If you’re super busy, you may be tempted to grab a quick snack rather than sitting down to a meal. Thanks to the growth of snack foods, nutrition bars have surged in popularity. The term nutrition bar, protein bar, energy bar, and meal-replacement bar are sometimes used interchangeably. They all have one thing in common, each is a grab-and-go meal or snack that’s easy to carry to the office enjoy after a workout but are they healthy?
How Healthy and Nutritious Are Nutrition Bars?
With so many nutrition bars available, it’s hard to make general statements that apply to all of them. As you might expect, some nutrition bars are as high in sugar as a candy bar and don’t taste as good either. Others are a reasonably good source of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals for times when you’re forced to eat something on the run.
When you need a quick snack, what should you look for in a nutrition bar? Choose ones that contain no more than 7 grams of sugar and have at least 5 grams of fiber to slow how rapidly you absorb that sugar. Study the ingredient list. If you see high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener, it’s a tip-off that the bar is not a health-oriented one. Don’t forget manufacturers often try to sugar-coat sugar to make it seem more acceptable. Ever see a nutrition bar that proudly proclaims it’s sweetened with “pure cane sugar?” It’s STILL sugar. Remember, eating sugar fuels more sugar cravings.
Nutrition bars labeled as “energy bars,” are usually higher in sugar. As the name implies, they give you a quick burst of energy. In these bars, you’ll likely find ingredients like glucose, dextrose or maltodextrin, sweeteners that rapidly raise your blood sugar short-term for a transient energy boost. Some even contain herbal and non-herbal stimulants such as caffeine, guarana, or green tea extract. They often lack complex carbohydrates that would burn slower and provide more sustained energy. Unless you’re planning to run a marathon, you probably don’t need a quick energy fix an energy bar offers. Energy bars are high in carbohydrates and low in nutrition.
Protein bars are another growing nutritional bar category. They’re popular among bodybuilders who use them as a quick source of protein after a workout when they don’t have time for a high-protein smoothie. Most protein bars have at last 15 grams of protein and some contain double the amount of protein. These bars have varying amounts of carbs with some being relatively low in carbs because they’re sweetened with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. Be aware these can cause bloating.
Meal replacement bars are usually relatively high in calories because their purpose is to replace a meal. Most contain a relatively balanced ratio of carbs, protein and fat, but that doesn’t make them the ideal meal substitute. Meal replacement bars are rarely as satisfying as a meal. An occasional one with a short ingredient list is okay when you can’t eat a real meal, but only use them when you’re in a bind, not as a replacement for whole foods. Look for one that’s relatively high in protein with as little added sugar as possible to curb your appetite until you can eat a full meal.
Long ingredient lists are also something to watch out for. The best nutrition bars are those made with whole food ingredients. For example, Lara bars contain ingredients like almonds, cherries, cinnamon, coconut, walnuts, chocolate chips, without additives that you can’t pronounce. Even though these bars win points for being unprocessed, they can still be high in natural sugars and carbohydrates. That’s why it’s important to read the nutrition facts AND the ingredient list carefully. Ingredients are listed in order of their abundance, so if you see sugar near the top, that’s a bad sign. Bars that are higher in unprocessed carbs and contain protein in about a 3 or 4 to 1 ratio work well for post-workout recovery but may be too high in sugar for a bedtime snack.
Is The Nutritional Information Reliable?
Another thing to be aware of – nutrition bars don’t always contain exactly what’s listed on the label. When Consumer Labs independently tested a variety of nutrition bars in various categories – meal replacement, energy and protein – some contained more carbohydrates and more fat than what was listed in the nutritional information.
If you enjoy the taste of nutrition bars or need a meal replacement you can carry along, why not make your own? When you prepare them yourself, you control the ingredients. For a lower carb bar, use almond or coconut flour and use a natural sweetener like Stevia instead of sugar. For extra fiber, add flaxseed. You’ll find a growing number of recipes online for making your own protein, energy, and high-fiber bars.
The best thing about making your own nutrition bars is you don’t have to worry about ingredients you want to avoid like soy protein isolate, high fructose corn syrup, synthetic flavorings and colorings, and artificial sweeteners. A number of commercial nutrition bars are sweetened with sugar alcohols. Although they’re likely safe, consuming them in large amounts can cause bloating and gas.
Online in our recipe section, you can find recipes for raw energy bars that use dates, nut butter, seeds and nuts as their primary ingredients. After mixing the ingredients, you place them in the refrigerator to firm up before cutting them into bars. It takes well under an hour to make enough nutrition bars to last a week or more.
The Bottom Line
If you choose wisely, an occasional nutrition bar is okay on days when you’re in a rush, but don’t make them the backbone of your diet, especially if you buy commercial ones. Even the best nutrition bar won’t supply you with the phytonutrients you get when you eat fruits and vegetables. People who eat nutrition bars frequently often use them as a substitute for whole foods. Don’t make that mistake. If you eat them often out of convenience, think about making your own. You’ll save a lot of money too.
Consumer Lab. “Nutrition Bars”
WebMD. “Nutrition Bars: Healthy or Hype?”
Related Articles By Cathe: