, feed our gut bacteria, and keep us regular.

But then there’s the other stuff. In far too many commercial granola products, the healthy ingredients are soaked in sweeteners and highly processed oils that should make you think twice about eating them.

Commercial Granolas Are High in Sugar

One of the biggest issues with store-bought granolas is sugar content. Most have a lot more than you expect.

For example, depending on what is in them, granola bars can have anywhere from 5 to 15 grams of sugar per serving.  The picture isn’t any better when you look at granola cereals. One cup of Quaker 100% Natural Granola, Oats, Wheat, and Honey has almost 10 grams per half-cup serving size. A serving of General Mills Nature Valley Low-Fat Fruit Granola Cereal (a two-thirds cup) has 18 grams of sugar.

Now consider the fact that typically we’re not very good at sticking to the designated serving size.

If you’re going to pour yourself a bowl of granola cereal, you’re probably not going to stop at half a cup or even two-thirds of a cup. You’re much more likely to fill the bowl with at least a cup, which pushes the sugar content of these two products up to almost 20 and 36 grams, respectively. Now you’re in the same territory as a cup of ice cream—and that’s definitely not a healthy snack!

Commercial Granolas Contain Harmful Fats

On the surface, granolas appear to be healthy because most of them contain nuts, seeds, and coconut—all good sources of protein and fat.

But if you look closer, you’ll also see a dark side—in the form of supposedly healthy oils, like canola and safflower oil.

If you’re surprised that I’m calling out canola oil, you’re not alone. Canola oil is one of the foods that marketers have been wildly successful in positioning as healthy, when it’s really not.

A lot of the time, canola oil gets promoted as healthy because it contains omega-3 fatty acids. What you don’t hear is that it also contains omega-6 fatty acids—and if there’s one thing we don’t need in our diets, it’s more omega-6s! We already get waaaaay too many of them, which ends up stoking inflammation.

I also don’t like the way canola oil is produced. For starters, most of it comes from GMO crops. It also undergoes processing with the chemical hexane. Supposedly the hexane is removed before it’s bottled, but I’d rather not take my chances with any trace residues. People who breathe hexane long term are prone to nervous system problems. So all things considered, I’d rather not eat it!

Keep Granola Healthy by Making Your Own

Commercially produced granola notwithstanding, I do think old Dr. Jackson was onto something. Granola can be a tasty–and nutritious snack—if you make it yourself.

Taking the DIY approach lets you substitute the sugar with natural sweeteners and commercial oils with healthier options. Plus, you’re not limited to whatever flavor combinations the food companies settle on. You can mix and match ingredients however you like!

Sweeten Foods Naturally With These Sugar Substitutes

Proportions and baking times will vary with the recipe you choose. But a typical homemade granola recipe will include these ingredients:

  • Whole grains, such as rolled oats or buckwheat groats
  • Nuts, such as peanuts or almond slivers
  • Seeds, such as sunflower, sesame, or pumpkin seeds
  • Sweeteners, such as raw honey or maple syrup (low-sugar granola recipes might call for alternatives, such as stevia or coconut nectar)
  • Oils, such as olive oil or coconut oil (don’t let coconut oil’s reputation scare you—it’s actually good for you, and it’s fantastic in granola mixes)
  • Dried fruit, such as cranberries or dates, and other add-ins to suit your taste

Follow the recipes’ recommended steps for preparing the ingredients, such as soaking cereal grains or chopping fruits, and then combine them and spread the mixture on a baking sheet, and pop it into the oven.

There’s only one caveat to keep in mind, and that’s calorie content. Homemade granola usually has a lot of calories. So even though it’s a healthy snack, it’s important to keep portions small. In fact, instead of eating it as a stand-alone bar—like you would a store-bought product—I’d suggest breaking it into smaller pieces that you can use as a topping on yogurt or fruit, or in your oatmeal for extra texture and flavor.

So what’s my bottom line? Granola can be good for you if it’s prepared with health in mind. To get the benefits granola can offer, you’ll have to turn to your kitchen cupboard—and not the snack aisle of your grocery store.


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