Ah, granola bars. Beloved by schoolchildren, hikers and anyone with a penchant for sweet, nutty and portable snacks, they're widely considered to be portable and convenient snacks. But should they be considered dessert?
In an article titled "How the Government Supports Your Junk Food Habit," New York Times journalist Anahad O'Connor wrote that granola bars are dessert. While O'Connor mainly reported about Americans' main sources of calories — surprise! sugar tops the list, dubbing the popular on-the-go snack dessert is a bold assertion. Let us dissect:
Dictionaries don't support the theory that a granola bar is a dessert. According to Merriam-Webster, dessert is "a usually sweet course or dish (as of pastry or ice cream) usually served at the end of a meal." A granola bar, meanwhile, is defined as "a bar made of a mixture of oats and other ingredients (such as brown sugar, raisins, coconut, or nuts) that is eaten as a snack."
But it's no secret that dictionaries can provide false guidance on food matters. Merriam-Webster classifies hot dogs as sandwiches, for goodness sake. Perhaps the word whizzes are out of touch on matters of dessert.
What makes something a dessert? Dan Jurafsky, author of The Language of Food and professor of linguistics at Stanford University, noted on his blog that if he eats a donut on the way to the gym, that's not dessert. "In common American English usage, the dessert is a final sweet course," he wrote.
Jurafsky noted that the word "dessert" has French origins and didn't always refer to sweet indulgences. He explained that by analyzing French cookbooks over time, culinary historian Jean-Louis Flandrin demonstrated that main courses became more savory from the 14th through 18th century. Increasingly, sweets were reserved for the end of the meal.
While Jurafsky explained the French remain more strict on reserving sugary treats for the end of a meal, Americans, he noted, are more freewheeling with the timing of their sugar consumption. "In American cuisine, maple syrup can be served with bacon for breakfast, and sweet foods like cranberry sauce, apple sauce and even candied yams are eaten for dinner," he wrote.
By this logic, granola bars should not be considered dessert — regardless of their sugar content.
"Whatever food you eat, whether it be a vegetable or a piece of cake, should be looked at in the big picture of the individual's diet," Nora Minno, registered dietician, said in an email. She noted that nutritionally, granola bars often have excess sugar, excess calories, and overly processed ingredients. But also, Minno wrote, they "typically contain more fiber, protein, and other nutrients like B vitamins compared to overly processed foods like cookies and chips." She said that bars made with oats, nuts and dried fruit can help keep people fueled at the office or after a workout.
No doubt, granola bars shouldn't be put on any health pedestals — but that doesn't necessarily qualify them as desserts.
Yes, you could eat granola bars for dessert. "If it's between a 200-calorie granola bar that contains fibers and protein and a 200-calorie slice of cake that it's mostly pure, refined sugar, then the granola bar would be the better choice," Minno noted.
In the same vein, you could conceivably eat cookies for breakfast. Might not be the healthiest choice, but that never stopped Cookie Monster.