Has your granny ever told you about the history of granola? You must have spent many cold nights by the fire with her, listening to stories about the good old days and how they ate everything from scratch. No such thing as instant puff pastry, no canned jelly fillings and none of those cookies and bars wrapped in fancy paper, she’d often say.
But to know something about the history of granola, you’d have to use a bit of your imagination. Look closely at your cereal box and imagine yourself being transported way, way back into the 1700s when grains were just coming together.
Granola and the Cereal Founders
There’s a French Canadian slang expression that goes elle est une granola which means she’s a health food nut, or a woman who dresses simply and wears a lot of wool. It could also mean a woman who embraces a hippie lifestyle; that would explain the word association of granola and hippie.
That slang expression also clues you into how granola came about. If you wade through granola literature – especially its history – there may be variations in the facts and timelines but they all point to one thing: man’s pursuit for health…and what happens after that pursuit is successful.
Wealth no doubt. The people behind the cereal industry have amassed wealth because of their efforts at bringing wholesome nuts and grains to the tables of millions of people.
Let’s start with Dr. Sylvester Graham. You must have eaten your share of Graham Crackers or your mother must have been used them as “cushions” for her tarts and pies. Dr. Graham was a zealous nutritionist and a Presbyterian minister who preached wholesome eating. He was all out for the vegetarian diet and urged people to avoid meat, alcohol and caffeine. His recommendation: eat only home-baked bread. That led to his concoction of Graham crackers which may have given rise to the early granola movement.
Next, a Dr. Caleb Jackson from New York, who was charmed by the spa and hydrotherapy concepts, also took the initiative of pushing for a healthy diet. He ran a sanitarium. A major component of his diet was granula – a kind of Graham flour that went through several steps, the idea being to have it broken down in tiny pieces (after it has been baked dry, cracked and then baked again).
Then in the 1850s somewhere in Michigan, the Seventh Day Adventist Church took shape and was headed by Dr. John H. Kellogg. The health movement was gathering up speed at that time with emphasis on whole grains. Dr. Kellogg, however, wanted to turn the boring whole grain diet into something more stimulating for the taste buds. He took his whole grains, baked them, and developed them into a breakfast food which he called granula. Later he changed granula to granola to avoid any lawsuit with Dr. Jackson who was the first one to coin the word.
The ardour for granola was forgotten for awhile because Dr. Kellogg pursued other interests. But when the Kellogg Company started Corn Flakes cereal in the early 1900s, the granola concept was revived, thanks to Charles W. Post who was under the care of Mary Baker Eddy. After he was cured of his health problems, he opened a health center and innovated on Dr. Jackson’s granula by adding grape nuts.
Grape nuts turned out to be a clever marketing strategy. And as success attracts success, the Kellogg, Post and Quaker Oats companies “rolled up their oats” and made breakfast cereals which, targeted to children initially, were of high sugar content.
As the health movement reached new heights in the early 70s, the cereal concept was given a new twist and almost simultaneously, these events took place:
- The Pet Incorporated company invented Heartland Natural Cereal (the first commercial granola)
- The Quaker Company introduced 100% Natural Granola
- Kellogg joined the race and introduced Country Morning
- General Mills came out with Nature Valley
History of Granola: Other Versions
Your granny may have heard other stories about the history of granola. She may have heard that the real inventor of granola was a Stanley Mason. That’s because he was known for developing the first bar of granola. At the time the big four cereal companies were developing granola, they marketed it as loose granola – in cereal form to be eaten in a bowl.
According to some writers, Stanley Mason is the man who gets the credit for the first granola bar. It is different from cereal because it is pressed together to form a bar – almost the size of a chocolate bar – and then baked. The desire was to turn it into a convenient health snack. It has since become a popular product in the United States and in other countries.
Then there’s muesli. Muesli is Swiss in origin created by Dr. Bircher-Benner. It consists of uncooked rolled oats, wheat nuggets, bran threads, wheat germ and fruits and nuts. It can actually be made at home.
Somewhere in the literature on the history of granola the Soxex Company seems to have played a role as well. Sarah Amandolare, in her online article, The Foodie: Granola (October 2008) mentioned how Layton Gentry in the 1900s created his Crunchy Granola, the formula of which he later sold to Tennessee company Soxex Inc (or Sovex).
After a History of Granola, Some Wisdom “Bites”
Now that you know something about the history of granola, let’s dive into some nutrition “bibles” and see what they have to say about granola as a health food. Starting with the Wellness Encyclopaedia of Food and Nutrition published by the University of California in Berkeley, the high fat content of granola is noted:
Oats are the main ingredients of granola. Several commercial varieties are high in fat due to the type of oil that’s added to the oats before they’re baked. What contributes to the fat content are also the coconut, nuts and seeds that are used. When buying granola bars, go for the low-fat variety.
Or better yet, make your own. Toast rolled oats in a 300° oven using a baking sheet stirring them frequently to avoid sticking. To make a sweet granola, add drops of honey but watch them closely as the honey may cause the oats to burn. After the toasting, you can add your choice of wheat germs, nuts or sunflower seeds. Let your mixture cool, store it in a plastic bag and put it in the refrigerator. Serve your granola with yogurt combined with fresh fruit if you like.
Next, we consulted The Nutrition Bible by Jean Anderson and Barbara Deskins. It echoes the Wellness Encyclopaedia’s statement that granolas are high in fat. But it qualifies as a health food because it has plenty of B vitamins, fiber and minerals. For example, ½ cup of homemade granola has, among others:
8 grams protein
34 grams carbohydrates
306 mg potassium
6 grams dietary fiber
1 mg of vitamin C
2.4 mg of iron
38 mg of calcium
And get this: 0 mg cholesterol!
You don’t have to be a hippie or wear layers of wool to be admitted into the granola circle. That’s history. Today, granola will be a mainstay of our health diet.
And do tell gran that you can make it from scratch.