How To Choose Energy and Granola Bars
75% of consumers agree that energy, cereal, or granola bars are a healthy snack. Advertisers want us to believe that energy bars are a quick, easy and nutritious part of our daily food choices, and know that consumers want foods that convey values like simplicity, naturalness, purity and honesty, especially if they’re convenient.1 Sales of nutrition and energy bars in the U.S. increased by 71% between 2006-11; total U.S. sales reached $1.7 billion in 2011.2 Growth has been largely driven by consumers’ increasing awareness of the importance of a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Energy bars and granola bars are available everywhere we go: gas stations, convenience stores, retail stores, and cafeterias. There are bars designed to eat before exercise, after exercise, as meal replacements, for breakfast, or a quick snack on the run. The front of the package advertising often lists what the bars don’t contain: soy-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, gluten-free, no food coloring or dyes. The large number of choices and types of bars can be overwhelming and confusing. We want to believe that energy and granola bars are packed with nutrients our body needs, but when they’re next to the PopTarts and Rice Krispie Treats in the grocery store, or have names like ‘breakfast cookie’ we’re tipped off that not all energy/granola bars are alike.
Since so many of us routinely purchase energy bars, use these 8 guidelines to choose bars that fit into a healthy diet.
- Choose bars with less added sugar. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the first time recommend reducing added sugar intake to no more than 10% of total daily calories.3 For example, if you consume 1500 calories per day, limit added sugars to no more than 150 calories, or 37 grams of added sugar for the entire day. Watch out for sweet ingredients like marshmallow pieces, chocolate cookies or coating, corn syrup, and other types of sugar. Bars with flavors like mint chocolate chip, chocolate caramel peanut butter, and strawberry cheesecake are likely to contain added sugars.
- Read the list of ingredients for the type of sweetener used. All bars contain some type of sweetener to make them appealing to our sweet-craving taste buds. The healthiest bars use dried fruit for sweetness and contain no added sugars. Others use honey or maple syrup that seem more natural but actually are no different nutritionally than table sugar or corn syrup. Bars that state they are low in added sugar, or contain only 1 or 2 grams of sugar, use some form of sugar substitute.
- Choose bars with 100% whole grains, such as whole oats, whole wheat, or whole brown rice. The Dietary Guidelines recommends that at least half of the grain foods we eat each day – bread, cereal, pasta, rice, quinoa, crackers, granola bars – contain whole grains so that we get the benefit of the vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients naturally present in whole grains. 3
- Look for bars made from real foods that you can describe. We all know what raisins, dates, almonds, and walnuts look like; but who knows exactly what fructooligosaccharides, soy protein nuggets, or glycerine is? Read the list of ingredients so you know what is in the bar you’re buying. Caution: the word ‘natural’ on a food label currently has no set definition. The FDA is considering defining how the word ‘natural’ can be used in the future, yet for now it means simply that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to the food. This doesn’t address pesticides or food processing methods, and it also doesn’t imply any type of nutrition or health benefit.4
- Pay attention to the calories. The vast majority of energy and granola bars contain 150-250 calories. If you’re eating a bar for a snack, choose one with no more than 200 calories. If you’re using a bar as a meal replacement, look for one with 300-400 calories.
- It seems like everyone wants bars with more protein and less carbohydrate. The reality is that both are important in a healthy diet. For snacks, look for 2-10 grams of protein. Aim for 20-30 grams of protein for a meal replacement bar.
- Caution with added vitamins and minerals. Amounts of these nutrients can add up quickly, especially if you eat more than one bar per day, or regularly consume other foods that are enriched or fortified such as breakfast cereal. High amounts of vitamins and minerals isn’t necessarily better for health, and can actually cause nutrient imbalances over time.
- Energy bars aren’t required for people who exercise, despite what the advertising would like us to believe. We can get the same nutrients by choosing whole foods, like a peanut butter sandwich, piece of fruit, and glass of milk. The benefit of the bars is that they’re portable – but you could also bring a cooler to the gym with your lunch or snack instead of eating a bar.
- Snack, cereal and nutrition bars in the United States 2013. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-region/united-states/market-intelligence/snack-cereal-and-nutrition-bars-in-the-united-states/?id=1421353894973 Accessed 4-20-16.
- Nutrition and Energy Bars – US- 2012. Mintel Group Ltd. http://store.mintel.com/nutrition-and-energy-bars-us-february-2012 Accessed 4-20-16.
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/ Accessed 4-21-16
- “Natural” on food labeling. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm456090.htm updated 12-24-15. Accessed 4-27-16.