Developed by a Swiss physician in the 1800s, muesli is a breakfast meal based on a mixture of rolled oats and other whole grains, fruits and nuts. It is marketed as being a healthy, wholesome alternative to sugar-laden cereals, as it is rich in fibre and essential vitamins. However, research has shown that many commercial brands of muesli contain far too much sugar, salt and saturated fats to be considered as healthy. Thankfully, not all mueslis are created equal.
Honest to Goodness Muesli
Amanda Powell, 27, is the in-house nutritionist for Honest to Goodness, a Sydney-based online retailer, wholesaler and distributor of organic and natural food products says that the most beneficial ingredients in muesli are the whole grains, such as rolled oats.
“Rolled oats are a great source of dietary fibre and essential nutrients,” said Powell. “Oats help stabilise blood sugar levels, soothe the digestive and nervous systems and proven to reduce cholesterol levels.”
While most commercial muesli brands contain rolled oats they also contain other ingredients that are not that nutritious.
“Much commercial muesli has added sugars and preservatives,” said Powell. “The added sugars turn what could be healthy and wholesome muesli into an energy dense, with excess calories, breakfast rather than one that is nutrient dense,” she said. “Preservatives like sulphur dioxide are often added to extend product shelf-life, which is a known harmful substance for many people, particularly asthmatics and young children.”
“Added sugars in foods often results in excess sugar and calories consumed which can contribute to weight gain,” said Powell. “Sugar raises blood sugar levels, placing an increased demand on insulin, which can be a concern for those who have or are at risk of diabetes,” she said. “Sugar consumption also has other health consequences including tooth decay and obesity.”
“Many of the commercially toasted muesli’s on the market are baked or even fried in vegetable oils, and can have high saturated fat content,” said Powell. “Saturated fats can increase cholesterol, contributing to cardiovascular disease,” she said. “When choosing muesli, always opt for the natural untoasted variety with no added nasties.”
Powell says that it is important to remember that not all fats found in muesli are bad for you. The body needs fat to survive, but these need to be good fats.
“A note on fat,” said Powell. “Most quality natural muesli’s contain “good fats” like raw nuts, seeds and unsweetened coconut, which provide us with essential fatty acids and nutrients.”
“I believe a wholesome muesli should contain natural, whole and unprocessed ingredients like whole grains, raw nuts and seeds, with absolutely no added nasties – no added sugar, preservatives and oils,” said Powell.
On a scale of 1 to 10, Powell rates natural and healthy muesli blends as a 10 for an alternative to other breakfast cereals, as a nutritious breakfast and snack, and as a way to lose weight.
“A natural and healthy muesli blend provides a nutrient dense breakfast that stabilises and sustains your blood sugar levels, giving lasting your energy to keep you going until lunch time,” said Powell. “If you have small portion of muesli as a snack, this is a great whole grain food that keeps you fuller for longer, and prevents further snacking between meals,” she said. “Plus, the sustained energy from whole grain natural muesli stabilises blood sugar levels to reduce the demand for insulin, which is a fat storing hormone.”
“All of the Honest to Goodness Muesli’s are hand-blended and either certified organic or natural,” said Powell. “They contain no sulphur dioxide, no added sugars or preservatives or no nasties, as I like to call them,” she said.
“Our range of muesli’s includes three fruit and nut varieties, with a 38-40% blend of fruit, nuts and seeds,” said Powell. “Compare this to most commercial muesli blends, which are usually bulked-up with cheap fillers and minimal quality and nutritious ingredients like raw nuts and seeds,” she said.
“We also make small batch runs of our muesli to ensure high-turnover, so we can deliver fresh and nutritious products to our customers,” said Powell.
“Compared to many commercial mueslis, our range of organic and natural muesli’s are higher in protein, dietary fibre and many nutrients, as well as being lower in saturated fats, sodium and, of course, sugar,” she said.
Muesli’s True Value
Jules Galloway, 36, a naturopath and writer for allergy revolution says that muesli contains whole grains that are rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals, and are lower in GI than processed grains.
“This means muesli releases energy steadily throughout the morning,” said Galloway. “They contain dried fruits, which give you vitamins and fibre, nuts for protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, and untoasted ingredients,” she said. “Toasted ingredients may contain transfats, oils which, when heated up, can cause damage and inflammation to the body, but if they remain untoasted then these transfats are not released.”
