Granola, beloved by hikers and outdoorsy types, certainly seems healthy. You can buy it in health food stores and organic supermarkets, with words like “pure” and “natural” stamped right on the label.
Is granola healthy? It absolutely can be. But products vary greatly, and knowing whether or not the nutty snack lives up to its nutritional claims can take a little bit of digging. Here’s what dietitians say you should know about granola before crunching down.
What is granola made of?
“There is no one standard formula for granola, so whether it’s healthy really depends on the ingredients and how it’s made,” says Cynthia Sass, a New York and Los Angeles-based registered dietitian, by email. Granola tends to be made from whole oats, some nuts or seeds and dried fruit.
Oats are filled with fiber, which can help lower cholesterol, says Nancy Clark, a sports nutrition counselor and registered dietitian based in Boston, in an email. And while nuts provide healthy fats and dried fruits contain potassium, an electrolyte that’s essential for bodily processes including cell function and muscle contractions, the amount of nuts and dried fruit in most granola likely isn’t enough to offer big benefits, she says.
Granola is also packed with carbs. “For active people, granola is best known for being a source of carbohydrate to fuel the muscles and provide energy for a busy day,” Clark says. “Grains are excellent for athletic people to fuel muscles.”
But often, ingredients like oats and nuts are bound together by a sticky sweetener, says Sass, which can increase granola’s sugar content.
If you’re watching your weight, a bowl of granola also offers a large number of calories—sometimes 240 per half a cup (but amounts can vary).
What should you look for in granola?
First, look at a product’s ingredient list. “It can give you some insight into the sugar content, as the higher up on the ingredient list a sweetener is, the more it makes up each bite,” says Sass. And remember: added sugar can masquerade under names including anhydrous dextrose, corn syrup solids, dextrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectars, sucrose and more.
“Avoid anything artificial or ingredients you don’t recognize,” suggests Sass. “The ingredient list on a granola package should read like a recipe you could have made in your own kitchen.”
Then, consider your dietary restrictions. There are grain-free granolas made with nuts and seeds, which might appeal if you’re following a grain-free or Paleo diet. Just note that if you’re choosing grain-free granola, it will lack the carb load of regular granola that’s often used to fuel performance, notes Clark.
Look for granolas that do not contain trans fat and that are low in saturated fat. In excess, saturated fat (which sometimes creeps into granola through coconut and certain oils) can raise levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and have been linked to heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
What is a serving size of granola?
The serving size for granola can differ by brand, but a typical portion of granola is 1/3 cup, says Sass, “about the size of one-third of a tennis ball.” That means sitting down to a big bowl of granola for breakfast is excessive.
But whether or not that serving size works for you depends on your energy needs, which can vary depending on your sex, activity levels and age. “The body is the best calorie counter, so the correct portion of a granola-meal is the portion that leaves the person satisfied, not stuffed,” says Clark. That said, measuring out an amount can help you estimate what a portion should look like.
What’s the healthiest way to eat granola?
Once you’ve chosen a brand and amount you feel good about, you can boost granola’s nutritional value by eating it with milk or yogurt and adding berries, banana and an extra handful of nuts or pumpkin seeds, says Clark.
For a healthy snack, Sass recommends pairing 1/3 cup or less of granola with almond milk, or eating it with fresh berries alongside a protein such as grass-fed organic Greek yogurt or eggs.
If you’re an athlete who burns a lot of calories throughout the day, you could also benefit from the calories in a bowl of granola, says Clark. A higher carb granola—one made with oats, a sweetener like honey or maple syrup and fruit—would help to fuel an extended physical activity like a hike or bike ride, says Sass. And for the rest of us, “a small portion of grain-free granola made with nuts and seeds with less sweetener would be fine as a snack before less active hours, like an afternoon of office or computer work.”