5 tips on choosing a healthy nutrition bar

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5 tips on choosing a healthy nutrition bar

When there’s no time for preparing a meal, grabbing an eat-on-the-go nutrition/protein/energy bar makes sense.  They seem to be everywhere – grocery stores, convenience stores, bookstores, coffee shops, vending machines – these conveniently packed nutrition bars boasting of healthy nutrients promising all kinds of good things to come your way. However, despite their promises of complete nutrition, many of these bars are no better than a candy bar. A majority of them are packed with empty calories coming from sugar, fat, and sketchy ingredients.

These nutrition bars - also sometimes referred to as energy, protein, sports, breakfast, or granola – are one of the most convenient food concoctions that have grabbed our attention and appetite and have yet to let go. Sales of these prolific snack bars reached $6 billion dollars in 2016 - this represents a staggering 800% increase over the past decade - and is showing no signs of slowing down.  Convenience and versatility are often the biggest factors consumers like about these products.  We buy them for snacks, meal replacements, protein boosters, nutrition supplements, or simply as an “energizer.”  Most, if not all, contain the proper buzzwords consumers are focused on – high-protein, low-carb, non-GMO, gluten-free, and organic. 

But do these nutrition bars live up to their name?  Are they really as healthy as they claim to be?

Let’s take a look at what is really in nutrition bars:

1.  Sugar  

Carefully read the ingredients listed on any nutrition bar.  Many of them are loaded with too much sugar.  Some nutrition bars are packed with several sweeteners that they are almost on the same level as a candy bar.  No matter what form sugar comes in it is still an empty calorie food offering no nutritional value other than providing calories.  Sugary ingredients will often be listed as honey, molasses, date syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, coconut sugar, cane sugar, agave, brown sugar and of course, just simply sugar.  

Some nutrition bars may use sugar alcohols which do reduce the amount of calories but at a price for some people.  These sugar alcohols can result in gastrointestinal distress of gas and cramping if consumed in large quantities.  Sugar alcohols will be listed as either maltitol, sorbitol, erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, or glycerol. 

Choose a nutrition bar containing no more than 6 grams of sugar per serving. 

2.  Protein

Protein is hot right now and is one of the most popular reasons why so many of us choose a nutrition bar.  The labels proudly boast of their protein content which may be as high as 20 grams or more per bar.  However, very few of us are protein deficient so it’s not like we are in dire need of a nutrition bar brimming with protein. But it sells and we buy them convincing ourselves it will make us healthier.  Protein does promote satiety so they may keep you feeling fuller longer but unless you are involved in prolonged strength training or aerobic endurance activities, much of that protein will be stored as fat.

Do choose a bar that contains at least 8 grams of protein. 

3.  Fiber  

Another ingredient nutrition bars love to advertise is there fiber content.  Some bars can contain as much as 10 to 15 grams per bar.  However the fiber content nutrition bars boast about is not due to whole foods such as whole wheat, whole oats, or flax.  Usually most of the fiber found in nutrition bars comes from psyllium, soluble corn fiber, chicory root extract and other sources of “functional fiber” derived from whole foods.  People with irritable bowel syndrome may experience bloating, gas or other gastrointestinal symptoms because of these high-fiber bars. 

If a high-fiber nutrition bar is causing gastric distress, aim for one with 3 to 5 grams of fiber instead. 

4.  Sodium

Most nutrition bars are reasonable in their sodium content – some are as low as only 5 grams of sodium per bar while others may contain up to 250 milligrams of sodium per bar.  Look for one with no more than 150 milligrams of sodium per bar.

5.  Added vitamins and minerals

It is now common for many nutrition bars to be chock full of all kinds of added vitamins and minerals – vitamins C and E, zinc, magnesium, and copper – which almost makes them more like a multivitamin.  Again, most of us are not nutrient deficient and do not have a need for extra nutrients.  Many bars may also contain questionable ingredients that have little to no health benefits but sound like they might which include bee pollen, spirulina, green tea, and wheatgrass. 

In conclusion

The popularity of nutrition bars means they are most likely to be around for quite some time.  They can be a convenient method of getting in a snack or even for as a meal replacement every once in a while.  The best bar to look for is one with the fewest ingredients.  Choose ones made with whole grains like rolled oats and other healthy ingredients such as nuts, peanut butter, seeds, and fruit with as little sugar as possible. 

Better yet, keep the nutrition bars on hand for occasional use but opt instead for a healthier and cheaper way of getting in important nutrients by choosing real food in its purest form - plain yogurt with fruit you add, or a bag of nuts and raisins or a piece of fruit with cheese.  You’ll get the same nutrients but from food formed by nature and not manufactured.