by Heidi McIndoo, M.S., R.D.
Granola used to be one of those foods, like yogurt, that you could only find in health foods stores where earthy, health-conscious people shopped. Now granola is mainstream. Not only does every grocery store sell it; they also carry all kinds of flavors and varieties, with additions such as fruit, spices, nuts, flax, chocolate, honey and more. Granola is great on its own as a breakfast cereal, but it's also fun to sprinkle over yogurt to add a little crunch, to mix with dried fruits for a mid-day snack, or just eat out of the bag for an anytime snack.
Bare bones granola is basically oats, with perhaps some nuts and sweetener, toasted until crunchy. Muesli contains similar ingredients, but it's not toasted and has a chewier texture. Oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruits can add important nutrients to your diet, including heart-healthy soluble fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and phytochemicals (plant compounds with health-protective activities). But many supermarket granolas and muesli have extra ingredients that contribute to high fat and/or high sugar contents.
Before you grab some granola, follow these guidelines to make sure it's a healthy part of your diet.
Pare down portions.
Though it can be healthy, granola isn't necessarily a low-cal food. If you're sprinkling it on yogurt, limit it to a few tablespoons. If you like it as a breakfast cereal, mix one-half cup of granola with one-half cup of another whole grain cereal, such as shredded wheat, oatmeal cereal or bran cereal.
Check the sugar.
Some granolas are loaded with sugar. Flip the box over and check the label before tossing it into your cart. Look for those with 10 grams (2.5 tsp) of sugar or less per serving. Keep in mind that the grams of sugar listed on the label include those found naturally in fruit. Look to the ingredients list to identify sources of added sugar, which can include forms like honey, agave nectar and corn syrup.
Know the ingredients.
Granola is a fairly simple food, so the ingredient list should be short and include ingredients you can find in your own kitchen.