Toasted vs untoasted? Premium vs plain? "No added sugar", yet loaded with fruit and honey? When faced with a wall of mueslis at the supermarket, you can end up feeling like a fruit-loop trying to make sense of packaging claims and find the best value for money. We help you understand what to look for in a muesli, how to spot the hidden health traps and how to crunch the nutrition numbers. We've even thrown in our favourite recipe so you can make your own muesli at home.
More for your money?
Muesli has gone upmarket. For $20 (or more!) a kilo, you can get stylishly packaged organic grains mixed with exotic ingredients like wild figs and blueberries, biodynamic pears, white mulberries and pistachios. While posh muesli may be delicious, the extra dollars you fork out – which can be more than $50 per kilo for some brands — won't necessarily buy you a healthier product.
At the cheaper end (for as little as $3/kg) the fruit variety is more likely to include sultanas and apricots than barberries and goji berries. You'll also usually get fewer nuts in the mix (and then mainly almonds), but you're just as likely to get a nutritious start to the day.
When choosing a muesli always check the nutrition information panel (NIP) first and don't be swayed by nutrition claims alone — despite its healthful image, muesli can be sugary and kilojoule-dense.
We reviewed 159 mueslis in 2011 for on-pack nutrition claims and found almost three quarters had at least one claim. The most common claims are gluten- and wheat-free or claims about fibre and/or wholegrain content, but "low in salt", "no added sugar", "high protein", "low GI" and "low fat" claims are also popular.
The problem with nutrition claims is that they don't tell the whole story — products claiming "no added sugar" can still be high in sugar, for example, and on the flip side, products that are low-fat or contain more than average fibre may not proclaim it.
And muesli isn't the only option for a healthy breakfast – check our guide to breakfast cereals for other choices.
Muesli was created around 1900 by Swiss physician Max Bircher-Benner, who used a diet of raw vegetables, fruit and nuts to treat patients. The original Bircher muesli was uncooked rolled oats soaked in water or fruit juice, served with grated or chopped fresh fruit. Bircher muesli is moister than most packaged mueslis and is like a cold, fruity porridge. Nowadays, Bircher or Swiss-style mueslis tend to be oats mixed with other cereals, nuts, seeds and various dried fruits, but grated apple is still a common ingredient.
Natural muesli implies that it hasn't been toasted or baked, but it's a meaningless term for helping you choose a healthy product.
Toasted, roasted or baked
In the past, toasted mueslis were often higher in fat. But these days many toasted (and roasted and baked) mueslis contain lower than average fat, and not all of them list oil as an ingredient. On the other hand, many contain added sugar, often in the form of honey. Honey could be used in the heating process to give that glazed look common to toasted mueslis.
Originally 'granula', this is a muesli-like cereal invented in New York at the same time as the Swiss were inventing muesli. Granula consisted of wholegrain products clustered together and baked until crispy. It was revived as a 'health food' in the 1960s when fruits and nuts were added. The name 'granola' is trademarked in Australia by Sanitarium, but there are plenty of granola-style products on the shelves, usually marketed as 'clusters' or 'crunchola'. Most granola-style cereals, like most mueslis, are oat-based. The majority contain added oil and sugar (sometimes in the form of honey or other sweet syrups) to hold them together.
Adults should be eating about 30g of fibre a day, and a high-fibre breakfast cereal is a good starting point - muesli will often fit the bill. The fibre content of the mueslis we reviewed ranges from 3.5% to 18%, with an average just shy of 10%.
Tips for choosing higher fibre:
- Foods that contain at least 4g or 7g of dietary fibre in a serving are defined in the Food Standards Code as "good" and "excellent" sources of fibre respectively, so check the NIP. Generally speaking for muesli, where an average serve (as specified on pack) is about 50g, products with 8% or more fibre are a good source.
- Don't rely solely on claims like "good source of fibre" or "high in fibre" — many mueslis with above average fibre don't actually claim that on the packaging.
Genuinely "low-sugar" mueslis have no more than five per cent sugar, according to the Food Standards Code. Some in our review contained 2% sugar or less, far less than the average of 18%. This is because they contained no added sugars and minimal or no dried fruit.
