Last Chance Foods: The Health History of Granola

Granola is an “invalid food” that is “thoroughly cooked and partially digested,” according to a 1893 ad for the trademarked product. That ad language may not hold up well as the slogans of today, but the winter-storage friendly ingredients of rolled oats, nuts and dried fruit still packs a hefty dose of what the 19th century ad labeled as “nutriment.”

More than a century after the ad was first published, granola continues to grow in popularity. It no longer holds much sway as a health food, however.

“There is a lot of sugar [in granola now], although it was not always that way,” said Dan Pashman, the creator and host of The Sporkful. “In fact, the sort of precursor to granola sounds like it was something to the effect of graham cracker crumbs that were re-baked until crunchy.”

Pashman explained that granola got its start with some of the 19th century’s most well-known pioneers in health food.

“Throughout its evolution, it’s sort of like the Forrest Gump of the 19th century—wherever great food inventions were taking place, it seems granola was nearby,” he explained. “It started with Sylvester Graham, inventor of the graham cracker, and later continued with John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of Corn Flakes and co-founder of Kellogg’s. But Kellogg served granola at his sanitarium, which is what we would today call a spa, where it helped inspire C.W. Post to create Grape Nuts. So, it’s been around for a long time.”

Unlike the products created by Graham, Kellogg and Post, granola is easily made at home and customizable. Popularized in the 1960s by hippies, it is an easy do-it-yourself project, but Pashman cautions it may not be much cheaper than buying it at the store.

“In terms of the ingredients, I think it will be less expensive, but not substantially so because nuts are expensive even in the store,” he said. “But I think that it’s fun because you can make it exactly the way you want and it does offer opportunities for experimentation.”

For him, the defining characteristic of granola is that it features clusters, unlike, say trail mix, which is a conglomeration of different ingredients. “Muesli is roughly described as granola without a binding agent. Once you add the oil, and usually honey and/or maple syrup, to bind the ingredients together, it forms a cohesive whole that I would call granola,” he continued.

The baking process for granola is fairly simple, but Pashman says the real challenge sometimes lies in the decision making process for what ingredients to include and what to leave out. Last year, he judged the Slate Culture Gabfest granola competition and had the chance to mull over what makes up an award-winning granola recipe.

“What I learned from that experience is that you can put almost anything into granola, but that does not mean that you should,” Pashman said. As an aid to that decision-making process, he suggested using a flow-chart approach to choosing ingredients. The primary considerations should be what ingredients will deliver the crunch and what will provide sweetness.

Check out a roughly rendered version of his chart to the right.

Slate assistant editor L.V. Anderson won the competition, and you can try out her award-winning recipe below.

Maple Granola
by L.V. Anderson

Makes: About 12 cups

Time: 1 hour, largely unattended

  • One 16- to 18-ounce container rolled oats
  • 1½ cups shredded unsweetened coconut
  • 1½ cups whole or chopped cashews
  • 1½ cups whole or sliced almonds
  • 1 cup walnut pieces or halves
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil or peanut oil
  • ½ cup raisins (optional)
  • ½ cup sweetened dried cranberries (optional)
  • Milk or yogurt for serving (optional)

1. Heat the oven to 350°. Put the oats, coconut, cashews, almonds, walnuts, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Drizzle with the maple syrup and oil and stir until they’re evenly incorporated. Transfer the mixture to a 13- by 18-inch rimmed baking sheet and spread into a relatively even layer.

2. Bake, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until the granola has begun to turn crisp and brown, about 45 minutes. (It will continue to crisp up as it cools.) Let cool for at least 15 minutes, then stir in the raisins and cranberries, if you’re using them. Serve with milk or yogurt if you like. (Store unused granola in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a month.)