For many busy Americans, convenience is a major determinant in what we choose to eat. It makes sense, then, that nutrition bars are a hot product. Whether it’s more protein, increased energy, enhanced performance, or weight loss you’re seeking, there’s a bar for it all. But with this widespread proliferation of products came a profusion of additives and a whole bunch of confused and overwhelmed consumers.
In many cases, these bars and their overzealous promises are too good to be true. Many of these “nutrition” bars are imposters: they’re basically candy bars disguised as nutritious snacks or meal replacements. Several of them are loaded with sugar, artificial ingredients and unfamiliar additives. Some “protein” bars contain protein in unnecessarily high amounts; some have all the protein you need in a day, and too much protein can tax the liver and kidneys. People that are watching their waistlines like nutrition bars because they are safe: you know exactly how many calories and how much sugar and fat you are getting. But “diet-friendly” and “low-calorie” do not equal healthy. Sure, eating a 150 calorie bar for breakfast instead of a 500 calorie meal may result in weight loss; but if those 150 calories are highly-processed, empty ones, you may be selling your body short on the fiber, vitamins and essential minerals it needs to stay optimally healthy.
Here are a few bars that are minimally processed and contain a good amount of nutrients.
- Lara Bars are pure and natural. They are made of dried fruit, nuts and spices. Each Lara Bar variety contains less than 8 ingredients, and each of these ingredients are real foods. These bars are an excellent source of heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats, and a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Kind Bars fit the criteria for a good bar in their product description: “made from ingredients you can see and pronounce.” Like Lara Bars, Kind bars also contain nuts, honey and dried fruits, thus having a very similar nutrient profile. They are energy and nutrient dense, so they keep you satisfied.
- Kashi bars contain wholesome ingredients and are minimally processed. But beware, some of Kashi’s bars are high in sugar, especially the GoLean Chewy Bars. The fruit and grain bars are the best, followed by their granola bar varieties.
- Gnu Bars are delicious, entirely natural and contain a lot of fiber. Be sure to drink plenty of water with a Gnu bar. Too much fiber isn’t exactly a good thing either, but in the typical Western diet, most of us aren’t eating enough.
- Greens Bars contain a few more ingredients than the bars mentioned above, but they are identifiable as foodstuffs or herbs. These bars actually may suffice as a meal replacement, albeit a small one.
- Clif Bar C Bars are the best option among the large variety of Clif Bars. Clif bars are very popular, but unfortunately, the first ingredient the standard Clif Bar is brown rice syrup. Ingredients are listed from most abundant to least abundant, by weight, so ideally we want to see food listed as the first ingredient. The C bars contain very few ingredients, all of which are actual foods or vitamins.
Keep in mind, ultimately the most disconcerting part, from a dietitian’s perspective, is that many of these bars aren’t actually real food. Our bodies were designed to digest, process and function on a diet of whole foods: actual foods we can pronounce, recognize and trace from farm to table (not from factory to table). Ideally, you should consume whole foods for meals, and use bars as snacks or supplements on occasion if needed.
But sometimes that’s not practical. So when you’re grabbing a bar on the go, your best bet is to focus more on the ingredient list than on the nutrition facts: first look for actual foods listed as ingredients. Generally speaking, the longer the ingredient list, the more processed the food. When you skim the nutrition facts, pay attention to the sugar; a higher sugar content (>10 grams) is acceptable if there is a decent amount of fiber in the bar (> 3 grams). Be sure to avoid bars that contain sugar and no fiber. Protein bars that contain exorbitant amounts of protein (>15g per bar, for example) absolutely should be avoided, as we already over-consume protein in the average Western diet.
The list above is a great starting point if you need a quick fix hunger solution. However, bear in mind that these bars are not sufficient meal-replacements, so if that’s what you’re using it for, grab a cottage cheese, a plain Greek yogurt or a piece of fruit to have with it.