Is ‘healthy’ muesli just another sugar-laden cereal?

The breakfast staple promises the benefits of porridge, but that’s not always the case

Muesli has been on tables for more than 100 years because it can be a healthy breakfast option. Just make sure to read the label. Photograph: iStock

Muesli has been on tables for more than 100 years because it can be a healthy breakfast option. Just make sure to read the label. Photograph: iStock

 

Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper was once a popular mantra with those who wanted to be healthy.

January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health
January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health

A good breakfast was seen as the best way to set yourself up for the day and going hungry was something to be avoided. Old rules on what to eat and when are being challenged now and fasting has gained popularity as a way to lose weight. Intermittent fasting, for example, involves skipping one meal a day so as to give the digestive system more time to do its work. The idea is to eat during an eight-hour window.

Breakfast is a popular one to miss and, when you look at what is considered standard fare, that may not be a bad idea. Supermarket shelves are heaving with sugar-laden cereal products that would serve better as a dessert.

The obvious exception is porridge, but that can take a few precious minutes to make in the morning. Muesli, which takes almost no time at all to plonk in a bowl with some milk, promises the benefits without the time.

So what is in a box of muesli? The traditional recipe is oat flakes, with some fruit, nuts and seeds. Many of the popular boxed brands on the market, however, use mostly wheat. 

Alpen Original Swiss-Style muesli uses 39 per cent wholegrain wheat and 36 per cent wholegrain rolled oats. Wholegrains are less refined, more nutritious and generally a better option for breakfast. There are some hazelnuts, almonds and salt.

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Healthier option: Alpen’s No Added Sugar Muesli has just 7.2g of sugar in a serving
Healthier option: Alpen’s No Added Sugar Muesli has just 7.2g of sugar in a serving

The big red box also contains dried raisins, sugar, skimmed milk powder and milk whey powder, which can all add to the sweetness. It also means that one 45g serving has 9.5g of sugar before adding milk or extras, which is more than two teaspoons. That is relatively low compared to many other brands however.

Alpen, which is a brand owned by British favourite Weetabix, also does a “no added sugar” version of its muesli. It’s rare to find a product that has “no added sugar” and that isn’t loaded with added flavourings and sweeteners of some shade. That’s not the case here, however. 

This one has more wholegrain wheat at 43 per cent, a few more oats (37 per cent), and more raisins to compensate for the lack of sugar. It sounds very wholesome and means there is just 7.2g of sugar in a serving.

Alpen says on its packaging that it is the most popular brand of muesli in the UK based on 2017 sales. That may be partly because of its simplicity, unlike other brands which tend to have lots of dried fruit.

That includes the Fruit & Nut Muesli from Dunnes Stores, which notes on the front of the packet that it is an award-winner, though it doesn’t say which award. It could be for taste, sales or marketing. The main ingredient is “cereal flakes” including wheat, barley and oats.

Then there is dried fruit and some nuts. The product, which is made by Kelkin, should taste good, given that it includes at least four types of sugar: honey, dextrose, glucose syrup and plain sugar. Then there are the added extras. The sultanas have cottonseed oil. The raisins have sunflower oil and the apricots have sulphur dioxide. The “banana chips” are made using “dried banana, coconut oil, sugar and banana flavouring”. It all adds up to 12g of sugar in a 50g bowl, or three teaspoons of sugar. It may be moorish, but this breakfast is unlikely to appeal to the health-conscious consumers it is intended to target.

Kelkin, which is owned by Irish company Valeo Foods, also sells muesli under its own name. Its Honey Crunch has a very similar list of ingredients to its Dunnes product and almost as much sugar. Dried fruit is often blamed for bringing up the sugar levels in muesli, but this one also has honey, glucose syrup, dextrose, sugar and wheat syrup.

To be fair, Kelkin’s original muesli has no added sugar, though the nutrition panel notes that there is as much sugar in the end product as in the Honey Crunch. It is sweet thanks to the dried fruit, which has the advantage of including fibre. Flahavan’s Hi8 muesli with no added sugar also relies on dried fruit, such as raisins, dates and apricots, for sweetness.

When it comes to breakfast, muesli has been on tables for more than 100 years because it can be a healthy breakfast option. Just make sure to read the label, even if it is after buying it.

FOOD LABELS SERIES
Bread
Soup

Crisps
Sliced ham
Cream crackers
(search other food labels articles here)

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