When it comes to breakfast, muesli has got to be one of the most misconstrued ‘health’ foods – it can either be one of the most nourishing ways to start your day, or one of the most nutritionally tragic. With many popular mueslis outdoing the fat and sugar contents of a Macca’s breakkie complete with a sausage McMuffin and hash browns, it’s absolutely essential that you either READ those ingredients lists diligently, or make your own muesli (as I often do – see recipe below). Portions are also an issue when it comes to this ‘healthy’ breakfast option, as muesli is often far more energy-dense than most commercial cereals. So, which deal-breaking ingredients should you be looking out for? Which store-bought mueslis are health-promoting and which ones are not? And then once you’ve got your muesli right, what should/shouldn’t you be having with it? What about portions? Read on…
I’ve never understood why muesli boxes boast about being “packed with real fruit” on their labels, as if they deserve a pat on the back for using ingredients that haven’t been produced in a science lab. Realistically, they shouldn’t be bragging about using an abundance of dried fruit in their products at all. While it packs a deliciously sweet punch, dried fruit is essentially just concentrated fructose and, unlike fresh whole fruit, contains next to no fiber or nutritional value. Still, people believe that they’re doing their bodies the world of good as they chow down muesli “packed with real fruit” and tell themselves that the mass of sugar in their bowls is healthy because it comes from fruit and is ‘natural’.
You might tire from hearing it from me, but I’ll never tire from saying it: SUGAR IS SUGAR AND SUGAR IS HALF FRUCTOSE AND FRUCTOSE IS EVIL. It doesn’t matter if it comes from jelly beans or dried apple rings, the digestive system sees sugar as sugar and treats it all the same, ‘natural’ or not. What’s more, the cane sugar in those jelly beans is technically natural anyway, so I don’t get how marketers have planted the ‘natural’ sugar belief in the brains of so many so easily. Foods containing low nutritional value but high levels of fructose, such as dried fruit, are what lead to weight gain, because they’re high in ’empty’ calories: unlike other sugars, complex carbs, protein and fat which are registered in the brain when eaten, leading you to feel ‘full’ once your body has had enough, the brain doesn’t register fructose. Thus, you could eats huge amounts of it (and therefore huge calories) and still feel just as hungry as before! Dried fruit won’t fill you up, but it will still fill you out. Only fructose is capable of such debauchery.
As if dried fruit doesn’t contain enough fructose on its own, many commercial brands coat it in more sugar to make your muesli even sweeter. And you know that white, powdery stuff you see on small bits of chopped dried fruit such as pineapple, apricot and fig? That’s sulfur, a chemical element, used to prevent the bits from sticking to one another and to other ingredients such as the oats in your muesli. Tasty.
Take Coles brand ‘Natural Low Fate Muesli’ for example: marketed as “low fat” and “an excellent source of fibre” containing “30% fruit”, it immediately jumps out as a health-promoting product. Firstly, it’s marketed as ‘natural’ because the oats haven’t been toasted. In this case, as with many others, natural does not equal nourishing as you will discover. Secondly, this is a perfect example of where low/no fat often translates to “drowning in white poison”, as indicated by the fact that it’s “30% fruit”. If the muesli contained an abundance of health-promoting nuts and seeds, it would technically be classed as a product with high fat content, but no one is going to market their product as ‘high fat’, no matter how nourishing and weight-loss aiding those fats might be. It’s crazy – people have this culturally acquired idea that ‘low fat’ means ‘healthier’, when it usually means the exact opposite! So, let’s look at the actual content of Coles Natural Low Fat Muesli:
One 50g serving (most people’s bowls of muesli would contain around 100g) contains 170 calories, 4.4g fat, 31g carbs (14g of which is sugar – about 4 whole teaspoons’ worth!!!) & 6.5g dietary fibre. Now for the ingredients: rolled oats, rolled triticale, barley, wheat flakes (wheat, sugar, barley, emulsifier), sugar, rice puffs, corn flakes, bran sticks, dried fruit (sultanas, apricot, papaya, pineapple, cranberry, preservative 220, sulphites), sugar, nature identical flavour.
Sugar is mentioned FOUR DIFFERENT TIMES! This is why reading ingredients lists are just so important – when you see the word ‘natural’ on a packet, the words ‘refined sugar’, ‘preservatives’, ‘chemical’ and ‘artificial flavours’ don’t usually come to mind, do they? This is why I don’t pay attention to any text on a packet except for the nutritional information – everything else on it is just marketing sales bullshit.
