Life-Changing Granola Bars…and Magic?

Granola bars have become a major part of my diet this year, as I’ve taken to keeping a box in my office desk so that I can have something whole-grain filled and sweet for those days when I have to get to campus too early to make breakfast or to tide me over when I have to take a late lunch or to sustain me when I miss lunch and am working up until dinner.  With the Spring term being the insane stress-fest it generally is, I find I’ve gone through a box of Nature Valley’s Sweet and Salty Nut Granola bars a week.  This is problematic for two reasons.

In the first (very mundane) place, I am a broke-ass graduate student, and a box of 6 granola bars is $3.89.  Clearly this granola habit isn’t going to bankrupt me, but it does occupy a significant portion of my weekly grocery bill, which is usually around $20.  I could use that money to get fruits or veggies that I like, or to get some chicken meat or steaks that I always pass by because I “can’t afford it.”  Heck, $3.89 could buy half a lunch on 13th street, or it could fully fund one “emergency fast food hamburger” (hey!  when you’re predominantly vegetarian and don’t want to be a vegetarian, sometimes you do need an emergency burger).  But it’s also money I don’t need to be spending at all.  My co-op always has oatmeal, nuts, honey, peanut butter, raisins, craisins, a million spices, and anything else anyone could ever want to make granola.  Heck, sometimes we even get free pre-made granola straight from Food for Lane County.  I have free access to all of this, since food is a portion of my rent.  Really, my weekly $3.89 is completely wasted money, and it adds up to $202 over the course of the year, which could pay for six months of my car insurance and leave me enough left over for an oil change.

In the second (and perhaps more physically and spiritually important) place, granola bars have the perception of being healthy, but the store bought ones aren’t exactly packed with wholesome ingredients.  Here’s the listing, straight off the box of my favorites:

  • Roasted Peanuts  (simple enough…)
  • High Maltose Corn Syrup (a food additive designed to sweeten the taste of food and increase shelf life. It contains gluten and is a highly processed food sweetener. Some refer to High Maltose Corn Syrup as High Fructose Corn Syrup’s sneaky cousin. Both are highly processed, not natural and are found in processed, high calorie foods)
  • Sugar (white, refined sugar…not horrible, but not great either)
  • Rolled Oats (healthy and whole!)
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (See above).
  • Palm Kernel Oil  (An oil used in processed foods, it’s high in saturated fatty acids, about 50% and 80%, respectively.)
  • Crisp Rice (Rice flour, Sugar, Malt, Salt) (Another processed ingredient)
  • Wheat Flakes (Whole Wheat, Sugar, Malt, Salt) (Another processed ingredient)
  • Fructose (Yet another form of sugar, and highly refined)
  • Peanut Butter (Peanuts, Salt) (Straightforward)
  • Yogurt Powder (Cultured Whey Protein Concentrate, Cultured Skim Milk, Yogurt Cultures) (Another processed ingredient)
  • Canola Oil (Kind of innocuous, but most canola is a Monsanto product.)
  • Water 
  • Maltodextrin (A highly processed food additive that is high in sugar.)
  • Salt
  • Non Fat Milk 
  • Soy Lecithin (Highly processed and derived from soy beans. It is used as an emulsifier to thicken and bind foods together.)
  • Color (Yellows 5 and 6 Lake, Red 40 Lake, Blue 1 Lake, and other color added) (actual package says “contains Tartrazine”) Tartrazine is known to cause a variety of immunologic responses including ingestion, including anxiety, migraines, clinical depression, blurred vision, itching, general weakness, heatwaves, feeling of suffocation, purple skin patches, and sleep disturbance. It is found in processed, high calorie, high sugar foods and has been known to cause Attention Deficit Disorder in children. It has been banned in Norway and deemed unsafe for food.
  • Natural Flavor (Actually not very natural at all)
  • Almonds
  • Baking Soda
  • Honey (Sugar, but unrefined)
  • Sunflower Meal (The by-product of the oil extraction process (so it is processed). Oil is the majority value of sunflower seed and meal is considered a by-product. Sunflower meal is an excellent livestock feed, especially for ruminants. Basically it is a cheap way to bulk up food, it is usually reserved for livestock.)
  • Mixed Tocopherols to retain freshness (Derived from Vitamin E, and are any of a group of closely related, fat-soluble alcohols that behave similarly to vitamin E and are present in milk, lettuce, and wheat germ oil and certain other vegetable oils.)
  • Modified Coconut Oil (An oil used in processed foods, it’s high in saturated fatty acids, about 50% and 80%, respectively.)
  • Monoglycerides (Formed by both industrial chemical and biological processes. They are used in commercial food products to bind ingredients together and are synthetically created for commercial food. They are a highly processed food additive.)
  • Rice Bran Extract
  • Hydrogenated Cottonseed and/or Corn and/or Soybean Oils (All three oils are extremely processed and not natural. Cottonseed oil specifically is high in saturated fat and may contain natural toxins and unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues. Cotton is not classified as a food crop, and farmers use many agrichemicals when growing it. Cottonseed oil has traditionally been used in recognizably fatty foods such as potato chips and is a primary ingredient in Crisco, the shortening product. It is used in processed foods because it is significantly less expensive than olive oil or canola oil. It is used in a wide range of processed foods, including cereals, breads and snack foods. Products that say “may contain one or more of these oils” and list cottonseed, virtually always contain it. Cottonseed oil resists rancidity and therefore offers a longer shelf life for food products in which it is an ingredient. Research shows that a diet containing cottonseed oil causes infertility in rats.)
  • Rosemary Extract
  • Tricalcium Phosphate (A mineral salt found in rocks and bones.

