No no, this is not another goal setting post. Nor does it have anything to do with my being able to do chin-ups, although I’m still working hard at that. I’m in a food mood today, which means we’re going to have a little chat about cereal bars. And granola bars. And maybe even a few protein bars while we’re at it.
I was recently asked by one of my lovely readers about my thoughts on Fiber One bars. It was a bit of a coincidence that her email came when it did, because that day I’d been thinking about how I should do a comparison of bars, just like the post about how to choose a healthy cereal. So, today I’m going to get all nerdy again and give you some tables.
What makes a healthy bar?
It seems that with cereal bars, it’s all about tradeoffs. For example, a bar that boasts high fiber comes with some nasty ingredients (I’m talking to you, high fructose corn syrup!) A low calorie bar might come with a ton of artificial sweeteners. High protein bars can also be high in calories. Add to the tradeoffs that there are tons of bars stacked on the grocery store shelves (granola bars, cereal bars, meal replacement bars, etc), and that’s a lot of confusion!
The following are things I consider when I’m shopping for bars:
Are the ingredients ones I can pronounce? Like me, I’m sure you like to know what ingredients you’re putting into your mouth, and some of the labels on snack products can be a little alarming. I’ve highlighted some of the main offenders in the comparison charts, which we’ll get to in a second. Generally, I buy brands that contain as many natural, wholesome ingredients as possible. Beware of boxes that claim to offer whole grains – if you look on the labels, there may indeed be whole grains, but there could be a lot of refined ones too (which would appear as enriched flour).
Where are the sugars coming from? Look for bars that contain natural sweeteners, rather than artificial and added ones. For example, I’m a big fan of Kashi bars, and although some of the brand’s products are a little higher in sugar, it comes from natural sources like agave nectar. Larabars (which I’d consider more of an energy bar than a snack bar) have one of the highest sugar contents in the comparison (19g!) but it’s very clear in the super-short ingredient list that this is coming from dates and unsweetened cherries.
What are the first couple of ingredients? The label lists the ingredients in order of their proportions, so if sugar is really high up on the list, that’s an indication that there’s a lot of sugar in the bar. Similarly, if a product claims to contain whole grains, but the only mention you see of whole grains is waaay at the bottom of the list, it means there’s not a whole lot of whole grain in there!
How long is it going to keep me satisfied? There are a few indicators that you can pick out on the label for this one. First, fiber content. If the bar contains a reasonable amount of whole grains, fiber content is likely to be higher. Because fiber helps us to stay full for longer, eating fiber-rich foods can prevent overeating. (For more about why fiber is important, check out the cereal comparison post). Similar to cereals, look for ones that have at least 4g of fiber per serving.
Another indicator is protein content. Protein is essential for growth and repair of body tissue, so if I’m looking for a bar to eat as post-workout fuel, this is a number I look to right away. Since protein takes longer for the body to digest than carbohydrates, bars containing more protein have more staying powder than those without.
Where are the fats coming from? Fat-free bars aren’t necessarily the best ones for you. However, when looking at fat content, consider what type of fats are involved. As I’m sure you already know, the big baddies are trans fats, which are artificial fats created when oils react with hydrogen. Therefore, if you see any sort of ‘hydrogenated oils’ on the ingredients list, that’s your cue to stay away. However, just because a bar contains fat doesn’t mean it’s bad. Remember that fats from nuts, a common snack bar ingredient, are the good kind (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated), and we need these types of fat in our diets. Saturated fats (also baddies) can come from palm oil, and it’s best to avoid these ones too.
How do they compare nutrition-wise?
The tables below show comparisons between 9 common brands, and I’ve included some granola bars, cereal bars, and protein bars in the mix. (Click on each table to enlarge them.)
So which ones are good ones?
I am not in the business of bashing brands (this post is just meant to present you with the facts!) but these are the ones I’m a fan of:
Snack Bars/Cereal Bars/Granola Bars:
- Kashi (TLC Chewy Granola Bars and TLC Fruit and Grain are the ones I buy most) – Organic, natural ingredients. No added artificial sweeteners, most have good fiber content (at least 4g), huge variety, and they often send coupons if you sign up for their mailing list!
- Simply Bars (The Simply Snack Caramel and Cinnamon Simply bars are my favourite) – low in fiber but high in protein. Comparable to snack bars in calories (about 140-160 per bar), making them suitable for weight management.
- Larabars – These bars have the shortest lists of ingredients I’ve ever seen! Energy comes from the nuts and fruits used to make the bars, and there are no added sweeteners.
- Luna and Clif (same company) – Luna Bars taste decadent but they aren’t calorie bombs. They’re not very high in the fiber department, but they do contain about 10g protein each. Both Luna (designed for women) and Clif bars are all natural and contain 70% organic ingredients. They also come in a ton of tasty flavours, and in the US, Luna Bars come in a mini size (so if you can’t decide on a flavour, you could just have 2!)
- Are you a big bar-buyer?
- Do you prefer to make your own? Any good recipes? Do share! Feel free to link to them in the comments below.
- What are your favourite brands and what do you look for in a healthy bar?