If the muesli is toasted, then you’ve got even more to be weary of. While toasted muesli and granolas are wonderfully tasty, all that texture and sweetness has come from somewhere, and that somewhere is fat and sugar. To achieve that gorgeous crisp and crunch, fats and oils are added to muesli before the cooking process. And the sweetness? That comes from the oats being combined with sugar and/or honey prior to them being cooked, too. All that fat and sugar already on your rolled oats before the dried fruit has been added? If you must have toasted muesli, I suggest either make your own or be very careful in your selection and opt for a fruit-free variety that’s high in fibre and protein and relatively low in sugar, such as Carman’s Original Fruit Free Muesli. Here’s the nutritional information for a 45g serving: 217 calories, 5.8g protein, 10.7g fat, 22g carbs (of which only 3g is sugar – less than 1 tsp) & 4g dietary fibre.
Ingredients: Wholegrain Rolled Oats, Seeds 10% (Sunflower Seeds, Sesame Seeds), Nuts (Almonds 7%, Hazelnuts 2%, Pecans), Honey 8%, Sunflower Oil, Cinnamon.
In my opinion, a toasted muesli sold in the cereal aisle of a supermarket won’t get much healthier than that; I’ll even look past the added honey.
So you’re at a restaurant for breakfast. You’d love nothing more than to annihilate french toast with caramelised banana or a Big Breakfast complete with eggs, buttered sourdough, bacon, hash browns, sausage and hollandaise, but you’re “trying to be good”. You scan the menu for lighter options, which are generally near the top of the page. You see “Bircher Style Muesli, served with vanilla yoghurt and poached fruit”. Sounds nutrish AND delish, right? Think again…
A super gourmet take on muesli, bircher is most commonly made by soaking oats in apple/grape/orange juice (liquid fructose) overnight, and then adding dried fruit, yoghurt, sugar, honey and a myriad of other calorific ingredients before it’s served with extra yoghurt, poached fruit (often canned fruit in syrup) and other sugary condiments. The french toast actually wouldn’t have been so bad after all…
Rest assured, there are very healthy ways to make your own bircher style muesli, but remember that restaurants make money by prioritising your tastebuds, not your waistline – chefs will add whatever they can to maximise the deliciousness of their dishes, which nearly always translates to an overload of calories from fat and sugar.
Marketed as nutritious snacks, many commercial muesli bars like K-time, Uncle Toby’s ‘Crunchy’, ‘Yoghurt’, ‘Chewy’ & ‘Bodywise’ varieties, Nature Valley and Go Natural are absolutely packed with sugar. I just raided my pantry and found a couple of muesli bar boxes: Nature Valley Maple Crunch and Uncle Toby’s Bodywise Omega 3 Boost. The Bodywise box boasts that its contents are “nutritious”, “support wellbeing”, “a source of fibre and Omega 3 ALA” and “made with whole grains”. Sounds pretty damn healthy, right? Let’s see.
Each 30g bar contains a total of 123 calories, 3g protein, 4.2g fat (200mg Omega 3 ALA), 17.2g carbs (of which 4.7g is sugar – just over 1 tsp) and 2.4g fibre. So, at first glance, this would seem like a fairly healthy option, as the sugar and fat are relatively low, and the fibre and protein are relatively high, right? Now let’s look at the ingredients in descending order from most to least: wholegrain rolled oats (40%), glucose (wheat, sulphites), wheat puffs [wholemeal wheat flour,wheat starch, sugar, antioxidant (307b)], almonds (9%), flax seeds (7%), honey (5%), raw sugar, sunflower oil [antioxidants (304, 306)], humectant (422), malt extract (barley), cinnamon (0.1%), emulsifier (soy lecithin), salt, tapioca starch, flavour.
A product marketed directly to the health conscious, the ingredients I’ve highlighted in bold suggest otherwise. Three different types of sugar, toxic oil, flavourings that aren’t worthy of names and chemical additives and moisture retainers. Not so body-wise now, are they?
The following reflects the composition of most other commercial muesli bars: just one 42g Nature Valley Maple Crunch bar contains almost 195 calories, 7.3g fat, 3.7g protein, 27g carbs (of which 11.7g is sugar – that’s THREE TEASPOONS!!!) and 2g fibre. Its ingredients are: rolled oats, sugar (most muesli bars have sugar as the second or third listed ingredient, which means it’s the second or third most prominent ingredient in the entire product – yuck), sunflower oil, water, maple syrup, honey, salt, flavour, emulsifier, raising agent, molasses. Not only is sugar the second most-used ingredient, it’s also hidden in many of the other ingredients, as indicated by bold type.
