Nothing beats sinking your teeth into a dense granola bar when you’re low on energy. For athletes, students, hikers and travelers, there is something magical about the convenience and efficiency of granola to go. Problem is, most store-bought granola bars are less healthy than their packages boast and they fail to provide the essential nutrients of the earlier derivations of the bar.
A brief history of the bar
The life of the granola bar started way before Nature Valley’s shiny, green, plastic-wrapped “Oats ‘N Honey” treats. During the Middle Ages, Crusaders needed to pack lightweight, high calorie foods to sustain their energy on long trips. The travelers packed dense fruit cakes called “pan forte” (strong bread). These cakes contained honey, grains, nuts, and dried fruit—a combination packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and enough energy to keep the riders satisfied. The fiber in the cakes filled them up (and kept them regular), while the nuts and grains provided necessary fat and protein to store energy, maintain their muscles, and insulate their organs.
Across the Atlantic, Native Americans also fashioned their own versions of granola bars. The Cree Indians introduced “pemmican,” to American colonists in the late 18th century. “Pemmican” was a rawhide package of pounded fat, bone marrow, dried berries, and dried deer and buffalo meat in a beef-jerky-meets-Clif-bar-concoction. In 1793, Scottish frontiersman Alexander MacKenzie crossed the North American continent from coast to coast with these bars as his only food supply. He was the first European to successfully accomplish the voyage, all thanks to the good ol’ pemmican. In fact, he recorded his feat on a rock near Bella Coola (by the shore of the Pacific) by painting with the greasy mixture: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.”
After the Industrial Revolution and the onset of factory food, treats like the granola bar were mass-produced and distributed. At this point, granola bars weren’t so much granola as they were junk food—they were called “handy bars,” but like conventional candy bars, they did not deliver much nutrition. They consisted primarily of sugar and milled flour or oats.
Raising the bar
It was not until 1975, when Nature Valley hired an inventor to formulate a more nutritious (although by no means perfect), convenient, and tasty bar for the baby boomer generation, that the concept of granola bars as a health food emerged. Industrialized, prepackaged granola bars claim to help us keep moving, stay focused and healthy, and even, in more recent years, lose weight. In the ’70s, if you looked at the list of ingredients on some pre-wrapped granola bars, you might have seen numerous added sugars and oils. Now, in the current Quaker Chewy Bar, you will see chemical preservatives like TBHQ, artificial color, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. We certainly appear to be on a downward spiral of over-processing our granola bars.
Most granola bars do contain a certain ratio of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Carbohydrates are good for immediate energy as they are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains and vegetables, are usually coupled with fiber, which slows down digestion and keeps you full. You can bet that M&M-studded granola bars won’t contain too many complex carbohydrates, though, and even when a bar’s package boasts “multi-grain,” you can never be too sure how processed these grains are.
The show “Good Eats” on the Food Network, hosted by Alton Brown, teaches the American public how to make homemade, healthy alternatives to processed food like prepackaged granola bars. The bars Brown concocts include healthy unsaturated fats, all nine amino acids, and complex carbohydrates. And they’re not too caloric—each contains only 193 calories and 61.28 milligrams of sodium—a very hypertension-friendly amount! Many bars, like the Odwalla Chocolate Chip Peanut bar, contain over 200 calories and 170 milligrams of sodium.
Brown’s homemade granola bars contain toasted oats, which are low-glycemic index carbohydrates, meaning the body metabolizes those sugars slowly. There are no mystery ingredients in these bars. The almonds, sunflower seeds, and flaxseed deliver Omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids, to which current scientific studies attribute anti-inflammatory properties and cholesterol-lowering properties. Beyond all of the nutritional benefits of the bars, they are delightfully filling and satisfy every nutty, savory, and sweet craving one might have. Best of all, each bar only costs approximately five cents to make, as opposed such granola bars as the Clif Nectar Bar, ringing up at $1.79 for 1.6-ounces. Avoiding costly and usually (ironically) health-compromising granola bars is a daily struggle for consumers, leaving only one possibility: make the bar yourself!
Friends don’t let friends buy pre-packaged bars
The recipe below is my variation of Brown’s original recipe. And you can substitute different dried fruit, nuts, or seeds with the ones in the recipe to tailor the bars to your liking. I also like to include half a cup of organic dark chocolate chips, as they add an interesting, complex bitterness to the mix. The smell of the bars as they come out of the oven rivals that of freshly baked cookies—yet they leave you neither bloated nor sugar high.
The next time you reach for a machine-made simple sugar and refined grain mixture in an expensive, eco-harmful plastic-wrapped package, I suggest that instead you whip up a batch of homemade granola bars in your own kitchen. They’ll cost less, taste better, last longer, and your body (and bowels) will thank you for it.
8 2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
8 ½ cup raw sunflower seeds (unshelled)
8 1 cup sliced almonds
8 ½ cup flaxseed
8 ½ cup honey
8 ¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
81 ounce coconut oil (canola oil or butter is fine, too)
8 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
8 ½ cup chopped dried blueberries
8 Optional: ½ cup dark chocolate chips
Spray a 9-by-9-inch baking dish with nonstick spray and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Spread the oats, sunflower seeds, almonds and flaxseed onto a half-sheet pan. Place in the oven and toast for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In the meantime, combine the honey, brown sugar, coconut oil, vanilla extract and salt in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook until the brown sugar has completely dissolved.
Once the oat mixture is done, remove it from the oven and reduce the heat to 300° F. Immediately add the oat mixture to the liquid mixture, add the dried blueberries (and if you’re using them, the chocolate chips), and stir to combine. Turn mixture out into the prepared baking dish and press down, evenly distributing the mixture in the dish and place in the oven to bake for 25 minutes.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely. Cut into squares and store in an airtight container for up to two to three weeks.
Original recipe is from Alton Brown’s “Good Eats,” Season 9 Episode 5, but I swapped coconut oil for butter, flaxseed for wheat germ, dried blueberries for dried apricots and added dark chocolate chips.