Granola

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, Ph.D., 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.

What’s the Serving Size?

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.

More on Healthy Eating

Consumer Reports’ 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 CR nutritionist.  

The Sugar Trap

Like many cereals, granola can be a significant source of sugars. “It really varies, though. In the products we looked at, the sugars content ranged from 1 to 14 grams per serving,” Klosz says. 

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. But even then, it’s hard to make general assumptions, such as “granolas with chocolate are always higher in sugars.” For example, Quaker Simply Granola Oats, Apple, Cranberry, and Almonds sounds like it would be lower in sugars than Nature’s Path Love Crunch Dark Chocolate & Red Berries, but they have about the same amount—13 and 12 grams per ½ cup, respectively.

“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.” For example, although 1⁄3 cup of Wildway Grain-Free Granola Banana Nut has 9 grams of sugars, it comes from the dates and bananas it contains; the cereal has no added sugars.

The FDA will require manufacturers to separate total and added sugars on Nutrition Facts labels starting in 2020, but some companies—for instance, Bear Naked, Michele’s Granola, Mom’s Best, and Nature’s Path—already do.

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. “In general, you want to keep added sugars as low as possible,” Klosz says. “But until added sugars are required on food labels, a good rule of thumb is no more than 8 grams of total sugars per serving.”

Don’t be swayed by sugar claims on the front of the package, though. Take “lightly sweetened,” for example: The definition of the term is entirely up to the manufacturer. In the case of Bob’s Red Mill Lightly Sweetened Honey Oat Granola, it means 9 grams of sugars in a ½-cup serving. For the company’s Classic Lightly Sweetened Granola, it means 14 grams of sugars per ½ cup.

Some brands will tout the type of sugar used in the product on the front of the label. 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. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, recommends 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.

Coconut sugar, in particular, has become a popular sweetener in recent years and is found in some granolas. It has been promoted as healthier than other types of sugars because it has a lower glycemic index (a measure of how quickly a food raises your blood sugar levels). But it’s still an added sugar and should be limited. “The glycemic index of different sugars may vary slightly, but these differences are nominal,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., R.D., a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Fat Facts

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.

For example, Nature’s Path Honey Almond granola contains 4.5 grams of fat per 1⁄3 cup, but only half a gram of it is saturated. Purely Elizabeth Banana Nut Butter Grain Free granola does contain some healthy fats from an assortment of nuts and seeds, but it also contains coconut oil. A 1⁄3-cup serving packs 11 grams of total fat, and 3.5 grams of it are saturated.

Protein and Fiber: Natural Is Better

Some granolas provide healthy doses of protein and fiber. “Many are packed with whole grains, nuts, and seeds, which are good sources of fiber and protein,” Wright says. “And that combination can help you keep you fuller longer.”

However, you want these nutrients to come from the grains, nuts, and seeds in the cereal. Some of the granolas we looked at contain added fiber in the form of chicory root fiber or added protein from soy, whey, or other concentrated sources of protein. “Adding ingredients like these are a way to pump up the fiber and protein content, but they’re processed ingredients,” Klosz says. “It’s always better to get your nutrients from whole foods.”

Most of the granolas we looked at had 3 to 5 grams of protein per serving, which is a fine amount. “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. Grain-free varieties can still provide fiber thanks to additional nuts and seeds, but that’s not always the case. For example, Nature’s Path Maple Almond grain-free granola has just 1 gram of fiber in a 1⁄3-cup serving. 

Break Away From the Cereal Bowl

Even if you choose wisely, granola may not be the healthiest cereal to fill your bowl with in the morning. It’s so dense that it’s tough not to end up eating more calories and sugars than you should. A better option: 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,” Linsenmeyer says.

Healthier Granola Choices

Of the 38 granolas we looked at in our spot check, these had better nutrition and ingredient profiles. The serving sizes on the packages differed, but we calculated the nutritional numbers for 1⁄3 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 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**, 4 grams protein.

*8 grams is the total sugars content; added sugars are 7 grams.
**Sugars come from the fruit in the granola. Contains no added sugars.