Muesli is the original health food. Or, so we tend to believe. Muesli and healthy living just seem to go together. But how much of this is true and how much just received wisdom and marketing? Quite a lot actually.
The big issue is sugar, something we are highly conscious of these days but which wasn’t such an issue when muesli and granola started building their reputations as healthy foods. You can deal with this if you make your own muesli, granola or porridge, but you can expect that you will be getting at least, if not more, than a heaped desert spoonful of sugars in mueslis you buy in shops or are served with in cafés. Some of this will come with the dried fruit, or with fresh fruit, if that is added. But the crazy thing is that producers seem to be determined to add more sugars gratuitously. It is extremely difficult to find any breakfast cereal on supermarket shelves without some form of added sweetener.
Above is what 10 grams of sugar (one heaped dessert spoonful) looks like, and that is a typical amount in store-bought mueslis, granolas and porridges per serve. It has about 40 calories in it. Low sugar formulations boast about 5g of sugars, but that’s per serve, and they typically rate a serve as 50g of product. I’m sure that’s well below what people eat in the real world, for it’s only about six heaped tablespoons. And adding milk, yoghurt, fresh fruit will all bump that quantity of sugar up considerably. Milk has about 5g/100mls of sugar (as lactose) though in some unsweetened yoghurts there is less than a gram (the bacteria that make yoghurt have eaten most of the lactose).
Honey, syrup, fruit juice
Muesli packets might claim, ‘No added sugar’, but nevertheless put in honey, maple syrup, malt extract or fruit juice, as though these are are somehow better, more natural sweeteners than plain sugar. But lets be clear about this. These things all contain sugars, plural. As does what we call sugar. It’s confusing, so let me unpack it. Refined white sugar is composed 50/50 of two sugars, glucose and fructose that are bound together as sucrose. Digestion separates them and the glucose goes straight into the blood to raise what we call the blood sugar level. Fructose is metabolised in the liver to glycerol and fats. So fructose makes you put on fat and the increase of fat in the liver also leads to insulin resistance, just as high blood sugar (glucose) levels do, creating type-2 diabetes.
Honey is composed of varying amounts of fructose and glucose, as well as other sugars and about 10% water. Maple syrup is mainly sucrose and water. Fruit juices contain fructose and lesser amounts of sucrose. Whole apples, for example, contain about 6% fructose, 2.5% glucose and 2% sucrose. A concern with fructose is that because it doesn’t create an increase of blood sugar (glucose, remember) foods containing it can get a low glycemic index rating, never mind that it will make you put on weight.
Sugar in Fruit
Even without added sugar there is still the issue of dried fruit. A raisin (a dried grape) may not have any more sugar than a fresh grape, but consider that 12g of raisins (a heaped dessert spoonful) is equivalent to 28 grapes and contains about 8g of sugar, not much less than the spoonful pictured above. Would you eat 28 grapes at a sitting? And you might get a couple of dessert spoonfuls of dried fruit in a muesli serve – 56 grapes worth in raisin terms. So packaged muesli and granolas may boast no added sugar, but they rarely come in at less than 10g sugar/100g because of the dried fruit they contain. If you are making your own muesli note that sugar is also added to some dried fruits too. Pawpaw for example, and particularly to cranberries. They typically have 85g/100g of sugar! But you can buy the Ocean Spray brand of reduced sugar cranberries (35g/100g).
OK, there is still sugar in fresh fruits but its absorption is spread out over time due to the associated fibre (thus reducing the sugar spikes that lead to type 2 diabetes) and their bulk makes you feel full long before you would on an equivalent amount of dried fruit, so you naturally eat less.
Why the Fuss About Sugar?
But what’s so wrong with sugar you say? Practically everything. Have a read on Harvard Men’s Health Watch, or ‘11 Reasons Why Too Much Sugar is Bad for You‘ in Jillian Kubala’s Healthline (which includes many interrelated effects such as obesity, risk of heart disease, risk of type-2 diabetes, acne, depression, cancer risks, skin ageing, cell ageing, energy crashes, liver fat build up, dental cavities…yikes, enough said!!) In particular, the rate of type-2 diabetes in New Zealand is one of the highest in the world and climbing: 15 to 25% of people over 65 have it, with very high rates amongst Maori and particularly Pasifika peoples. And 65% of the New Zealand population are considered overweight or obese, one of the highest proportions in the world.
How to Avoid Sugar
How can you avoid sugar in cereals? Well, make them yourself, so you have control over what’s in them of course. Don’t buy those packets of porridge, just buy some of the smaller oat flakes in bulk and add the same stuff you see listed on the packets (dried apple, coconut shred, chia seeds, quinoa flakes, etc) to get the same result. Be wary of granola, which tends to be toasted with syrup or honey to make the grains crunchy. Check out how much dried fruit is in granolas and mueslis. And read the packet nutritional information if you are buying in the supermarket (use the per 100g figure as a standard point of comparison, not the meaningless %RDI or somewhat variable ‘per serve’). Unfortunately, as a Consumer NZ survey found, the nutritional figures for sugar are pretty depressing reading, especially when we are looking at cereals targeting children like cornflakes, coco pops and the like: In Kellogs products we see 34g per 100g in Coco-pops, 28g in Nutrigrain, and 14g in Special K cornflakes (interestingly, rather less in their regular cornflakes at 8.3g).
