January 27, 2014

Label Madness Monday: Granola

Granola. It’s so wholesome, you feel healthier just thinking about it. Say the word out loud and you can practically feel your liver detoxing, or the cancer being prevented, or something. It has to be good for us; it’s available in the bulk bins of all the hippie-type food co-ops and über-expensive health food stores, and we all know everything we find there just screams “healthy.”


Um, not exactly. Courtesy of modern food processing, most granolas fall into the same category as whole grain fiber bars: junk foods marketed as health food. See, they’ve done with granola the same thing they’ve done with yogurt and trail mix. They’ve taken foods that—in their natural, unadulterated state (oats, cultured milk, nuts & dried fruit, respectively)—are fairly good choices, and mucked them up with so much sugar, vegetable oil, and sugar, that they’ve been transformed from wholesome foods to nothing but cleverly disguised candy. (Yes, that was two sugars, deliberately.)

First up: Bear Naked® Heavenly Chocolate Granola®

As you can see, it’s 100% pure and natural. I’m glad they told us that, otherwise I might be confused by some of the ingredients that sound a little less than natural. Like what? How about the fourth ingredient? (When the ingredients in the chocolate chips are taken together as one.) It’s brown rice syrup. Boy, that’s about as natural as it gets, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but when I think of brown rice, the very first thing that comes to mind is how overwhelmingly sweet it is. (<-- Sarcasm.) Actually, rice isn’t sweet. Yes, it’s made up of lots and lots of glucose molecules strung together, but so is the starch in white potatoes, and those don’t strike me as especially sweet, either. So right off the bat here, something’s fishy. I can’t imagine how much processing it takes to turn brown rice into a sweet syrup, and frankly, I’m sure I don’t want to know. (My guess is it’s not too many steps removed from how they transform corn into a sweet syrup with extra-concentrated fructose, if ya know what I mean...)

What else is in this? Let’s see. 

Various permutations of sugar are listed four times. That’s an awful lot for a product that has 13 total ingredients. (Again, taking the chocolate chips and crisp rice as two total ingredients, rather than the sum of their parts.) So almost one-third of the total ingredients is sugar! We have: sugar, honey, brown rice syrup, and evaporated cane juice. (You already know how I feel about the canola oil, so I’ll table that issue for now.)

And what kind of nutritional breakdown do these 100% pure and natural ingredients give us?

For ¼ cup—just over one ounce—we have 130 total calories, 84 of which come from carbohydrate, so over half the total. (21 grams carbs x 4 calories per gram.) Of course, some of those are from the oats and rice crisps, since there are only 7g of sugar. But if you think your body doesn’t recognize the glucose molecules in the oats and rice as exactly what they are—glucose—perhaps you might be in need of a biochemistry refresher. At least there are a few grams of protein here and a little bit of fat to go along with the carbs, so this could be worse. (Fat-free granola…*shudder.*) Plus, let’s not forget that “whole grain crisp rice” looks nothing like actual, natural rice kernels. They’ve been puffed up and/or extruded under extremely high temperature and pressure to look that way and get that crispy texture. This is food processing at its worst finest. This isn’t just putting rice in a pot with some water and letting it simmer like you could do in your home kitchen. This requires heavy duty industrial machinery, the likes of which you really don’t want anywhere near your food.

Still, overall, I’ve seen worse. Far worse. This isn’t the most evil thing you could consume, but there’s a far healthier way to get oats into your diet: perhaps with real oats (steel cut are extra yummy), properly soaked/soured overnight, and cooked as a nice, warm porridge. And if you wanted the chocolate, you could even add in a teaspoon or two of unsweetened cocoa powder and maybe a teaspoon of raw honey or real, genuine maple syrup. (Not the HFCS labeled “table syrup” at the store.)

