Grain Health Foods Toasted Muesli claims to be "delicious and nutritious". But gram for gram, it contains about the same amount of fat and sodium as a bowl of corn chips. With added sugar, it's a far cry from what you'd expect from a "health food" cereal.

Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner, credited as the creator of muesli, would probably be aghast at many of the products in stores today. The muesli Bircher-Benner served to his patients as a health tonic 100 years ago consisted largely of rolled oats, finely grated apple, and a few nuts.

Rolled oats are still a staple ingredient. But our survey of 75 products found many contain extra oils and sweeteners that increase the fat and sugar content (see "Muesli tables, below"). Despite muesli's health halo, it frequently includes ingredients you wouldn't want in a "healthy" breakfast food.

Average performance

The oats, nuts and seeds in muesli mean it can be higher in fat than other breakfast cereals. Nutritionists say the fat from these ingredients is usually good "unsaturated" fat. However, many manufacturers are upping the fat content by pouring in vegetable oils.

For example, nuts and seeds are listed as the largest ingredients in Cec's Homestyle Products Gluten Free Muesli. But the fourth largest ingredient is rice bran oil. This muesli was a whopping 40 percent fat.

On average, the 75 products we assessed contained 11.9g of total fat per 100g. Of this, 2.8g was saturated fat. By comparison, 100g of plain wholegrain rolled oats contain 5g of total fat with 1g saturated fat.

Most of the products we bought also had added sugars. Sixty had high levels of sugar – 15g or more per 100g. The average was 18.7g.

Sugar turned up in a variety of guises. Hubbards Thank Goodness Gluten Free Berry Muesli not only listed sugar but also honey, golden syrup and fruit juice concentrates. Some cereals also contained fruit sweetened with sugar.

Low-sodium was the only one of our criteria that most products met. The majority had 120mg of sodium (or less) per 100g. Just 12 had higher levels – and these tended to contain processed corn and rice flakes, which have added salt.

Missing Information: Manufacturers must list the average amount of key nutrients (per serve and per 100g) to help consumers compare products and make healthier food choices. One product, Purebread Organic Muesli Crunchy Granola, didn't include all the required nutrition info. The company told us it was "rebranding soon" and will amend its packing to comply with the regulations.

Slim pickings

Oat cereals such as muesli can be a good breakfast choice. Oats are a source of fibre and contain other important nutrients. But they're a far less attractive option when manufacturers start ladling in unnecessary fats and sugars.

If you want to avoid high-fat, high-sugar mueslis, you'll need to check the nutrition information panel on the pack. Our table lists 12 products that had less-than-average amounts of fat and sugar. They also met our low-sodium target.

Two of the 12 are bircher-style mueslis: Brookfarm Gluten Free Bircher and Ceres Organics Bircher Original Muesli. Bircher muesli is traditionally soaked overnight in water or milk. Ceres also suggests soaking its muesli for 10 minutes or using it to make hot porridge. The Brookfarm Gluten Free Bircher, which doesn't contain oats, can be soaked for 30 minutes or overnight.

Some of the other cereals in this group may not be quite what you'd expect from muesli. While Hubbards Berry Berry Lite Light Muesli contained fruit (sultanas and dried apple), it also contained "fruit pieces" made from puree. These are more like fruit leather rather than pieces of real fruit.

This cereal, as well as Freedom Foods Apple and Blueberry Crunchola, and Woolworths Homebrand Traditional Muesli, also didn't contain any nuts or seeds.

Market size

Muesli sales are growing and were worth $34.8 million in the year to January 2012, up 3.4 percent on the previous year. New products, particularly tarted-up "gourmet" mueslis, have helped spur sales. Competition for shelf space has also seen manufacturers expand their product range.

There's huge variation in the price of products now available. The cheapest product we bought (Budget Tropical Muesli) was $2.55 per 500g.

At the other end of the scale, Brookfarm Gluten Free Bircher muesli and Cec's Homestyle Products NZ Gluten Free Muesli both retailed for a high $17.86 per 500g.

Products that have more fruits and nuts or more-expensive varieties are usually dearer. Sultanas tend to be the main fruit in mueslis at the cheaper end of the market.

But paying more doesn't necessarily mean you're getting a "healthier" product. If you want a muesli without all the extra oils and sugars, your best bet may be to make it at home.

We say

  • Manufacturers have a long way to go to satisfy consumers looking for a lower-fat lower-sugar option. Reducing the use of vegetable oils and sweeteners would be a start.
  • If you're buying muesli, don't be swayed by its health halo. Your best guide is the nutrition information panel and the ingredients list on the pack. We'd like to see front-of-pack "traffic light labelling" to make it easier for consumers to choose.

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