Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Cereal offenders - Health - Times Online

Cereal offenders - Health - Times Online

Ironically on this hot (34 degrees) summer day I had porridge for breakfast, but most days I have a bowl of Alpen. Consequently this article on the dark secrets of supposedly healthy foods didn't make welcome reading.


Cereal Offenders
by Nick Wyke

Muesli-munching may have shaken off its hippy image but with high fat and sugar levels, is it as good for us as we think
We all know that porridge is good for us. But who feels like a hearty bowl of steaming oats when the weather is enough to warm you up at breakfast time? A bowl of museli with some ice-cold milk is far more tempting.

Traditionally, this Swiss-style breakfast has had a healthy image. The original version, soaked with fresh fruit, was conceived by Dr Max Bircher-Benner in 1900, as it was easy for his patients to digest. By the 1970s a dried-fruit variation had become a staple of the sandal-wearing cohorts leading the health-food revolution. Today, such is the smart-set status of the cereal that David Cameron’s high-profile campaign to win round the new movers and shakers in British society is known as the “muesli offensive”.

Packed full of dried fruit, seeds and nuts and high in fibre, there can be few healthier starts to the day than a nutritious bowl of muesli.

As more and more research highlights the health benefits of a good breakfast, loaded with complex carbohydrates, muesli’s popularity has risen, and there are dozens of different varieties to choose from. “It’s certainly the next breakfast cereal after porridge to show a rapid rise in popularity,” says Carol Flint, the marketing controller at Jordans Cereals.

Only this month Jordans launched its Superfoods Muesli, which contains mineral-rich almonds, antioxidant-rich cranberries and immune-boosting blueberries. While Rude Health’s Ultimate Muesli, with its protein-rich quinoa flakes, omega-3-rich golden linseed and trendy goji berries, is the breakfast of choice for style-setters such as Zac Goldsmith and Elizabeth Hurley. You pay for the privilege, mind, at more than a fiver a packet.

But while many mueslis add up to their healthy eating claims, there is evidence that some mueslis are masquerading as good for you when, in fact, they are high in sugar and fat. So does this breakfast with a healthy image have a dark secret? “Some foods that you don’t expect to be very high in sugar, including some muesli, can contain lots,” says Sarah Read, of the Food Standards Agency’s consumer media department. Alpen, for example, the UK’s bestselling muesli with more than 20 per cent of the market, contains 21.8g of sugar per 100g, and Jordans Special Fruit Muesli has 33.5g sugar per 100g. The FSA’s daily guidelines suggest that while 2g of sugars or less per 100g is “a little” sugar, 10g of sugars per 100g of food is “a lot”.

Read says: “If a muesli contains lots of fruit, although the sugars are natural you’ve still got to be careful.” Sugar in its most common form, sucrose, provides energy but has only negligible amounts of other nutrients. Claire Williamson, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation says; “Even the natural sugar in dried fruit and fruit juice can cause decay, too, if consumed frequently.”

Luci Daniels, a dietitian and past chairman of the British Dietetic Association, says the problem with “no added sugar” mueslis that are low in dried fruit is that they are also low in taste. “If you have to play spot-the-raisin, the muesli may have little flavour and you could be tempted to add sugar,” she says.

High sugar is not the only problem. Most mueslis have straightforward ingredients, but there are some surprises. Dried milk might seem a strange addition for something that you are going to pour milk on, but it serves as a sweetener and gives the muesli an added creaminess. Glazing agent is another addition, it helps give dried fruit a shiny appearance and prevents deterioration. Calcium chloride is also used as a firming agent in the dried fruit.

“Some of the mainstream mueslis are full of padding, with stale nuts and dead-fly raisins,” says Kate Freestone, the co-founder of Rude Health foods. Fed up with brands that were high in sugar and salt and containing an average of only seven ingredients, Freestone concocted her own with 25 ingredients. She now sells it as Ultimate Muesli, one of a number of designer mueslis that have broken the £5 a packet bracket recently. The feedback from regular tastings at healthfood stores shows that people are looking for a wheat-free muesli. “It gives the energy hit without leaving you bloated,” says Freestone.

Of all the many claims made on muesli packets, surprisingly few claim to be low in fat. The fat content, for example, in Eat Natural Breakfast muesli is 25g per 100g. This is as high as some cheese, but the good news is that it is mostly derived from the high nut content, only 1g of which is saturated fat, the harmful sort that raises cholesterol. “The benefits far outweigh the low degree of saturated fat in nuts,” says Daniels. Nuts contain healthy unsaturated fats and are a source of fibre, essential fatty acids and protein. They also contain vitamins, such as folic acid, niacin, vitamin E and a range of minerals.