Galloway says that it is the hidden ingredients that are often the most harmful in muesli.
“Sugary breakfast cereals can result in blood sugar rising sharply and then dropping in the mid-morning, usually around 10.30-11.30am,” said Galloway. “This results in cravings for sugar, starchy food or caffeine. Hidden sugars, anything which is similar to sugar, such as fructose, glucose and evaporated cane juice, all act in a similar way to sugar,” she said. ” And, oils which turn into transfats when the muesli is toasted, such as canola and vegetable oil, have been associated with inflammatory diseases in the body.”
“The best brands of muesli contain whole rolled oats that are low GI, easy to digest and full of vitamins and minerals, and other whole grains, for fibre and added nutrients,” said Galloway. “They also contain nuts, such as almonds and pecans, as well as seeds, chia, pumpkin, flaxseeds or sunflower seeds are all fantastic, and fruit pieces, which have been dried without sugar,” she said.
Galloway says if you are looking to lose weight then buy your muesli carefully and go for more healthy snacks, such as fruits, yogurts and nuts, rather than snacking on muesli. Though she does recommend some muesli bars.
When it comes to organic foods, Galloway says these are typically ‘free’ of chemicals, but it does not mean they are better in nutritional value.
“An organic muesli should be free from chemicals, pesticides and genetically modified ingredients,” said Galloway. “The nutritional value will most likely be similar to other muesli,” she said. “Some people believe that organic foods contain higher levels of vitamins and minerals, but there aren’t enough studies to prove this yet. Organic muesli can still contain fats and sugars, so you need to read the label carefully.”
“A lot of people are eating a gluten free diet these days and they need to be particularly careful when selecting a muesli, as some gluten free products are higher in sugar,” said Galloway. “Try and steer away from gluten free muesli that contains a lot of puffed grains, as these are higher in GI and you won’t be as full for as long after eating them,” she said.
Emma Dumas, partner and director of the Bodsquad Australia, who holds a bachelor degree of applied science in physical education, started selling muesli in 2004 using zip-lock bags, a hair-net and gloves from her home kitchen. She was motivated by her friend, Donna Aston, a registered nutritionist and personal trainer.
“Donna kept saying, “my clients do my head in, they can’t get breakfast right.” So I said I’d make something for them, and the muesliwas born,” said Dumas.
“I saw a massive gap in a terribly busy marketplace. Mueslis galore on the supermarket shelves, perceived as being healthy and nutritious were more often than not the culprit for Donna’s clients ‘getting breakfast wrong’,” said Dumas. “It’s virtually impossible to find one that isn’t loaded up with sugars in one form or another, with all the good fats destroyed by roasting or toasting and other nasty oils added,” she said. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you can start by getting that right then you’re way ahead for the rest of the day.”
“SUGAR is making us fat and sick,” said Dumas. “We’ve been conned for 30 + years into avoiding ‘fat’ at all costs, while all that time they’ve been loading up every processed food and drink with sugar, calling it ‘fat free’ and convincing a generation to eat it,” she said. “Obesity and disease are escalating simultaneously.”
“I desperately want to be a part of re-educating society in their approach to a healthy diet and lifestyle and I truly believe that identifying SUGAR as the major problem and working from there simplifies matters enormously,” said Dumas. “There are massive vested interests involved in this message not getting out, but it will make the difference,” she said.
“I eat a pretty good, natural diet rich in protein, good fats, lots of colour,” said Dumas. “I avoid processed foods, anything white – except cauliflower, and I mainly shop and eat whole foods from the market, where possible,” she said. “Any packaged food that I buy, I check just one line on the nutrition panel before I even consider it. This is sugars, and if they’re below 5 grams per 100 grams, then I think about buying it.” said Dumas.
“The muesliis an all-natural premium blend of five nuts, four Seeds, oats and coconut with the nuts and seeds making up 50% of the mix. It is also, and most importantly, 97% Sugar Free — 1.6 grams per 100 grams,” said Dumas. “It’s the abundance of premium ingredients and this ‘Sugar Free’ message, which sets us apart from all the rest and makes the muesliunique.”