In mid-2019 I could only find three low sugar pre-packaged cereals in a large Wellington supermarket. You can use them as a basis of a somewhat more interesting breakfast by adding fruit, as the picture on the Wheetbix packet suggests, or mixing them with other grains, seeds and nuts. Rather remarkably, such a mainstream staple of Kiwi breakfasts as Wheetbix has a very low amount of sugar – 2.g/100g, or 0.45g per biscuit – even despite the fact Sanitarium couldn’t help itself and added some.
Sanitarium’s puffed wheat has no added material at all and yields a very low sugar count of 0.3g/serve, or 1.2g/100g. You can usefully add this to muesli and it is so bulky you won’t be using much, certainly not 100g! And shredded wheat is again entirely wheat-based that is only very slightly higher in sugar. I first came across this product in a 1930s magazine and then was astounded to to see it was still made when I stumbled across it in the supermarket. Not in the cereals section but in a part devoted to British foods (that’s where it is manufactured).
Nuts: Roasted or Raw?
Right, that’s sugar. Nuts may be another issue if roasted. Some say that roasting nuts oxidises the polyunsaturated fats and creates harmful free radicals and reduces their shelf life. The longer they are roasted and the higher the temperatures they are exposed to the more this occurs. What are produced are acrylamides and these are associated with some forms of cancer (but not common ones). This 2017 academic paper gives some idea of the effect of temperature on acrylamide formation. It doesn’t seem to be a huge issue, but it may be another reason to prefer unroasted mueslis over granola, and I do comment on the apparent degree of roasting of some café granolas in the reviews.
Activating Nuts and Grains?
There have been claims in recent years that you need to ‘activate’ your nuts and grains by soaking them overnight before using. The idea is that this enables the enzyme phytase to break down phytic acid, a compound that binds minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc, preventing their absorption. But unless perhaps you are a vegan, getting enough of these minerals is not really an issue in an average Western diet. And phytic acid also acts as an anti-oxidant, so can be useful to have anyway. With grains, soaking also helps break down complex carbohydrates that are harder to digest, but again, people in affluent countries get more than enough simple carbohydrate already and most of us need less, not more. So there are pros and cons, with no very clear answer either way. You can read more about nuts here and grains here, though the issue is similar for each.
The Good News: Fibre
Muesli and its related cereal dishes tend to be high in fibre, and these days fibre gets a lot of good press for its potential to protect against type-2 diabetes, colon cancer and coronary heart disease. We’ve heard about the benefits of insoluble fibre for years – how it helps you be ‘regular’ by moving food along your intestines and preventing constipation. But the new word is all about soluble fibre. Research suggests it slows food absorption and thus reduces blood sugar spikes and dips, thereby lowering the risk of developing type-2 diabetes. The less processed (steel-cut, whole-grain rolled oats) the better. And in the form of oat beta-glucan it reduces blood cholesterol if you consume at least 3g of the stuff per day. That means about two serves of porridge or other foods with an equivalent quantity of oats per day.
As with insoluble fibre, the soluble variety provides bulk for stools as well as bulk in your stomach, helping to create a sense of satiety. And it probably reduces the risk of colo-rectal cancer. Both types of fibre are broken down by gut bacteria and produce useful compounds as a result. Its all a bit complicated and many factors are interrelated, but you can read more in the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation’s report. The Foundation says that average consumption in NZ of fibre is around 20g per day but we should be eating 25 to 30g (for women and men respectively).
Potential muesli ingredients high in soluble fibre include oats, chia seeds, linseed, rice bran, and psyllium husk.
If you are gluten intolerant you probably know this, but if not, then here’s the low down. Gluten is a term covering a group of proteins found in cereal crops such as wheat, rye, barley and oats. The quantity in oats is relatively low and only one in five people with coeliac disease have a problem with oats. Nevertheless oats should be considered as containing gluten, especially as many more people (6 to 10% of the population) have some form of gluten intolerance than just those with coeliac disease. Cereals without gluten include millet and pseudo cereals buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa and teff. Several eateries serve gluten-free muesli dishes with just these cereals and no oats.
This is related to the above topic. There is starch in foods such as legumes, seeds and grains that is resistant to normal digestive processes but which, like fibre, is fermented by bacteria in the colon. What’s more, regular starch can be converted to the resistant variety by first cooking the food and then cooling it, effectively lowering the glycemic index of the food. So, icky though it may seem, cold porridge can be good for you! And the good news is that some of that resistant starch may be retained upon reheating.
Make Your own Muesli!
Finally, see my page on making your own muesli in order to negotiate all the above issues.