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Granola is one of those foods that comes with a giant health halo — and if you choose wisely, you can get a bowlful of protein, fiber and healthy fats.
“But there are a lot of land mines when it comes to choosing granola,” says Lauri Wright, chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. “You have to be a very savvy consumer to find the healthiest one.”
We did a spot check of the granola market, examining the nutrition, ingredients and label claims on 38 products to identify the factors you should watch out for when making your granola choice.
Typically, the serving size recommended by the manufacturer is significantly smaller for granola than for other, less dense types of cereal. But that doesn’t mean people eat less of it.
Consumer Reports’s food testing team asked 124 consumers to pour out their typical amounts of a low-density cereal (Cheerios), a medium-density one (Quaker Oatmeal Squares) and high-density granola (Quaker Simply Oats, Honey, Raisins & Almonds).
Ninety-two percent of participants poured more than the recommended serving size of all the cereal types. But the denser the cereal, the more they exceeded the serving size. For granola, the average “overpour” was 282 percent. A serving that big means consuming two to four times the calories, fat and sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label.
The suggested serving size on granola packages we looked at ranged from ¼ to ¾ cup. “If you’re comparing the nutrition info between cereals — but not checking the serving sizes — you could be basing your buying decision on misinformation,” says Ellen Klosz, a Consumer Reports nutritionist.
To avoid eating more calories and sugars than you should, avoid filling your bowl with granola in the morning. Instead, use it to add extra crunch and flavor to other foods. “Add a ¼ cup as a topping to plain yogurt, mix it into a high-fiber cereal or treat it more like a dessert than the main component of your meal,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Like many cereals, granola can be a significant source of sugars. In the products we looked at, the sugars content ranged from 1 to 14 grams per serving.
Factors that affect the sugars content are the addition of “sweeteners” such as dried fruit and chocolate, and whether the product contains one or more types of added sugars. “If a product contains dried fruit, some of the sugars are those that are naturally present in the fruit,” Klosz says. “What you want to limit are added sugars.”
The Food and Drug Administration will require manufacturers to separate total and added sugars on Nutrition Facts labels starting in 2020. Meanwhile, if you don’t see an added sugars line on the label, check the ingredients list. If a type of sugar is listed up high or there are many types, you can assume that much of the sugars content is added.
Don’t be swayed by sugar claims on the package. The definition of “lightly sweetened,” for example, is entirely up to the manufacturer. And some brands tout the type of sugar used in the product. Although honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar may sound healthier than corn syrup or cane sugar, any type of added sugar supplies empty calories and counts toward your daily allotment.
Federal dietary guidelines recommend that added sugars make up no more than 10 percent of the calories you eat. That’s 50 grams for someone eating 2,000 calories per day and 40 grams if you eat 1,600 calories per day. The American Heart Association’s recommendations are even lower: 25 grams per day for women, 36 grams for men. For granola, Klosz says, a good rule of thumb is no more than 8 grams of total sugars per serving.
Granolas typically contain oil — in some cases, coconut oil, which can add significant amounts of saturated fat to the mix. And while many believe coconut oil is a healthy choice, according to the American Heart Association, it is just as likely to raise cholesterol as other types of saturated fats.
But a granola that’s higher in total fat isn’t necessarily unhealthy. If the mix contains nuts and seeds, the overall fat content will be higher — but much of it comes from healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Some granolas provide healthy doses of protein and fiber, which can help keep you fuller longer. But you want these nutrients to come from the grains, nuts and seeds in the cereal. Some of the granolas contain added fiber in the form of processed ingredients such as chicory root fiber or from soy, whey or other concentrated sources of protein.
Most people get enough protein in their diet and don’t need their granola to supply it, Klosz says. Fiber, however, is something you want a cereal to provide. Ideally, granola would have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
Of the 38 granolas we looked at, these had better nutrition and ingredient profiles. The serving sizes on the packages differed, but we calculated the nutritional numbers for ⅓ cup for all for easier comparison.
Back Roads, Ancient Grains (Unsweetened): 173 calories, 12 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 3 grams fiber, 1 gram sugars, 5 grams protein.
Bear Naked Granola, Fruit & Nut: 172 calories, 8 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 3 grams fiber, 8 grams total sugars (including 7 grams of added sugars), 4 grams protein.
Bob’s Red Mill Honey Almond Granola: 153 calories, 3 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 2 grams fiber, 7 grams sugars, 3 grams protein.
Kind Healthy Grain Clusters, Raspberry With Chia Seeds: 110 calories, 1.5 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 2 grams fiber, 3 grams sugars, 2 grams protein.
Nature’s Path Honey Almond Granola: 140 calories, 4.5 grams fat, 0.5 grams saturated fat, 2 grams fiber, 7 grams sugars, 3 grams protein.
Purely Elizabeth Original Granola: 140 calories, 6 grams fat, 3.5 grams saturated fat, 3 grams fiber, 6 grams sugars, 3 grams protein.
Wildway Grain-Free Granola, Banana Nut: 178 calories, 13 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 3 grams fiber, 9 grams sugars (from fruit, no added sugars), 4 grams protein.
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