Is granola healthy?

Yes, whether eaten as a cereal or snack topping, granola can make for a crunchy, nutritious treat. But granola is high in calories, and some versions are healthier than others based on their ingredients.

Granola's healthy ingredients include oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit, which deliver important nutrients such as protein, iron, heart healthy fats and fiber (specifically, beta glucan, a cholesterol-lowering fiber from oats.)

Granola is also calorie dense -- some contain a little more than 300 calories per cup, but others can pack up to 600 calories per cup, from added oils, coconut, chocolate and added sugars including evaporated cane juice, honey, maple syrup, molasses, cane sugar and brown rice syrup.

"It's important to be aware of the many sugar sources that could be in granola," said Rahaf Al Bochi, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Look for granola that has minimal amounts of added sugar and uses dried fruit for sweetness instead."

Granola guidelines

It can be difficult to give sugar or fat limits for granola, since portion sizes for granola vary. And it can be challenging to determine just how much fat and sugar is naturally present in nuts and dried fruit, versus how much is added in the form of sweeteners and oils.

So, if you are watching sugars, carbs or calories, your best bet is to limit your portions of granola. Dietitians agree that a quarter of a cup is a good guideline. Use it as a topping to add crunch to yogurt, fruit or even pancakes. Or mix it with a lower calorie, whole grain cereal so you can enjoy a bigger breakfast bowl without going calorie-overboard. You can also use granola as a salad ingredient, or as part of a trail mix.

There's also the option of homemade granola. "A healthier alternative to store bought granola would be to make your own granola at home," said Al Bochi. "You would have control over the ingredients and the amount of sugar and fat added."

To make granola, Al Bochi recommends mixing old-fashioned rolled oats with nuts and seeds. You can add a little honey and vegetable oil to the mix, as well. Bake in the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown. Then, add dried fruit and store in an airtight container. Consume within two weeks for optimal freshness.

Just remember, even with homemade, good-for-you-granola, there can be too much of a good thing. So don't forget to keep your measuring cup handy.