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I love you, and I can’t find you anywhere in Europe.
I love you, and I can’t find you anywhere in Europe.

KaiApril 28, 2024

An ode to the muesli bar, a national treasure

I love you, and I can’t find you anywhere in Europe.
I love you, and I can’t find you anywhere in Europe.

Thank you, Dr Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, for your brilliant invention. 

I’m another mid-20s Kiwi who had an OE last year. I hopped on my bicycle where France meets the Atlantic and cycled east. I pedalled through the Loire Valley, down rivers lined with willows and ancient wisteria-draped chateaus. I relished $4 goon, functioning public transport, and a reasonable cost of living. Children smoked ciggies and guzzled wine, and I smiled, because it’s whimsical in Europe instead of sad. Truly, everything was better here. 

Except that it wasn’t. Where the hell were the muesli bars?

On day two, I hitched by a supermarket for an energy boost. I rummaged through chocolatey treats and sweets with increasingly silly names, but there was nothing substantial. 

The cashier tried to help. We had a stunted conversation about New Zealand. At one point, he said “avec moi”, and led me round back to his meat cabinet. He pointed at different meats saying words like “Nouvelle Zélande”, “bœuf”, and “mouton”. I thought he was trying to tell me the meat was imported from New Zealand, or that we had a great meat industry. “Non, non,” he said in frustration, pointing harder at his meat. I still have no idea what point he was making. 

It turns out, much like spots and lolly cake, muesli bars are an almost exclusively Kiwi treat. My OE was fun but I had such a bad time backpacking without muesli bars. During the time I most needed a portable and filling snack, I had nothing. Much like the experience of eating a Nature Valley in your friend’s pristine car, everything crumbled before me. My grand cross-continental cycle plan lasted two weeks. Was it something to do with the crippling realisation that solo travelling is lonely, that friends are the meaning of everything, that I’d rather do something normal like boofing drugs in Berlin, that I can’t pedal away from my thoughts? No. It was the lack of muesli bars.

Muesli bars do exist in Australia, UK, USA (“granola bars”) and some other places, but it’s like when you have a dog and see another dog of the same breed, and it’s still cute, but kind of weird compared to yours. It was near impossible to find them in Europe. The ones I found were expensive, puny, lacklustre. And yet, muesli is European in origin. 

A man named Dr Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner (try saying that in a stereotypical German accent for endless fun) created muesli as a form of treatment in his depression hospital. To make his patients feel better, Dr Bircher-Benner prohibited chocolate, coffee, cigarettes and alcohol. Instead, he fed them a bowl of cold, watery oats at the start of every meal. He believed that the act of cooking food destroyed its nutritional content. This was wildly unpopular and Dr Bircher-Benner was criticised for running a “health jail”. In his mind, by taking granola and making it sadder, he was aiming for a better future. 

“Hold the phone,” you’re thinking, “what’s the difference between granola and muesli?” 

This is where the plot thickens. The muesli bars we know and love in New Zealand are technically granola bars. Muesli is cold and raw, while granola is baked. The reason we’ve called them muesli bars since 1921 is because in New Zealand and Australia, Sanitarium has a copyright over the world Granola. 

Sanitarium sued a bakery for copyright infringement in 2012 when Irrewarra Sourdough used the phrase “all natural handmade granola” on its product labels. In the end, the Federal Court of Australia decided that the word “granola” was commonplace enough where it counted as the product description, rather than trade mark, in Irrewarra’s particular context. Still, watch your back.

Our muesli history gets murkier. At risk of recreating a pavlova fiasco, we don’t have firm evidence of whether muesli bars debuted in Australia or New Zealand first. Australia’s original muesli bar – the Uncle Tobys Toasted Muesli Crunchola Bar – hit the shelves in 1976. New Zealand muesli mogul Tasti created the Snak Log in 1977, which claims to be “one of New Zealand’s first muesli bars”, but this isn’t specific enough. “One of” implies there’s a predecessor, another contender in this oceanic muesli Cold War (as opposed to a granola Baked War), but who? Whatever Aotearoa’s first muesli bar was, it’s been wiped from history books by Tasti’s oaten oligarchy. 

It wasn’t until fifty years after Dr Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner’s death that muesli became mainstream. Like the segway, it flopped, then had a resurgence amongst harmless dorks. Though the doctor’s therapy methods were unconventional, his core practice was right: a hearty diet of fresh fruit and vegetables is good for you. Sad but true. These days, your average muesli bar is less healthy than Dr Bircher-Benner would like, often slathered in chocolate and laden with sugar, refined starch, and fat. 

How do you find a good muesli bar? How can you appease the ghost of Dr Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, who by the way if you Google, looks exactly how you imagine a 20th century Swiss-German therapist and muesli inventor to look like? Avoid chocolate and processed starches. No added sugar, artificial flavourings, chocolate or yoghurt. A classic and healthy muesli bar should contain grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, honey, and oils at the first listed ingredients. Or just do whatever. Eat that nut butter. Forge your own destiny, babes. 

Look, I’m not claiming we’re the only country with muesli bars. I don’t give a fuck. They are an iconic kiwiana snack. I remember emigrating to Aotearoa as a kid and fawning over an LCM (which, by the way, stands for nothing) in my lunchbox. Muesli bars carried me on tramps across crater-pocked Tongariro, through the snowy Kepler, and were munched atop Aoraki. They solely support the deflated ADHD whoopee cushion where my brain should be, either when medicated (no appetite but need calories) or raw-dogging reality (forgot to eat and need a snack on the go). The child, the tramper, the yopro: all these walks of life, united by one unassuming cereal treat.

When I realised Aotearoa New Zealand has the best muesli bars ever, I felt patriotism for the first time in my life. They represent us all. They are our Princess Di: for the people, and a hell of a snack. I love you, muesli bars. 

Keep going!