Before we move on, let’s note that the serving size here is just ¼ cup. A tad over one lousy ounce. So maybe those 21 grams of quickly-digesting carbohydrates aren’t such a big deal if you can stop at one serving. But if you can close the bag and call it quits after just ¼ cup of this stuff, hats off to you, because you’ve got more self-control than I do.
Let’s take a look at another variety of Bear Naked® granola. This one is the Original, Peak Protein®

Okay. “Peak Protein.” I’m guessing that means there’s a lot of protein in this. Oops! Looks like I was wrong. Right here on the front of the package, it tells us that this protein “peak” is 6 grams per serving. That’s not very much. That’s only as much as is in just one egg. (Toggle down to “1 large (50g)” to see the data for one egg in that link.) I’m not saying that’s a negligible amount, but I don’t think it’s something to brag about, either. Now, if this granola had, say, the protein content of two or three eggs, then I might be more impressed. But now? For 6 grams? Meh. (Also: the 6 grams of protein in one blissful egg would come without the 15 grams of carbohydrate ¼ cup of this granola packs.)

As you can see from the front of the package, this variety is also “100% pure & natural.” At least, they want us to think so. Let’s see what’s so natural about it:

Hm. That’s interesting. I didn’t know nature packaged cranberries with sugar, glycerin, and sunflower oil. Perhaps it’s been that way since the beginning of time and I somehow missed the memo. (Its possible. After all, I spend every second of my free time watching cooking shows on Food Network reading nutrition articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals.)

And of course, since it’s nearly impossible to have a packaged food without some form of soy in it, this little bag manages to boast two different types! Soy “nuts” and soy protein isolate. (Note: soy protein isolate is largely a byproduct of the soybean oil industry. Remember, soy is a bean. Once they extract all the oil from it, they’re left with the soybean meal, which is pretty high in protein, and since it takes a lot of soybeans to make gallons of oil, the processors were left with literally tons of this stuff. So the manufacturers came up with the ingenious solution of selling it to feedlot owners as cattle and hog feed, but they also market it to health-conscious humans who don’t know about the dangers of soy, and happily guzzle down shakes made with soy protein powder and gobble down bars made with soy protein isolate.

Let’s look at how this protein-packed granola (ahem) stacks up when it comes to other nutrients. 

There are 6 grams of sugar. So, equal amounts of sugar and protein. If 6 grams is the threshold, I guess they could just as accurately have called this “Peak Sugar.” (Not that I think 6 grams of sugar is all that much; I’m just making the point that if this manufacturer thinks 6 grams of protein qualify as “peak,” then the same could be said for the sugar content.) This one has 7 grams of fat – not too shabby! Finally, a little bit of fat to help blunt the blood glucose spike from the oats, sweetened cranberries, and rice crisps. (The fat, of course, comes from canola oil, and a little from the sunflower oil and flax seeds.) Still, THIS IS NOT A HEALTH FOOD.

And here’s the crazy thing: bear in mind, as far as store-bought granolas go, these two are actually relatively low in sugar! The key word here is relatively. It’s not that these are low so much as they’re low compared to other brands. In fact, the bulk bins I mentioned at the beginning of this post are filled with granolas that come in at upwards of 30 grams of carbohydrate for a mere ¼ cup serving. Thanks to sugar, honey, “evaporated cane juice,” dried fruit, chocolate chips, caramel drizzles, and all kinds of other sweet stuff, those granolas take the humble, nutritious oat and turn it into a blood sugar bomb waiting to drop. (Never mind that oats, themselves, are pretty high in carbohydrate, but at least oats are real food that come with some fiber and minerals.)

You really could do a lot worse than these. (Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods imitation M&M, white chocolate chunk, and peanut butter chip-laden “trail mixes,” I’m lookin’ at YOU.) And just like I said last time, when we covered fruit juice smoothies, there are people for whom, at specific times, this kind of quick-digesting hit of sugar and grains would be more appropriate than for an overweight, inflamed, sedentary diabetic. Have you just gone and depleted your muscle glycogen courtesy of an intense workout? Are you lean and insulin sensitive? Okay, go ahead. Have a serving—or even two. But that’s about it for whom this granola isn’t a terrible idea.

Make no mistake: this is candy marketed and masquerading as health food. You could do worse, but you could do a whole lot better.

P.S. Sorry I didn’t get the price info on these. Guess I was in a hurry at the store. Based on what they charge for similar sugar-coated grains doused in vegetable oil, we can guess these granolas are approximately a zillion dollars a pound.

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Another fine job, Amy.

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