For more than a century and a half, granola has been regarded as a healthier food. But some Maine granola producers feared it was being turned into little more than a sugary cereal filled with empty calories.

So they decided to do something about it.

“Many commercial granolas are just too sweet,” Lucy Benjamin of Lucy’s Granola in East Blue Hill said. “Traditional granola is just plain delicious with tasty, toasty grains and so easy to eat as-is or on top of things like yogurt.”

Lucy’s Granola is among the Maine-made granola makers taking this food back to its roots.

Little more than glorified cookies

Granola, according to Dr. Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Maine’s school of food and agriculture, is one of those examples of a perfectly healthy food gone bad.

“Granola is a very concentrated source of energy and a good source of fiber,” Camire said. “But commercial brands often don’t properly balance ingredients.”

The other issue, Camire said, is regardless of how much care the maker takes in creating a healthy granola, all those grains, oats, berries, nuts and sweeteners pack a lot of calories into a small package.

“The serving size for granola is generally one-third of a cup,” Camire said. “People walk around eating an entire baggie of granola.”

But when portion control and care for ingredients is taken, granola can be part of a healthy diet, she said.

Which is exactly what granola makers like Benjamin and Aaron Anker of Grandy Oats want to create.

Anker, chief granola officer at Hiram-based Grandy Oats, see many of the commercial granolas on the national market as little more than glorified broken up cookies.

“They’ve taken something that is supposed to be healthy and that had really blossomed in the healthy food movement of the ’70s and made it bad for you by putting sugar as the second ingredient,” Anker said. “Our granola is founded on the idea that granola is a healthy option and it’s all in how you make it.”

Real granola coming out of Maine

Originally from England, Benjamin grew up watching her mother and brother eating European-style muesli, a dish similar to granola made with oats, grains, nuts, dried fruit and more — something she just could not fathom.

“I thought it was disgusting,” she said with a laugh. “It was just a bunch of raw grains.”

But as an she discovered the delights of mixing those grains with seeds, nuts, fruit, honey and spices and using that as an additive for yogurt or a quick breakfast food.

After whipping up a batch of her homemade granola for a school bake sale some years back that quickly sold out, Benjamin decided to go into business for herself.

“Any granola that clumps or is greasy has too much oil or sweeteners,” she said. “Mine is incredibly loose and dry [because] it is baked with just a bit of canola oil and a bit of maple syrup for sweetening.”

Like Benjamin, Gorham-based Maureen Terry, founder of MoMunch Granola wanted some healthier options and decided to do it herself.

“We started making ours because we could not find any that were snack worthy,” Terry said. Her customers are people seeking healthy alternatives, but are not necessarily health food fanatics.

“So I make a product that is good for them and gives them energy and tastes awesome so they don’t feel guilty eating it,” she said. “It has all the right stuff — proteins from all the nuts and seeds, carbohydrates from local honey and oats [and] it’s not messy, you can pour it into your hand and then zip the bag up and put it back in your pocket where it won’t melt like a chocolate bar.”

Grandy Oats uses natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and coconut nectar to create what Anker calls “the real granola.”

That awareness and balance of ingredients is key, Camire said.

“Look for ingredients that have more fiber and are not just puffed starch,” she said. “Puffed rice is just starch, but we are seeing a lot more puffed heirloom grains like quinoa, sorghum and amaranth that are nice healthy grains that add a nice crunch.”

Think outside the granola box

Granola can also go savory, Camire said.

“You can use things like wasabi peas, rice crackers and nuts to get a really nice variety of flavors,” she said. “People tend to think of granola has having to be sweet and it really does not have to be.”

Carime said a good granola should use grains as a base and build from there.

“Use nuts, dried blueberries, cranberries, whatever your family likes,” she said. “Having that one-third cup gives you sustained energy from the grains and a quick hit from the fruit sugars that is great for a mid morning or mid afternoon slump snack.”

Building on a solid, healthy base has been key for Grandy Oats, according to Anker.

“One of the neat things with us is we are always innovating,” he said. “We have recipes people have been eating for 40 years, but in 2016 we launched a coconut-based granola [without] nuts or grains.”

That newest granola — or “coconola” as the company named it — has become a popular seller, Anker said.

“It’s super snackable,” he said. “We are using a ‘super’ hemp seed in it, so it has 6 grams of protein per ounce and a very unique flavor.”

All three granola makers see no end in sight for the popularity of their product.

“I think a bit part of that is how convenient it is,” Terry said. “It’s easy to eat and easy to store and it goes well with so many other things.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.