We all relish convenience. Those of us who play sports, hit the gym, or spend time running, cycling, hiking, or long-distance walking may not have the time or inclination to prepare and pack nutritious foods to eat during these calorie-burning activities. And just about everyone on the way to school or the office is seeking healthy snack items that can be toted in a handbag, backpack, or back pocket. Are nutrition bars the answer?
However you refer to them—as power, energy, sports, breakfast, granola, snack, or (the preferred term nowadays) nutrition bars—these little bars are big business. Sales reached a reported $5.5 billionin 2014. Consumers like the convenience and versatility of these products, which are often eaten as snacks, meal replacements, protein boosters, nutrition supplements, or “energizers.” Some are marketed with buzzwords like “low-glycemic-index,” “high-protein,” “low-carb,” “gluten-free,” and “organic.” But do they deliver what consumers expect health-wise? Not necessarily. Here’s the lowdown on what you’ll find in many of the nutrition bars on the market.
What’s in nutrition bars?
Sugar. A nutrition bar can give you an energy boost, sure—but that’s because of the calories it contains. (“Energy” simply means calories.) And these calories often come from added sugar, including high fructose corn syrup. In fact, some nutrition bars are packed with so many sweeteners that they are no better nutritionally than candy bars. Many of the sugars may sound healthier than regular sugar, coming in such forms as honey, molasses, date syrup, coconut sugar, cane sugar, tapioca syrup, agave, monk fruit extract, and brown rice syrup—but sugar is sugar. To cut back on calories, some bars contain sugar alcohols, such as maltitol, sorbitol, erythritol, or glycerol (also known as glycerin or glycerine). But these can lead to gastrointestinal distress, primarily gas and cramping, in some people if consumed in large quantities. Some companies, such as Mediterra, offer more savory-flavored bars, which are lower in sugar.
Protein. Lots of nutrition bars go out of their way to tout their protein; many have 10 to 15 grams or more, often from dairy—though some bars now contain bison, bacon, lamb, beef, or chicken as the primary protein source. If you’re vegan, not to worry: Other bars get their protein from soy, nuts, seeds, legumes, and algae. The latest alternative protein source is perhaps the most unusual: cricket flour. (One bar, Exo, gets its name from exoskeleton, which all insects possess.)
Protein (like fiber) promotes satiety, so a higher-protein bar may help keep you full longer. But the typical American diet is already rich in protein. Unless you’re involved in prolonged strength training or aerobic endurance activities, you probably don’t need extra protein.
Fats. Some bars contain mainly unsaturated fats from such ingredients as nuts, vegetable oils (such as canola and sunflower), and flax and chia seeds (which provide omega-3 fats in the form of alpha linolenic acid); others are weighed down with saturated fats from a variety of sources, including palm kernel or coconut oils, cocoa butter, or, as mentioned above, meat. Tropical oils may not be as unhealthful as once thought; some may even be heart-healthy. But it’s unknown if fractionated palm kernel oil, which is especially highly saturated, is any better for you than partially hydrogenated oils (a source of harmful trans fats), which manufacturers have largely eliminated from nutrition bars (and most other processed foods).
Fiber. Nutrition bars typically have about 3 to 5 grams of fiber; a few have as much as 10 to 15 grams. Many nutrition bars are fiber fortified, not necessarily with whole foods such as whole wheat, whole grain oats, flax, or millet, but instead with psyllium, soluble corn fiber, chicory root extract (inulin), and other sources of “functional fibers” which are derived from whole foods. For some people, including those with irritable bowel syndrome or those engaging in sports, consuming high-fiber nutrition bars could lead to bloating, gas, or other gastrointestinal distress. Bars with little or no fiber are typically made from refined flour.
Sodium. Levels of sodium in the nutrition bars we looked at ranged widely, from as little as 5 milligrams to as much as 250 milligrams. Some bars tout their content of sea salt, but this is no different than plain table salt.
Add-ins. Many nutrition bars have an array of added vitamins and minerals—such as vitamins C and E, zinc, magnesium, and copper—making them more like multivitamin/mineral pills, which most people don’t need. And then there are the super-food ingredients like bee pollen, spirulina, green tea, and wheatgrass, which have little or questionable health benefit.
Belly up to the bar
There’s no one perfect nutrition bar, and which to choose, if any, depends largely on what you are looking for: Something to fill you up between meals or to eat as a meal? A fiber boost? A little extra protein? But there are plenty of bad ones out there that are mostly refined flour and added sugar. Before buying, compare labels. In general, look for less-processed bars with the fewest ingredients. Choose ones made with whole grains (such as rolled oats) and other healthful ingredients like nuts, peanut butter, seeds, and fruit, and little or no added sugar (the new nutrition label, which all companies must have in place by 2018, will make clear which sugars are added and which are naturally occurring). An often healthier (and cheaper) option for a snack-on-the-go, however, is to carry a small container or baggie of nuts and raisins, a piece or two of fruit, or a small cup of plain yogurt, for example.