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Popularized around 1900 by Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner, muesli cereal — Swiss for moose, but also porridge — is a dry mixture of primarily rolled oats but often other grains, along with various dried fruits and nuts. It is left dry in an airtight container until ready to consume, at which point it is soaked in water, milk or some other liquid for at least a half-hour, but preferably overnight. The final step is combining the moistened cereal with other flavor enhancers like the sesame paste called tahini, fresh fruit, honey or cinnamon.
Bircher-Benner was a sought-after physician in Zurich, Switzerland during the turn of the 20th century. Shortly after founding his first clinic in 1897, the doctor put his then cutting-edge research of nutritional practices to use by encouraging patients to eat copious amounts of grains, fruits and vegetables, to the exclusion of most meats and heavy starches. In 1904, Bircher-Benner opened his own sanatorium called Vital Force, with muesli cereal, a key menu item for breakfast and even dinner. His recipe included only rolled oats, which were soaked overnight in water. Then cream, lemon juice, some nuts and grated apple were added just before service.
This original Birchermuesli mix slowly gave way to more modern versions of the cereal. In 2011, muesli cereal is likely to contain a handful of other grains besides rolled oats, from rye and barley to corn and wheat flakes, along with added nuts and any number of dried fruits. Once the grains have soaked in milk, water, juice or yogurt, several other flavorings might be added. A simple addition would be sugar, cinnamon and perhaps some slices of fresh fruit like banana or apple. More complex might mean several other ingredients like the nutty tahini, honey, nutmeg and grated coconut.
Several commercial cereals, like Mueslix® or Weetabix®, line store shelves, each with a slightly different take on the recipe. Several other manufacturers use emulsifiers to form their grains, nuts and dried fruit into granola bars. Granola is distinct from muesli cereal, however, in that its ingredients are toasted until lightly crisped. Muesli, by contrast, is soaked to begin the process of breaking down its fiber content — a process that, if ignored, could lead some to suffer digestive problems.
In 2002, the United Kingdon's University of Bristol undertook a research project to see if there was any merit to claims that low-fat diets centered around muesli cereal and other health foods created what is called "muesli belt malnutrition." While children with diets lowest in fat exhibited the lowest levels of vitamin A and iron, the study concluded that high-fat diets also yielded low levels of vitamin C and iron. Researchers concluded that both diets had merits and drawbacks, with any deficiencies easily countered with a daily vitamin.