That is in-freaking-sane.  Granola is supposed to be full of whole foods!  It is the ur-hippie food, for crying out loud!  Practically everything here is processed, and the whole thing is full of enough refined sugars to destroy a bull’s pancreas.  Then factor in all the carbon spent in transportation of all the ingredients and the finished product and all the waste generated from the packaging…well, you’re left with a pretty shameful habit.

Enter Mark Bittman and Eve Turow.  On September 17, 2010, Mark Bittman published a recipe for Apricot-Almond Granola bars in the New York Times that was nigh revolutionary.  Combine crispy rice with granola and add ins.  Boil honey and a nut butter for a minute.  Mix it all together, press it in a pan, and refrigerate for an hour.  Done.  Turow riffed on his technique a few months later in her NPR article on granola for Kitchen Window, showing that other ingredients could be used with great success.

What’s great about this recipe is that it yields an incredible product while using whole ingredients, and potentially no refined sugar (depending on your favorite granola recipe, of course).  It is completely at your discretion if you want to use something slightly more processed like crispy rice cereal or Jif peanut butter over puffed rice or millet and natural peanut or almond butter.  If you make your own granola, you can choose how much sweetener you want and what type, and you can probably make some better environmental choice–such as buying bulk local oats or local honey.  In short, it is something that is far more earth friendly and–in moderation–body friendly.

I also think the versatility offered here can make this basic recipe a good candidate for a magical working, especially if you’ve got a granola bar habit like mine.  Say you’ve been doing a lot of work for success, for example.  You could make a batch of granola adding in some herbs that complement this working or add them to the bars instead.  You could charge the bars with that energy as you make them and absorb it when you eat them–which could be doubly important if you eat them ‘on the go’ as I do.  This will give you a two minute break to get in touch with your spiritual self.  All in all, working magic into something like this  could be a very easy way to work more “living in accord” into your daily life.

Evan Sung's Photo of Mark Bittman's No-Bake Granola Bars

Chewy No-Bake Granola Bars Basic Recipe

3 tablespoons-¼ cup desired nut butter (almond, peanut, etc)
½ cup honey (or agave or maple syrup)
¼ teaspoon salt (can be omitted)
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract (can be omitted or exchanged with almond extract)
1 cup crispy rice cereal or a puffed grain cereal
2 cups homemade granola and desired add ins (nuts, seeds, dried fruit, chocolate chunks, etc.)

Line an 8×8 pan with plastic wrap, then set aside.  Put the crispy cereal, granola, and add ins into a bowl and stir to mix.

Put the nut butter, honey, salt, and vanilla into a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir with a silicon spatula to combine and bring the mixture to a boil. Continue to stir until the mixture begins to thicken, then add the mixture to the granola mixture. Stir well to combine.

Spread the mixture evenly into the lined 8×8 baking dish, pressing down gently but firmly with the silicon spatula. Refrigerate until the bars are set, at least one hour.

Once set, remove the bars from the pan by lifting the edges of the plastic wrap out of the dish; peel off the plastic and cut the bars to any size you like.

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