Blurring the Candy Line – Granola

Yes, yes. This is going to be yet another post on definitions, and what constitutes a candy and what does not. There is a reason for my obsession with definitions here. I’m not so keen on drawing a line in the sand so I can know what is a candy and what is not. Rather, it’s to take a look out our cultural conceptions on what makes a confection a “confection”, and then demonstrate how easy it is for some to manipulate those conceptions to their advantage.

For example, pictured above is a Joyva Sesame Crunch. While not the top of the list of most people’s idea of what constitutes “candy”, I think we can agree that candy is exactly what this is. Not only is it candy, but its roots go back thousands of years, making it one of a few confections that likely existed prior to the Romans and Greeks. The good folks at Joyva consider it a candy, and when I’ve picked this up, it was in the candy section of my local deli. Looking at its ingredient list, its similar, if not down right equivalent to pasteli, the sesame seed treat I spoke of recently.

Here’s the thing – From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s not that huge of a leap from Sesame Seeds boiled in honey (which is essentially what we have above, although they add corn syrup as well), to mixing grains, seeds, and nuts into boiled honey and a fat of some sort. However, the end result of that concoction is better known to us today as granola.

From a purists point of view, a granola bar has far more in common with a pastry than a candy. The use of oils, mixed with the flour from the grain, gives the granola bar a “cookie” like appearance.

Historically speaking, granola is likely quite old, closer in age to pastel, a treat that has been around for thousands of years. Olive oil was around seven thousand years ago, butter and palm oil became popular five thousand years ago. My point here is that various societies had the ingredients, the technology, and the know-how to make something similar to granola.

Me? I don’t think of granola as candy, but rather falls under the category of pastry, candy’s cousin.

The weird thing is that supermarkets treat granola neither as pastry nor candy, but as health food. I’m old enough to remember when General Mill’s Nature Valley granola became popular in the late 1970′s, selling itself as a healthy, natural alternative to, at first breakfast cereal, and then later through it’s granola bars, candy. It was a selling point that allowed the brand to become somewhat popular, enough so that the brand still exists today.

Regardless of who made what granola back in the day, I think it’s safe to presume that it’s approach to food was that of something “natural”, or, using today’s vernacular, “organic”. That the granola bars were more akin to cookies was left up to the consumer to figure out.

But something weird has happened to granola since the 1970′s. Marketers have found that if if you made them chewey, they sold a little more. Add some peanut butter, and they’d sell even better. Enrobe them in chocolate, and sales would skyrocket. All of this has happened over the course of the past generation. So much so that now it’s just as likely that when someone says the phrase “granola bar”, they’re just as likely to picture something similar to what’s below, as they would to something pictured above. Now you’re just as likely to see a granola bar enrobed with caramel and chocolate as you are mixed with honey and palm oil.

Much like Nature’s Valley Roasted Almond Granola Bar, these chocolate covered granola bars are not found in the candy aisle, but rather in the health food section (or, as was they were noted in my local QFC, the “Sports Bar” aisle).

So here’s the question – why don’t people think of these treats as candy? What special quality do they have that allow people to believe these confections as “healthy”, when Snickers, which substitutes the sweetened grain for nougat, is most certainly a candy? Were we duped? Or, more frightening, did we allow ourselves to be duped? Or is there a clear line where chocolate covered granola is on one side, and chocolate covered pretzels are on the other?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not here to set definitions. But it is quite interesting to me to see how easily one confection gets labeled as bad for you, while another is considered good.