How did “granola” became a personality trait?

When I was a child, my mother had a friend with a cat named Crunchy Granola. The friend was pure crunchy granola herself— she served acorn squash for dinner, taught me how to macrame and literally had a tree growing inside her house. The memory of this woman came flooding back to me recently, while I was standing in a Swiss supermarket. In the stores I’ve frequented there, the cereal aisle is basically a muesli aisle, abundant with oaty, fruity varieties of the stuff and only a nodding amount of space for a few screaming American style cereals. Yet I’ve never heard of anyone — Swiss or otherwise — described as a “muesli type.” I’ve wouldn’t know what a Cornflakes or Rice Krispies personality would even be. Even generational shorthand avocado toast doesn’t really communicate character traits. But on Pinterest, you can find “granola core,” “granola mom,” and “granola style,” with recent pointers for where to shop for your “Granola Girl Aesthetic.” How did a breakfast cereal become an entire personality — and why has it managed to remain one for decades?

“The granola personalty seems embedded within its crumbly, roof-of-the-mouth-splitting DNA.”

The granola personalty seems embedded within its crumbly, roof-of-the-mouth-splitting DNA — wherever you want to begin its story. Like other great inventions, its provenance is shrouded in dispute. A 2012 New York Times feature that asked “Who Made That Granola?” credits Dr. James Caleb Jackson, “a health reformer who believed illness was rooted in the stomach.” Setting the template for future wellness influencers everywhere, Jackson’s fascination with nutrition arose from his own history of poor health, and experiments with alternative practices. 

In 1863, Jackson created a delicacy he called granula. Made of double baked graham flour, broken and soaked, it was one of the earliest examples of American breakfast cereal. A granola personality before granola was a personality, Jackson ran a spa and authored several books with titles like “The Sexual Organism and its Healthy Management” and “How to treat the Sick without Medicine.” Sure, Jackson may have been a Seventh Day Adventist who believed that “highly seasoned food” was bad for your menstrual health and had very strong opinions about the dangers of masturbation, but some of his ideas — including his prescription “to give up meat, butter, spices, common salt; to drink no tea or coffee” — could have come straight from the ladies in my yoga class.

In time, Jackson’s trendy granula (the seamoss of its day) eventually attracted the attention of fellow health and nutrition trendsetter John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg tweaked Jackson’s template and developed his own “granula” — featuring oat flour and served in milk — after visiting Jackson’s facility. Jackson threatened to sue; Kellogg changed the name by one letter, and soon found much bigger success with cornflakes anyway. Granola fell out of fashion. (Across the ocean, meanwhile, Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner’s similar creation, muesli, took off like a rocket.

It was controversial nutrition pioneer and original granola girl Adelle Davis who not only helped bring granola back into style, but reshaped it to resemble the modern version we now know and build our whole vibes around. If Davis was around today, she would be blowing up on TikTok. She was a tennis-playing nutritionist with a master’s in biochemistry who was a critic of processed, “devitalized” foods and advocated for vitamin supplements. She also had her book “Let’s Have Healthy Children” recalled because of its dangerously incorrect advice, and offered questionable advice like drinking a quart of milk a day. (She died of bone cancer at the age of 70). 

The Adelle Davis Foundation credits her as the person who “invented granola as we know it today.” And while her 1947 book “Let’s Cook It Right” doesn’t appear to actually call it granola, her recipe for it was unquestionably a hit. As food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson has explained in her deep dives of breakfast cereals, “Adelle is likely one of several people to discover that by combining rolled oats with nuts, dried fruit, oil and honey, you get a delicious crunchy baked snack.” 

“Granola had officially imprinted itself on the patchouli generation.”

It took a few more years for the concoction leap into the breakfast bowl, and even longer to mass popularity. What pushed granola into the spotlight was the mother of all granola events — Woodstock.

Smithsonian magazine recalls that when it became apparent that the size of the crowd was vastly outpacing the amount of eats available, “The Hog Farm Collective, who had been hired to help with security and other behind-the-scenes jobs, also stepped in to alleviate the food shortage, supplementing the concessions with free food lines serving brown rice and vegetables and, more famously, granola.” Photographer, filmmaker and enterprising problem solver Lisa Law was reportedly given $3,000 and an imperative to go into the city and get provisions. As Newberry Magazine later put it, “She returned from New York with apricots, almonds, rolled oats, currants, honey—And Dixie cups. Lots of Dixie cups.” Granola had officially imprinted itself on the patchouli generation.

The groundwork had already by laid a few years earlier, when entrepreneur and self described “freelance baker” Layton Gentry developed his own Crunchy Granola and sold the recipe to a company called Sovex Inc. In 1971, the company was doing a million dollars in granola sales. But as Gentry fretted to Time magazine, “I really think if the big companies got their hands on it that it may become a bad word. Even now, there’s a lot being made that doesn’t do justice to granola.”

And well, here we are. Granola is far from a bad word, but its current form may not be doing a whole lot of justice to its image. A 2016 New York Times survey found that “More than 70 percent of ordinary Americans we surveyed described [granola bars] as healthy, but less than a third of nutritional experts did. A similar gap existed for granola, which less than half of nutritionists we surveyed described as healthy.” 

I love granola, but that’s largely because it is, as a colleague puts it, essentially broken cookies in a bowl. I frequently make my own; I should know! Even though I wouldn’t say I use a ton of sugar or honey in my own kitchen, I recognize that all those nuts and dried fruits and often, chocolate chips I bake in there aren’t exactly salad. As a breakfast, it’s better than cocaine, but I’m not fooling myself. Look, granola is sugary; it’s high in fat. Chances are, if you eat it, you’re buying a big supermarket brand like Quaker, and that it has more sugar, saturated fat and carbs than a serving of Frosted Flakes.

Yet the image of granola as just grrrrrrrreat persists. The granola person, almost always a female, is described across various blogs as “earthy, eco-conscious, and a little ‘out there,'” “someone who commits their life to being environmentally conscious, outdoorsy and laid back” and is “all about embracing the beauty of the great outdoors, nurturing your soul with sustainable fashion, and indulging in some serious earthy vibes.”

“Because of its health guru and sanitarium past and its association with hiking and other outdoor pursuits in the 1960s and ’70s,” writes Sarah Wassberg, “we tend to associate it with healthy food, even though it is anything but.” Throw in a few thousand iconic, hungry hippies, and fate is sealed. The virtuous, slightly rebellious image of the chunky treat continues to stick like a raisin on a molar. And sure, it’s just an expression and yes, you can enjoy sugary cereal and the outdoors. But making “granola” a personality trait does strike me lately as far less authentic than say, being a wine mom. At least the lifestyle aligns more faithfully to the product there.

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