There’s been a long-standing debate about whether granola merits its reputation as the “healthy person’s cereal.” So we had to ask the question: Is granola really good for you? Or does it just have great PR and marketing?
We looked closely at granola’s nutrition facts with the help of Melissa O’Shea, MS, RD, the director of nutrition at Exhale Spa.
Here’s the good news first: granola’s oats deliver impressive numbers in fiber and iron, while nuts and seeds give heart-healthy unsaturated fats, she says. But along with these benefits, granola can be very high in calories, oils you don’t need, and contain scoops of sugar with healthy-sounding names.
That doesn’t mean granola must be forever banished from your breakfast bowl, O’Shea says. “Granola can be a part of a healthy diet, if you know what to look for.”
Here are six things O’Shea suggests you suss out about granola before you dip your spoon in:
1. Check the sugar. Granola can be loaded with sugar. But instead of high-fructose corn syrup, which you might be scanning the label for, it goes by healthier-sounding names, O’Shea says. “Evaporated cane juice, molasses, brown rice syrup, oat syrup solids—those are all sugar sources.” She advises you aim for 8 grams of sugar per serving or less.
2. Watch the calories. These typically amount to several hundred calories per serving size. Healthier granolas have less than 200 calories per ¼ cup serving, 270 calories per 1/3 cup serving, or 400 calories per ½ cup serving, says O’Shea.
3. Keep portion size small. This point is key: “The serving size for granola is smaller than cereal, not a whole bowl,” says O’Shea. Typically it’s a quarter or a third of a cup. So rather than filling up a bowl with only granola and milk, she suggests using granola to enhance other healthy food items. “Toss a few tablespoons on your Greek yogurt or oatmeal,” she says.
4. Trim the fat. “A lot of granolas contain heart-healthy unsaturated fats from nuts and omega-3s from seeds,” O’Shea says. “But even they can still add up.” Look for granolas that have between 2 and 3 grams of fat per quarter cup serving. For example, Kind Healthy Grain Vanilla Blueberry Clusters with Flax Seeds has 3 grams.
5. Source the oils. Many granola varieties list palm oil and hydrogenated oils on their ingredient list. With their high saturated fat, these oils are bad for the heart. Small-batch companies like Purely Elizabeth and Early Bird swap out these out for healthier alternatives like organic coconut oil and extra-virgin olive oil, respectively.
6. Scan for fillers. Even the ingredient list on healthy-leaning brands can contain so surprises, like inulin (a soluble fiber that can cause digestive problems), soy protein isolate, and other sneaky ingredients.