Clearly, finding the right balance of ingredients in muesli is important. It should be low in sugar, high in complex carbohydrate, as well as high in fibre. But this could make for a really dull start to the day and Daniels says that there is a danger that “food fascists (that includes food writers) will put people off eating perfectly decent food such as most muesli if it has to be free of salt, sugar, fat and taste”.

Studies have shown that children and adults who miss out on a cereal breakfast are more likely to be overweight. It is commonly agreed among nutritionists that we need a nutritionally adequate breakfast to see us through to lunch. They recommend that it should make up a quarter of your daily nutrient intake. In terms of calories this means about 500 for the average adult. Even with milk few 50g servings of muesli exceed more than 200-300 calories.

"Consuming a healthy breakfast means that you are less likely to snack on foods that are high in fat and sugar later on in the day," says Williamson. “It is better to eat wholegrain versions of starchy (carbohydrate) foods, such as muesli and porridge, as these provide a sustained slower release of energy throughout the morning compared with sugar-coated cereals.”

However, she points out that “crunchy” types made with oats are quite different from traditional muesli and can be higher in fat and added sugars, a fact that Which? points out in a report this week: “Sainsbury’s Crunchy Oat Cereal gives you almost the same amount of fat as the supermarket’s thick pork sausages at 20.3g of fat per 100g.”

As well as being a good way of ensuring a sustained release of energy, natural wholegrain foods are a source of fibre and antioxidants and can be beneficial in terms of weight management and heart health. “Generally, mueslis are a very good breakfast choice,” says Daniels, “if you choose the right one.”

For details of where to buy Rude Health’s Ultimate Muesli, visit

Bowful of goodness?

Catherine Collins, the chief dietitian at St George’s Hospital in London, takes a closer look at the ingredients of some of the more popular muesli brands. The FSA says the following amounts are high, per 100g: 10g sugar; 20g fat; 5g saturated fat

Sugar 31.4g per 100g.
Fat 7.9g per 100g (1.1g saturates).
Other ingredients Chilean flame raisins and freeze-dried cherries.
Nutrition Sugar is almost double that of the other cereals below, all derived from fruit. The slightly higher fat content comes from the sunflower seeds and the sunflower oil glaze on the cranberries, but it is low in saturates and high in polyunsaturates.
Taste test A creative mix of dried fruit, nuts, seeds and toasted cereals, which tastes good with yoghurt, fruit juice, or even eaten dry.

Sugar 24g per 100g.
Fat 25g per 100g (1g saturates).
Other ingredients Sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. No sugar, but added honey.
Nutrition A unique muesli profile — only a third of the product by weight are grains — rice and millet. The use of honey has no health benefits, but it sounds more natural. The highest fat (and highest calorie) cereal by far on the list (a quarter of the product by weight is fat) reflects the 41 per cent by weight seed and nut content. More like a pudding topping than a cereal.
Taste test The sultanas are plump and succulent, there’s a good array of seeds, and macadamia nuts make a nice change. You’ll either love or hate the powerful honey aroma.

ALPEN ORIGINAL, £2.15, 750g
Sugar 21.8g per 100g.
Fat 5.8g per 100g (0.7g saturates).
Other ingredients Dried milk whey powder, dried skimmed milk.
Nutrition Whey and skimmed-milk powder make it unsuitable for those with cow’s milk protein allergy. By weight, Alpen adds more sugar than nuts to its product and there is also a tiny amount of added salt.
Taste test The brown wheat flakes dominate and make this feel dry and bran-like.

Sugar 17.1g per 100g.
Fat 6g per 100g (0.8g saturates).
Other ingredients Milk whey powder.
Nutrition Modest sugar and fat content; but the low saturated fat simply reflects the paucity of nuts.
Taste test This tastes OK as basic mueslis go.

JORDANS NATURAL, £2.58, 750g
Sugar 15.3g per 100g.
Fat: 4.7g per 100g (0.8g saturates).
Other ingredients Chopped dates, though you will have to hunt them out.
Nutrition The 76 per cent grain content makes this one of the lowest-calorie mueslis. At 10.4g fibre per 100g, this is the highest-fibre cereal.
Taste test These high-grade flakes become a bit chewy without a decent fruit and nut content; it will have you reaching for the sugar bowl or some fresh fruit.


With packets of muesli hitting £6 for 500g, I decided to make my own. I bought £12 worth of organic oats, barley flakes, dried fruits, seeds and brazil nuts from my local healthfood store.

After chopping the apricots, figs and Brazil nuts I mixed them with the sunflower and pumpkin seeds, raisins, cranberries and the other ingredients in a bowl until I had more than 2kg of fruit-flecked muesli with no added sugar or salt. I stored it in an airtight cereal-dispenser. The finished product was less oat-dense than any of the commercially-produced mueslis.

Because of the high fruit content (half of the ten ingredients were fruit), it is high in natural sugars and fat from the Brazil nuts, but it’s mostly unsaturated fat and I could use the energy. And it tastes great.