Dumas, walks lots to keep fit. She even competed in the Oxfam Trailwalker a couple of years ago, and she still loves a good long training walk early in the morning. Other fitness activities Dumas does include Pilates and playing golf, which says are excellent for the mind and body.
Flip Shelton, creator of her own natural muesli brand, says that her muesli consists of 65% of whole grains, 13% of seeds, 10% fruit and 10% nuts. It contains no sultanas and is low GI and high in fibre.
“My range of delicious and nutritious natural muesli, including one that’s gluten free and endorsed by the Australian Coeliac Society, plus a five-grain porridge, have been produced by me for the last 10 years,” said Shelton.
“These blends are different,” said Shelton. The one with ‘just nuts and seeds’ was created because I knew there were people who would discover they were fructose intolerant and also those that valued the importance of essential fatty acids,” she said. “The one with ‘just fruit’ is a hit as it is naturally low in fat and kids love it, while the one with ‘fruit and nuts’ is the best of both worlds.”
“All my mueslis contain 35% fruit and nut, whereas most other mueslis have about 25%, and each blend has 13 different ingredients, most contain 6-8, and all are natural, untoasted, so the cellular make up and nutritional profile of the ingredients are not compromised,” said Shelton. “All nuts and needs are whole. This reduces their rate of oxidisation.”
Shelton feels that balance is the key to creating a wholesome muesli.
“Muesli is by nature a blend of ingredients. No one ingredient is more important than another. It’s all about the balance,” said Shelton. “This includes essential fatty acids and protein, nuts and seeds, complex carbohydrates such as oats and amaranth, fibre, such as oat bran and of course taste. You are not going to eat something that’s good for you if it tastes appalling,” she said. “For me, it’s also about colour and shapes, you need to look into a bowl and be excited by what you see,” she said.
“Sugar in isolation and in anything above small amounts isn’t good for anyone,” said Shelton. “But, we don’t sit down and eat just sugar. Some granolas are made with sugar and honey, plus oil, so read the labels,” she said. “Eating dried fruit which contains simple carbohydrates, sugar, within a muesli blend of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and proteins, is fine in my book.”
“Some saturated fats need to eaten in serious moderation or eliminated, as they have limited nutritional value and are usually very high in energy — calories/kilojoules,” said Shelton. “For me saturated fats in untoasted natural nuts and seeds, as well as avocados and coconut butter is fine in moderation, but you need to know your own nutritional needs and requirements,” she said.
Shelton has developed a gluten free muesli and another that is suitable for people who are fructose intolerant. She thought was important to cater to everyone’s needs, especially those who were forgotten by major brands.
“My husband is a Coeliac,” said Shelton. “He was my greatest challenge. To create a breakfast he liked eating. In fact, the challenge was creating a gluten-free muesli that I enjoyed,” she said. “There are so many bad tasting ones out there.”
“When I launched by brand in 2003, I wanted to create a fruit-free muesli, because I suffer from fructose intolerance and it was only through trial and error that I discovered that,” she said. “I love nuts and seeds and many others also recognize the importance of essential fatty acids and plant based proteins.”
“Gluten intolerance is different to being a Coealic, which my husband is,” said Shelton. “Gluten intolerance is when you may experience bloating and slow digestion, but it’s not life threatening. Coealic is a medical condition where the individual suffers when consuming even the tiniest amount of gluten, which essentially strips the gut lining and can cause a host of problems including malnutrition,” she said. “If in doubt, see your GP.”
“And fructose intolerance, is when the body has an inability to digest fructose causing severe discomfort,” said Shelton. “Fructose appears in both fruits and vegetables, and in some ‘sugar’ syrups in various degrees,” she said. “Plus, not all fructose is created equal.”
“Remember that breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” said Shelton. “Yeah yeah, I know you’ve heard that before, but it is true,” she said. “Yogis believe that you should eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch and a pauper at dinner.”
“I am always amazed that people will spend a lot of money and allow plenty of time for dinner and to a lesser degree lunch,” said Shelton. “Yes, I realise dinner is a much more social meal than breakfast, don’t worry I am not particularly conversational in the morning. I just think people generally want to spend as little as possible, that’s time and money, on breakfast, the most important meal of the day. You are just ripping yourself off.”
