What do we know about Muesli?

15.05.2022

In the beginning, Muesli was quite different – its name, its image, its purpose, its consumers, and even its recipe!

Developed by Swiss doctor Maximilian-Max Bircher-Benner as Apfeldiätspeise (Apple Diet Meal) in 1900s, Muesli was never a breakfast idea, nor a quick snack swallowed in a hurry between appointments. Muesli was intended as a starter to every meal: breakfast, lunch and dinner!!! For some enthusiasts, later, it became a Schweizer Znacht, a Swiss dinner. But breakfast? Never!!

Unlike most of the pre-packaged Muslis sold in supermarkets nowadays, the original main ingredients of the Apfeldiätspeise (Apple Diet Meal) were, as the name indicates, apples and not cereals: 200 grams of freshly grated apples with just one level tablespoon of well ground oats (soaked in 3 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon of milk), a tablespoon of finely grated nuts, and the juice of half a lemon!¹

The word Müsli (Muesli) is the diminutive form of the word Mus in Swiss German, which means purée, as the focus in the original recipe was on the freshly grated apples (very similar to an apple purée) and not, as we might think, on the soaked oats.

But how did Muesli find its way from its creator – Swiss doctor Bircher, to the breakfast table of nearly everyone all around the globe?

Upon finalizing his medical studies at the University of Zurich, Bircher opened a general practice in Zurich’s industrial quarter. During the first year, however, Bircher developed jaundice, which weakened his immune system. Conventional remedies proved unsuccessful, and he decided to rely on his self-treatment, most notably a diet of raw fruit and vegetables. The meals, which were particularly rich in raw apples, worked astonishingly well, and he soon cured himself fully.

Convinced of the healing power of raw fruit and vegetables, Bircher immersed himself in the study of the effects of raw food on the body, and conducted numerous nutritional experiments with fresh fruit and vegetables. Following the successful treatment of a woman with chronic stomach problems using a similar diet rich in raw apples, he finally developed a recipe that has become a classic around the globe, Muesli or Birchermuesli.

At that time, industrially-processed flour, sugar, and spirits, as well as the increasing consumption of meat started to characterize modern society’s eating habits, and raw vegetables and fresh fruit were considered to be worthless side dishes, indigestible as well as a source of infection due to their quick spoilage. Bircher argued against this view. He believed that raw foods were, instead, most nutritious because they contain direct energy from the Sun, and that food processing deprives foods of their nutritional content and destroys their “vital substance”. Bircher’s peers in the mainstream medical establishment dismissed his views as unscientific and branded him a quack who “crossed over the border of science”.

In 1904, Bircher opened his “Vital Force” sanatorium (Lebendige Kraft) in the prestigious hills above Lake Zurich, a little way down from the noble Dolder Grand Hotel, to serve as a “clinic for inner illnesses and health problems of body and soul.”  The sanatorium treatment included a nutritious diet (where fifty percent of the daily intake consisted of raw unfired fruits, nuts and tastefully prepared vegetables made up into salads, dressed with olive oil and lemon-juice, and seasoned with aromatic herbs), physical activities (walking in the forest, gardening) and methods of healing and psychotherapy. The patients were advised to write a diary and express their feelings. Bircher-Benner was convinced that people should pattern their lives as closely as possible to nature, and that only harmony between the body, soul and spirit could lead to health and vitality.

His holistic approach worked, and the sanatorium became one of the most renowned places for healthy living in early 20th century Europe. A growing number of celebrities and wealthy people stayed there, including violinist Yehudi Menuhin and politicians like Sir Stafford Cripps, Habib Bourgiba and Golda Meir, and German literate and Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann, among others.

 

A typical meal at the sanatorium would be:

– a starter of Apfeldiätspeise (Apple Diet Meal) i.e. Muesli (apple purée), served fresh, at the beginning of every meal, before anything else;

– a main course of a raw vegetable platter, consisting of chopped leaves and grated roots;

– a small cooked dish, often vegetarian but not always;

– a dessert.

When cooking had to happen, he allowed steaming (rather than boiling) or slow cooking over low heat. He avoided prescribing drugs wherever possible.

 

Muesli was prepared as follows²:

Apples: 2-3 small apples or 1 large one. Do not take away the skin, core, or pips.

Nuts: 1 tablespoon of walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds.

Rolled Oats³: 1 tablespoon previously soaked in 3 tablespoons of water for 12 hours.

Lemon Juice: The juice of half a lemon.

Milk and honey or sweet condensed milk: One tablespoon. (The Swiss health reformer knew that the use of industrially processedmilk went against the grain of his basic argument. Yet he adopted it for reasons of hygiene).

 

Preparation:

Mix milk, honey and juice of lemon with soaked rolled oats. Grate the apples including the skin, core, and pips vigorously. Stir it continually to prevent apples from getting brown in contact with the air. Sprinkle the mixture with the grated nuts or almonds.

Bircher is said to have taken inspiration for his recipe during a hike in the Alps, when a dairymaid had served him the dish. Alpine shepherds had apparently eaten the apple purée with some oats and nuts for hundreds of years.  Bircher thus revived an old custom, using the four ingredients of fruit, nuts, milk and oat flakes – a healthy combination that has been passed down through the ages.

Fast forward to present time, seeing people starting every single meal with the bowl full of graded fresh apples seem unrealistic. Living in harmony with nature and with one another appears to be too idealistic. Prioritizing people’s own health and well-being seems to be regarded as a naive fairy tale told by the health visionaries of the last century. Present modern time brought along something different, something that Bircher would have never imagined coming: speedy, stressful and effortless life, free from physical exertion, deprived of contact with nature and human connection, and abundant in everything but not raw foods. Fresh fruit and vegetables are downsized to 5% of daily consumption, while instant processed foods loaded with added sugars, bad fats and additives are continuing to be oversized in any other possible way: in quantity, variety, affordability, advertising and even in serving sizes. Even Muesli become popular only when its cereal and sugar content was increased!!!

As a consequence, 70% of Americans are currently overweight, 40% obese, with only 20% of them meeting current physical activity guidelines. It thus comes as no surprise that 70% of Americans aged 45-64 years and 90% of those aged >=65 years are on some sort of prescription drugs, with 9000 $ of personal health care expenses every single year! Every third person (30%) dies of a heart disease, every fifth (20%) due to cancer, and every sixth (15%) due to diabetes. And that is not all: the most dire projections point to almost 90% of Americans being overweight or obese by 2030 – which is less than a decade away!

In reality, people are dealing with increased levels of chronic illness that are now responsible for 80% of disabilities worldwide, in a society that trades quality for quantity, equality for inequality, connection for separation, closeness for loneliness, in an environment where our sense of unity is under assault, largely forgotten or unrecognized; in a world proclaimed the loneliest that has ever existed. Especially now, after two years of COVID pandemic, one of the biggest lessons we should have learned is to recognize the indispensability of human connection. Health is not just a physical thing, it is a mental and social thing.

Doctor Bircher was convinced that only harmony between the body, soul and spirit could lead to health and vitality. Let us be wise, and follow his advice!

References:

  1. Meyer-Renschhausen E, Wirz A. Dietetics, health reform and social order: vegetarianism as a moral physiology. The example of Maximilian Bircher-Benner (1867-1939). Med Hist. 1999;43(3):323-341.
  2. Wolff, E. A new way of living: Maximilian Bircher-Benner (1867-1939). Karger Gazette. 2010; (71):11-12.
  3. Klose C, Arendt EK. Proteins in oats; their synthesis and changes during germination: a review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2012;52(7):629-39.