While providing many valuable nutrients, dried fruit is also a concentrated form of sugar, so muesli can be full of sugar without it being listed as an ingredient. For example, a muesli might have a "no added sugar" claim, but still contain 25% sugar thanks to its dried fruit content. Or it might genuinely claim "no added cane sugar" but contain enough dried fruit and honey (sugar, just in another form) to end up with 25% sugar or more. Some mueslis can even contain up to 43% sugars – making them more sugary than Kellogg's Coco Pops – even though their sugars are (for the most part) from dried fruit and not just added sugars.
Tips for choosing lower sugar:
- Check the ingredients list for added sugar. It can be disguised as honey, maple syrup, golden syrup or glucose, for example.
- Watch out for dried fruit in the top three ingredients.
Mueslis are intrinsically higher in fat than other cereals, but the fat is often from oats, seeds or nuts, so it's the "good" unsaturated type (and you get the valuable nutrients that are found naturally in these ingredients).
Ten of the mueslis we reviewed met the Food Standards Code definition of 'low fat' (no more than 3% fat) - although some of these were quite high in sugar.
Tips for choosing lower fat:
- Check the NIP. For true low fat muesli look for ones with three per cent fat or less.
- The type of fat is also important. Again, check the NIP — the lower the ratio of saturated fat to total fat the better. The ingredients list tells you whether the fat comes mainly from nuts and seeds (unsaturated fat) or added fat, depending on which is listed higher up. Where added fat is listed as "vegetable oil", it could be from coconut oil, which is a saturated fat, or "hardened" vegetable oil, which can contain trans fat — as bad for us as saturated fat.
- Rather than avoiding higher fat mueslis, simply be restrained with the portion size you serve yourself - this will mean you get the benefits of these good fats while limiting your intake of the associated kilojoules.
Nuts and seeds
The most common nuts found in mueslis are almonds, followed by hazelnuts. Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, linseed and sesame seeds are the most prevalent seeds. There are some mueslis containing six or more different nuts and seeds. The more rare — and for some people more desirable — nuts are cashews and pistachios.
If you have a nut allergy, be sure to read the ingredient list carefully. The majority of mueslis contain at least one type of nut.
The fruits of choice for muesli manufacturers are sultanas, apricots, pawpaw, coconut, currants, apple, pineapple and raisins. Some mueslis have nine or more different fruits in their ingredients.
CHOICE muesli recipe
- 2 cups rolled oats
- 1 cup rice bran
- 2 cups triticale flakes (or substitute wheat, rice or bran flakes)
- ¾ cup unprocessed wheat bran
- 1 ½ tbsp sesame seeds
- 2 tbsp slivered almonds
- ¾ cup shredded or flaked coconut
- 2 tbsp honey
- 150ml fresh orange juice
- ½ cup apricots, chopped finely
- ½ cup sultanas
- 6 pieces dried apple, chopped finely
- 5 pieces dried mango, chopped finely
- 5 pieces dried paw paw, chopped finely
- 6 prunes, chopped finely
- Combine all dry ingredients (except dried fruit).
- Blend honey and juice (warm gently in microwave), pour over dry ingredients, mix well.
- Place mixture onto a baking tray lined with baking paper, bake at 150°C for 25-30 minutes or until golden, stirring occasionally. Cool.
- Combine dried fruit with baked ingredients.
- Store in an airtight container.
- Other dried fruits can be used instead — try figs, raisins, cranberries, currants, banana or pears.
Nutritional information per 100g
- Energy 1280kJ / 306Cal
- Protein 6.9g
- Total fat 9.5g (includes cholesterol 0mg, saturated fat 4.0g, polyunsaturated fat 2.2g, monounsaturated fat 2.5g)
- Fibre 10.3g
- Total carbohydrate 43.7g (includes sugars 23.5g)
- Sodium 86mg
- Potassium 637mg
- Calcium 41mg
This muesli is high in fibre, low in sodium and for muesli contains less than average fat. For the best of all (nutritional) worlds, use half the honey, apricots and sultanas to reduce the sugar content.