Amanda Clark, 47, a dietitian and creator of Portion Perfection Plates, a visual weight control program, says that muesli is packed full of vitamins and minerals and is high in protein because it contains fruit, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. Plus, the addition of milk or yogurt to muesli increases your calcium intake. However, Amanda suggests that you look for natural or untoasted brands.
“Toasted muesli is often high in fat and sugar and is therefore higher in calories than natural or untoasted muesli,” said Clark. “A lot of dried fruit, especially the tropical kind, like pineapple and mango is going to increase the GI of the muesli,” she said. “Ingredients such as coconut are going to increase the fat content of muesli, as well as too many nuts.”
“Ideally look for a muesli that has less than 15g of sugar per 100g,” said Clark. “Too much sugar will obviously increase the calorie value of the muesli and can turn an ideally ‘healthy’ breakfast choice into a very ‘unhealthy’ choice. Chewy, sticky dried fruit can get stuck in teeth and increase likelihood of dental cavities,” she said.
“Carbohydrates, including sugars, and fats are our primary sources of fuel,” said Clark. “If carbs are present, fats will be stored instead of being immediately used as a fuel, as carbs are the body’s preferred fuel source,” she said. “Therefore too many carbs will lead to weight gain as the fat is reserved for future needs.”
“Too much fat leads to weight gain and increases risk of coronary heart disease,” said Clark. “Fat contains approximately 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for protein and carbohydrate,” she said. “For those wanting to lose weight, eating less fat reduces calorie intake and therefore will assist with weight loss.”
“The so called ‘bad fats’ are the saturated and trans fats,” said Clark. “Generally the more solid a fat is at room temperature, the higher the level of saturated and trans fats. To decide whether the fat content of a muesli is too high, look at the ingredients list on the packet,” she said. “Avoid those that contain vegetable oil in their list of ingredients as these generally are a saturated fat. Ideally, look for a muesli that has less than 5g of fat per 100g.”
“The ‘good’ unsaturated fats come from oats, seeds and nuts,” said Clark.
Clark believes that muesli is a highly nutritious start to the day.
“As a breakfast choice, muesli can be a fantastic nutrient rich start to the day,” said Clark. “A combination of raw whole oats, with moderate amounts of dried fruits, nuts and seeds.”
“Oats contain a type of fibre called beta glucan, which assists in lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol and therefore reduces the risk of heart disease,” said Clark. “Also, oats are low GI, promoting satiety, a feeling of fullness, helping with weight loss and stabilised blood sugar levels and mood,” she said.
“Fruits lose little of their nutritional value when dried and are a valuable source of fibre, vitamins and minerals,” said Clark.
“Nuts and seeds contain the ‘healthy’ mono-unsaturated fats,” said Clark. “Nuts vary in calorie value, but a few can make you feel satisfied and the benefits definitely outweigh the ‘bad’,” she said. “Nuts and seeds are also rich in fibre and protein, as well as many vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, magnesium and phosphorus.”
As a snack, Clark feels that muesli may be a choice that contain too many calories, though she does suggest a suitable weight reducing alternative.
“Depending on how active you are and whether you are aiming to lose or maintain your weight rather than gain weight, a serve of muesli is going to contain too many calories to be classed as a snack,” said Clark. “If you’re aiming to maintain weight, then 100g of yoghurt with 2 Tbsp of muesli sprinkled on top would be a great snack,” she said.
“If you make the right choice and choose a muesli that’s low in sugar and fat, that’s packed full of whole raw oats and moderate amounts of nuts, seeds and dried fruit, then muesli is definitely a good choice as a cereal option when it comes to weight loss,” said Clark. “It’s going to be low GI, assisting with appetite control and improved blood sugar levels, to keep you going for longer,” she said.
“Keep your portion size to half a cup of a natural muesli for females or three-quarters of a cup for males, and top with skim or low fat milk and a small serve of fruit, such as ½ a cup of berries or half a banana,” said Clark.
If you are looking to find your ideal portion size and want to know what the best Australian cereals are for weight loss are, then Clark recommends that you download an electronic copy of the Australian Healthy Snack Bible, which defines healthy foods.
“You can download a free electronic copy of the Australian Healthy Snack Bible, containing a bonus cereal guide, from my website,” said Clark. “This lays out the nutritional value and ideal portion size of the best Australian cereals for weight loss or weight maintenance.”