Food & Drink

Granola boom caters to the health and time conscious

by Angela Erika Kubo

Special To The Japan Times

Granola has come a long way in Japan, from a relatively unknown breakfast cereal five years ago to — along with pancakes and popcorn — a full-on fad food.

While granola from Kellogg’s and Calbee has been around for years, granola consumption was steadily average up until the recent boom. The market in 2010 was worth ¥4.9 billion, with 6,942 tons of the product sold. In 2013 those numbers exploded to ¥14.6 billion and 18,802 tons, according to research by the Japan Snack Cereal Foods Association.

Famous granola lovers include Ken Takakura, an actor known for his tough-guy persona in yakuza films, who has reportedly been eating granola and muesli with yogurt every morning for the last 10 years. As a result, he has been able to maintain his weight under 70 kg and keep his waist size unchanged from his younger days despite being over 83 years old, according to an article in Sunday Mainichi. Other notable granola fans are TV personality Rola and professional baseball player Yu Darvish, both of whom have spoken of their love for the breakfast dish on social media.

“Kellogg’s cornflakes are very well known here, so when people first saw granola, that’s what they thought it was,” says Kana Sato, an employee of the planning division of mash beauty lab, an organic cosmetics and food company that owns Cosme Kitchen Juicery (1F Daikanyama Station Bldg., 19-4 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-5428-2733; www.cosmekitchen.jp/6129), which started to import organic granola from the United States this month to add to its smoothies.

“It’s a trend, a pandemic,” she adds as she holds up a plastic bag of granola.

Bill Van Alstine, the owner of Good Morning Tokyo (1-8-12-103 Naka-cho, Meguro-ku, Tokyo; 03-6452-2305; www.gmtjapan.com), which opened in August 2010 as Japan’s first cereal specialty shop, had to build a small factory this year to meet the growing demand for his homemade granola.

“Four years ago, we would have only four customers come in one day,” he says. “They looked at us so strangely. They walked by slowly but they would never come in. It took a lot of patience to wait for people to finally catch on.”

While the shop is a 20-minute walk from Meguro Station, it’s hard to miss with the warm scent of baked oats and maple syrup leading the way. Through the glass behind the counter, employees can be seen in a small kitchen chopping up dried fruits and spreading granola mixture on baking sheets.

GMT has more than 20 flavors of granola, which make up 85 to 90 percent of its total sales, such as cinnamon apple (¥1,150 for 270 g, ¥1,770/470 g) and green tea (¥1,190/270 g, ¥1,810/470 g). Customers can also order online or even request a custom-made bag of granola or muesli — if they can tolerate the two- to three-month wait.

While granola is GMT’s most famous product, Van Alstine’s reason for starting his business was to introduce to Japan his lesser-known product, muesli, a cereal developed by a Swiss physician that lacks the honey and sugars found in granola, after his success in losing weight through introducing muesli to his own diet.

“What I was finally able to do to lose weight was eat a large bowl of muesli in the morning. Over six months I lost 12 kilos,” says Van Alstine. “So I decided to set up a muesli company, but my friend said that I had to sell granola too or I would go out of business.”

While granola is still a healthy breakfast choice, it certainly isn’t a weight-loss snack, according to Van Alstine, who instead recommends muesli to his weight-conscious customers and claims that 10 percent of his granola product is made up of real maple syrup imported from Quebec, which explains the high price tag.

“I’ve been explaining to my kids that we’re a maple-syrup company, because by far it’s our largest cost. That’s what we do: We sell maple syrup.”

Van Alstine’s explanation for the recent boom in granola, and the overall trend toward cereals, is the changing demographics in Japan.

“As family sizes get smaller, some of the older folks — people in their 50s — and a lot of (other) people end up starting to live alone, and so this is a convenient food,” he says.

Sayuri Tagawa, section manager of the public-relations department of Calbee, explains that the food giant began selling granola and other cereals in response to the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Act. “Women started leaving the house, and they had less time to cook balanced meals or rice for their children,” she says.

While granola has caught on in Japan (and, to a lesser extent, muesli), there are still people who are clueless as to how it should be eaten.

“We actually had to teach people how to eat granola,” says Tagawa. Calbee sells a lower-end granola called Furugura, an abbreviation of fruit granola. “Our customer-service center receives calls from old people asking for instructions on how to eat granola.”

In response to all the inquires, Calbee has come up with several granola recipes on its website and also in a book published by Fusosha last November titled “Calbee Furugura Beloved Mug Cup Recipes.” The most obvious is to mix the cereal with plain yogurt, but the company also recommends odd combinations such as putting it on top of curry or sprinkling it on a hamburger patty.

“You can eat muesli and granola any way you want, and let me know if you come up with something interesting,” says Van Alstine. “Sometimes I eat muesli plain, sometimes I dress it up a bit. There’s no limit.”