THE SAFE LIST
Here’s a list of some of the commercial mueslis I’ve come across that are relatively low in fat, low in sugar, contain no refined cane sugar, are high in protein and fibre and contain other health-promoting ingredients like nuts, seeds and superfoods. They’re also free from artificial additives, preservatives and sulphites. Generally, anything ‘fruit free’ is going to outweigh the contrary from a nutritional perspective. As expected, most muesli found in health food and organic stores will be safe from nasty additives and refined sugars. That said, you still need to be weary of the amount of ‘natural’ sugars from dried fruit, agave nectar, coconut sugar and honey. Remember: sugar is sugar, whether it’s ‘natural’ and ‘organic’, or not.
In the land of conveyor-belt food, your safest haven is always the health food aisle, however, even there you still need to be careful. I seldom bother with packaged items from any other part of the supermarket:
- Food For Health – Fibre Cleanse Muesli (fruit free, fructose friendly, high fibre, high protein, wheat & yeast free, added herbs for digestive support & no added sugar, honey or salt)
- Food For Health – Liver Cleansing Muesli (fruit free, fructose friendly, high fibre, high protein, wheat & yeast free, added herbs & no added sugar, honey or salt)
- Food For Health – Gluten Free Muesli (contains sulfur-free cranberries, high fibre, yeast free, peanut free)
- Carman’s – Original Fruit Free Muesli (no refined cane sugar, sweetened with honey, fruit free, high fibre, high protein, wheat free)
- Carman’s – Original Fruit & Nut Muesli (for those who absolutely must have some fruit, this is one of the better options: no refined cane sugar, sweetened with honey, high fibre, high protein)
- Carman’s – Original Fruit-Free Muesli Bars
- Food For Health – Fruit Free Bars (gluten free)
MAKE IT BETTER
Here are some tips on how to ensure that your muesli bowl is full of nothing but nourishing goodness, and not the same amount of sugar calories as a Pancake Parlour Sundae:
- Opt for natural (untoasted) muesli to avoid unnecessary fat calories.
- Serve your natural fruit-free muesli with natural/Greek yoghurt (to up the protein content – I stir stevia and cinnamon through mine for guilt-free flavour) and whole fruit. This way, you’re still getting all the sweetness and flavour, but far more health benefits. Banana and warm berries are wonderful with muesli and yoghurt. If you’ follow a vegan/dairy free diet, you can serve it with almond/oat/quinoa milk , acai bowls, low-sugar coconut ‘yoghurt’, or frozen banana blended into ‘ice cream’.
- If you must have dried fruit, add your own and ensure that it contains no added sugar, preservatives or sulphites. Also, try to add less than 1.5 tbs.
- Add tree nuts and seeds to increase the nutritional value of your breakfast. Sprinkling LSA, flax meal and chia seeds on top is an easy and super tasty way to do this.
- Support your digestive wellbeing by adding fibre-rich things like psyllium husk or slippery elm.
- Up the antioxidants by topping your muesli bowl with cacao nibs and goji berries
- Say NO to added sugar! If you’ve got the sweetness of fresh fruit in your bowl, you really shouldn’t need that extra drizzle of honey. Save it for a treat 🙂
- Watch your portions! Muesli is far more energy-dense than most other cereals, and the oats expand in your tummy (think of what happens to porridge). A little goes a long way!
Homemade Super(duper)food Muesli
There’s nothing complicated or fancy about this superfood-enriched recipe, it’s just a gorgeous mess of nourishing greatness – no sugar, high protein, high fibre, healthy fats, wheat free, dairy free, no preservatives, no sulphites and ultra high in antioxidants. Containing TWELVE DIFFERENT SUPERFOODS, my muesli makes a nutritionally wonderful breakfast and is delicious served with natural yoghurt, milk and fresh berries. I also sprinkle it over porridge, throw it into smoothies or eat it on its own for my mid-morning snack.
I haven’t specified the quantities for the ingredients because I just grabbed the best muesli-esque ingredients I could find in my pantry and threw them altogether. The quantities are really up to you – have a play around with flavours and textures and find a combination that you love 🙂
See image above for product brands
Organic rolled oats
Goji berries (there’s your dried fruit fix 😉 )
Method: mix it all together and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.