Bars are bigger than ever, and I’m not talking about hangouts that serve Budweiser. I’m talking about the ready-to-eat, supposedly-nutritious rectangles that now occupy a large section of your local supermarket. To many people, a nutrition bar is the perfect snack. They’re super convenient, they’re fairly tasty and, according to the front of the wrapper, they’re good for you! Or are they?
It seems like every bar on the market claims it’s a healthy choice, but that’s not the case. When you cut through the labeling and the fancy advertising, you find that many nutrition bars are no better than offerings over in the candy aisle. Since you deserve to know whether your daily snack is up to snuff, we’re breaking down what you should look for—and look out for—in your nutrition bar.
Avoid Eating Sugar-Stuffed Bars as a Snack
Sugar content is the first thing you should look at when trying to determine whether a particular nutrition bar is a healthy snack.
Americans eat way too much sugar. The newest federal guidelines recommend that people limit their sugar consumption to between 40 and 48 grams per day. According to The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, about 70 percent of Americans ages 1 year and older overshoot that recommendation. One reason we eat so much sugar is because it’s not just in the usual suspects—soda, candy, cookies, etc. Added sugar has snuck into many more foods than people realize, including many of the snack bars being marketed as nutritious options.
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But sugar isn’t always bad for you. On the contrary, there are occasions when consuming sugar can help you increase your performance—such as during or shortly before an athletic competition. Simple sugars digest quickly and give you a nearly instant boost of energy. Glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose are simple sugars that are easily converted into energy.
Since simple sugars equal simple, easily digestible carbohydrates, many energy bars contain them. These bars aren’t designed to fill you up or to be an everyday snack—their number one purpose is to fuel athletes for competition. Just like you shouldn’t drink Gatorade when you’re sitting on the couch, you shouldn’t munch energy bars if you’re not being active.
Take Clif Bars, for example. Some Clif Bars contain over 25 grams of sugar—more than you find in eight Oreos. Sugar can be used for energy if you’re working out for an extended period of time, but if you’re just sitting at your desk, it’s not a good idea. You experience a rapid blood sugar spike and crash, leaving you feeling worse than you did before and increasing your risk of countless negative health consequences—including obesity and high blood pressure.
Too much added sugar is the main issue with most nutrition bars. They want to be tasty enough that you will enjoy eating them, so they’re often stuffed with corn syrup or dipped in chocolate. They might slap what seems like a redeeming quality on the front of the wrapper—say, five grams of protein—but their high amount of sugar makes them a poor overall choice.
Fiber-Filled Bars Have Countless Benefits
If you’re eating a bar as a snack, a high-fiber choice gives give you the most bang for your buck. The benefits of adequate fiber consumption are greatly underestimated. If sugar is the main thing Americans eat too much of, fiber could be the main thing they eat too little of.
According to the National Institutes of Health, teens and adults should eat between 20 and 38 grams of fiber each day, and men need more fiber than women. But the average American eats only 10 to 15 grams of daily.
Fiber helps break down foods for easier digestion, maintains good bowel health, lowers cholesterol levels and helps you feel fuller longer. High-fiber diets have been linked to positive outcomes such as a reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease. Fiber also has an important impact on how your body processes sugar.
“Fiber slows down digestion, resulting in the sugar being absorbed more slowly,” says Brian St. Pierre, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. This gives your liver more time to metabolize the sugar, which keeps your blood sugar relatively stable. It also helps to prevent the rapid rises—and sudden crashes—associated with a sugar high. “You don’t get that quick rise and fall of blood sugar levels,” St. Pierre says. Those surges in blood sugar force your pancreas to work harder—which can increase your risk for Type 2 diabetes.
In the short term, snacking on a bar high in fiber keeps you fuller for longer and helps you avoid crashing. In the long term, it reduces your risk of many major diseases and supports good bowel health.
Simple Ingredients Go A Long Way
Many bars claim to be made from good, simple ingredients that support a healthy lifestyle. But don’t take their word for it—flip over to the ingredients section and find out for yourself. You want to see recognizable ingredients in the categories of fruits, nuts and grains. This indicates the bar is made from whole foods and is thus more likely to contain the nutrients your body needs.
Look out for bars with ingredients lists that span several rows and are filled with unpronounceable items. These bars are high in additives and low in whole foods, and they’re typically stuffed with sugar to cover up their chemical taste.
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A short and recognizable ingredient list also helps you identify where the nutrients in your bar actually come from. For example, if you see almonds as a main ingredient, you can deduce that a good amount of fat in the bar comes from almonds. As such, it’s mostly monounsaturated fat, which has been shown to lower cholesterol and improve body composition—different than the type of fat you find in, say, a Twix bar.
All things considered, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bar that beats eating actual whole foods. Eating a pear with a handful of almonds gives you a wide range of nutrients in a little package, and you don’t have to decipher and evaluate an ingredients list. When it comes to healthy eating, it’s tough to improve on mother nature’s formula. But if you reach for a bar as a snack, make sure it’s high in fiber, low in added sugar and has a short list of familiar ingredients.