Motorcycle racer Abrar Bin Ayub, 25, had been working three years towards his dream race, Raid de Himalaya—the toughest in India, covering 1,200km of off-roading over three days in Ladakh. Close to the race, from 9-13 October last year, he started adding granola bars by The Huda Bar to his diet. Soon, the bars became an integral part of Ayub’s arsenal of essentials—3 litres of water, a couple of important tools and spares, bike papers, and Huda Bars.

“I was riding about 12 hours a day and I survived on three-four Huda Bars and glucose water for 12 hours in a day," he says in a phone interview. Ayub went on to win the Raid de Himalaya. He credits his victory in large part to the bars that gave him sustenance and helped him train.

Granola is a breakfast snack, a lot like muesli, made primarily with oats and ingredients such as nuts, seeds, grains and fruits. Granola bars are made by moulding the loose ingredients with jaggery, dates, or other such gummy sweeteners.

Till a decade ago, granola bars were dependent on the largesse of relatives from the US who brought in Nature Valley’s rolled oat and honey bars. Cereal options such as cornflakes started with Kellogg’s coming into India in the mid-1990s, followed by muesli. It was only after Nature Valley hit Indian markets in the early 2000s that most Indians became aware of granola bars. Slowly, niche brands started cropping up. Some, such as Yoga Bar, have expanded greatly in the last few years, selling their products on BigBasket, Amazon, and even at pharmacies like Apollo.

Gurugram-based Natasha Minocha, who runs Tasha’s Artisan Foods, says, “After living in the US for nine years, I realized India didn’t really have existing granola brands, except for Nature Valley." But, she points out, Indian versions of the granola bar have always existed—either as the good old chikki (a traditional sweet), millet laddoos, or other such variations. “Although they have been around, they never existed like a complete nutrition pack. There are fewer Indian items in health and energy bars. Granola bars have become trendy probably because the Western flavours are more palatable," she says.

Minocha also uses locally sourced ingredients, such as puffed rice or puffed amaranth. “Why should I buy rice crispies when I can add muri? Or bajra instead of quinoa?" she says.

Several factors have led to the sudden popularity of the granola. For one, more Indians are travelling overseas and using social media, so they have easy access to other cultures and cuisines. Two, they have more disposable income. Three, people have become more health conscious and have started prioritizing physical fitness. Four, convenience.

The granola bars available in the Indian market are usually sold without preservatives, have a shelf life of anywhere between one-six months, and are priced at 50-200 per bar.

Most people I spoke to said they eat a granola bar several times a week, some eat them every day, and a few, like Ayub, multiple times a day.

“If you are going to eat 20 of them every day, that’s unhealthy. Once a day is completely fine. It’s not a bad thing to eat, you have to be careful of the ingredients because a lot of them have artificial colours, emulsifiers, preservatives," cautions food critic Kurush F. Dalal.

One of India’s top celebrity sports nutritionists, Ryan Fernando, believes anything that comes in a packet is processed. “In a world of evils, it’s a lesser evil. And the worst evil is to not eat anything at all," he says, suggesting limiting consumption of such bars.

For Bengaluru-based Huda Masood, a motorcyclist and stem-cell researcher who runs her own brand, The Huda Bar, it all started because she loved her 5 extra minutes of morning sleep and found it difficult to wake up to prepare breakfast. She started making granola bars for herself and then found a customer base among racers, bike enthusiasts and multinational firms.

“The reason I am able to ride almost nonstop is because I am not bound to stop much, except for pee breaks. I don’t have to stop and wonder if this dhaba’s food is hygienic—I just have a bar, some water, and it takes me 10 minutes, including stretching," Masood says. Her granola bars are available in chocolate, peanut butter, extra honey and classic flavours. She also makes nut-, chia- and date-based bars and has keto and vegan options. All her products are made with locally produced ingredients, except dates. Each bar, priced at 80, has 250 calories, and, when washed down with a glass of water, constitutes a full meal, she says. She sells about 3,000 bars a month.

Convenient, “healthy" options seem like a good deal. “There are nuclear families with double income where both husband and wife are working so people want healthy, convenient options. Also, the patience to cook traditional food is really coming down and there’s way too much to do in life even for homemakers," says Bengaluru-based granola bar brand Purple Hippie’s Sruthi S.A., who has been selling for over two years. Her customers are mostly young mothers, who want their children to snack on healthy options, and fitness enthusiasts who eat her bars pre- or post-workout.

Bhavna Bharat, 33, admits her family is addicted to Purple Hippie’s granola bars. “A lot of times my son doesn’t like what we have cooked at home, so this is something very quick. My husband eats it for dessert, and I love the spicy granola so I eat it like chaat with yogurt and onions."

Increasingly, several health-conscious people, like Bharat, are replacing oil-laden samosas and jalebis, snacks preferred by many Indians, with granola bars.

Granola bar makers are not limiting themselves to their base cities. Mumbai-based Geeta Nichani, who sells her products under the brand Sin-a-Min, delivers to customers in Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi and several other cities. Many of her clients are children who study abroad and don’t have the time to fix up a meal in the morning (they carry her bars in bulk). It’s a convenient midnight snack if you are studying till late.

Though granola bars are believed to be “healthy", trust seems to drive the choice of brand. Bharat, for instance, points out that she buys from Purple Hippie because Sruthi has been a friend for years and she trusts her not to sell anything she wouldn’t herself eat.

Most bar makers do, in fact, say they started making bars for personal consumption and then started selling to friends, family, and people in their social circle. It was only through word of mouth that their popularity increased—making it easier for trust to develop.

Fernando cautions that one must limit granola bar consumption to once a week and if you must eat, then “look for granola that are labelled organic. There should be no added sugars and total quantity of natural sugar and carbohydrate should not exceed 50% of the total bar." Masood, however, says there are few certified organic ingredients in the market and that sourcing of products is based on trust.

Through all this, one thing is clear: The granola bar is here to stay.

Chandni Doulatramani is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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