Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner invented muesli at his health clinic. He called it the “apple diet dish” or Apfeldiätspeise. The name muesli appeared later and is derived from an old German word for “puree”. His method called for combining a small amount of oat flakes and water with chopped apples, lemon juice, condensed milk or cream, honey and chopped nuts.
It seems that the first muesli was neither a breakfast dish nor mainly based on oats. The original recipe, though it contained oats, was more about apples. In a book published by Dr Bircher-Benner in 1926 this recipe called for two or three small apples (including the core, skin and pips) and just one level tablespoonful of rolled oats, as well as a tablespoonful of nuts, a tablespoonful of condensed milk and the juice of half a lemon. At the good doctor’s health clinic, this dish was served at the beginning of every meal, not just at breakfast time.
The first commercial muesli also originated in Switzerland, with a company called Somalon. Set up in 1954 to make baby food, the company was struggling in a competitive market when one of the founders contacted the Bircher family and received permission to manufacture a product called Birchermüesli. The first product was launched in 1959 under the ‘Familia’ brand name and within a year was being exported to Germany, Austria, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the USA.
In the 1970s, Somalon introduced “Crunchy Muesli”, toasted with sugar and oil – a product that had a similar texture to Americans’ familiar granola. In contrast to muesli, the original granola (called granula) was cereal-based. It was invented by another doctor, James Caleb Jackson, in New York in 1863 and consisted of whole grains, crumbled and baked until crisp.
Today, commercial granolas (including the one trademarked in Australia by Sanitarium) usually contain nuts and dried fruits and are similar to toasted mueslis. Most of them fall pretty heavily into the processed food category and the Australian consumer organisation CHOICE advises you to read the nutritional information on the pack carefully to avoid overloading on fats and/or sugars.