Hang out in the aisles of any grocery store and you’re bound to see a tempting array of energy bars and nutrition bars.
You might be tempted to reach for some, thinking they’re a healthier substitute for a candy bar – but are they really?
We’ll start by saying we DO have some energy/nutrition bars in our cabinet. We don’t eat them every day and the ones we eat have been carefully screened.
We mainly eat them after a hard workout and take some along when we travel in case we need an energy fix.
Just because it’s called a nutrition bar doesn’t make it healthy.
Hopefully, we can help you sort through the options and choose the best energy or nutritional bar for your needs. If you choose to eat them at all.
We don’t recommend eating them on a frequent basis.
It’s best to stick with whole or minimally-processed foods.
Energy Bars: Are They Bad for You?
Energy bars have gotten better over the years. When they first came out, most of them were high in sugar and processed carbohydrates, low in fiber and usually sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
Plus, you couldn’t say much for the taste either. We remember eating some in the 1980s that tasted like sweetened cardboard.
Fast forward to 2018. Not only has the number of bars increased greatly, they taste better and at least some are better for you.
Many are still high in sugar, – after all they’re made to help athletes recover – but there is a growing number that are lower in sugar.
The other issue is all the other “stuff” in energy and nutrition bars – preservatives, fillers, trans-fats, artificial sweeteners etc.
There are now some out there that are minimally processed and free of artificial sweeteners and preservatives.
Some are sweetened with sugar alcohols and others are sweetened with sugar, although less of it. The problem with sugar alcohols is they can cause bloating and gas in some people.
Sugar alcohols have minimal impact on blood sugar with the exception of maltitol syrup. They’re also lower in calories than sugar. Some people experience a rise in blood sugar when they consume maltitol syrup.
It’s also important to remember if you have pets at home that xylitol, one type of sugar alcohol, is toxic to dogs.
We like to avoid sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners and stick with bars that are low in sugar.
How can you recognize a sugar alcohol on an ingredient list? It’ll usually end in –ol. For example, sorbitol, erythritol, xylitol and maltitol are all sugar alcohols. Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are too.
We stick with bars that have six grams of sugar or less and are free of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. Compare that to a candy bar that can have 27 or more grams of sugar.
Fat and Calories in Energy Bars
You’d think that energy and nutrition bars would be free of trans-fats by now but not all of them are. Some have small amounts even though they list zero grams under the nutritional information.
The FDA allows manufacturers to say a product is trans-fat free as long as it doesn’t contain over a half gram of trans-fat.
If you see partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list, it’s not trans-fat free. Fortunately, they’ll have to be completely trans-fat free in the future since the FDA is banning trans-fat.
Here’s something to be aware. When looking at the calorie count, always verify how many servings are in the bar. A single bar may have two to three servings. That means you have to multiply the calorie and grams of sugar and fat by two or three. Tricky, tricky, tricky!
Healthy Energy Bar: Read the Ingredient List
It’s important to read the label not only to make sure there are no trans-fats but to see how processed a bar is. If it has a long ingredient list and names you can’t pronounce, it probably isn’t something you want in your diet.
You may see ingredients like inulin or maltodextrin and wonder what they are. These are a form of isolated fiber.
Ingredients like inulin may help you feel fuller but it may not have the same health benefits as the natural fiber in whole grains.
However, studies suggest that isolated fiber may reduce the blood sugar response to a meal in a similar manner to natural fiber from plant-based foods. So, even synthetic or isolated fiber, of which there is a variety, may help you get more of the health benefits that fiber offers.
Which Bars Are Better?
Cliff bars are a popular bar among athletes and active people. We avoid them because they’re high in sugar and calories. The same goes for Larabars, PowerBars, Odwalla, Snickers Marathon and Protein Plus bars.
These bars are high enough in sugar and calories that unless you’ve just run a marathon, they’re not a good choice. Somewhat lower in sugar are ZonePerfect and Kashi bars.
Standard Kind bars are relatively high in sugar but Kind recently came out with a line of bars that are surprisingly low in sugar, around 4 to 5 grams per bar.
We’ve tried them all and enjoy how they taste. They’re not overwhelmingly sweet like many bars. The one that’s lowest in sugar at 4 grams is the Madagascar vanilla flavor. Make sure it’s labeled as low-sugar since some Kind bars contain up to 13 grams of sugar.
Raw Crunch bars are another better-for-you alternative. They’re made with natural ingredients, nuts, and seeds, without additives or fillers. They’re also unprocessed and raw. Each has around 5 or 6 grams of sugar.
Here’s the nutritional rundown on
Sugars 5 grams
Low-Sugar Kind Bars
Sugars 4 grams
A newcomer to the scene, Evolution bars, also look promising. They have between 5 and 9 grams of sugar per bar.
When we have time, we make our own energy bars that are very low in sugar using ingredients like almond butter, nuts and seeds. Sometimes we skip the sugar entirely and sweeten them with Stevia.
Choose One Higher in Protein
When you bite into an energy bar, you don’t want to be hungry again an hour late. Protein is the macronutrient that helps you stay full. So, if you munch on an occasional energy bar for convenience, look for one that has at least half the number of carbohydrates listed on the label.
So, if a bar has 18 grams of carbs, look for a bar with at least 9 grams of protein.
A New Breed of Energy Bar?
Recently, we’ve noticed a variety of energy bars pop on the scene made with whole food ingredients. One of the most intriguing is Oatmega.
Each bar has 14 grams of protein from pasture-raised whey and is made with omega-3’s from sustainably sourced fish oil.
It also has an excellent profile with 21 grams of carbs and 14 grams of protein and only 5 grams of sugar. It’s not as expensive as you’d expect either for a bar of this quality.
Also intriguing is the Perfect Bar.
With only 9 grams of protein, it contains less than many energy or protein bars and is it does contain 13 grams of sugar. However, they’re made with a variety of whole foods, including kale and seaweed.
It’s nice to see a movement toward making energy bars more nutrient-rich and less processed. Hope this trend continues.
Alternatives to Energy Bars
Of course, you can skip the energy bars entirely and stick to whole foods for refueling after a workout. In general, it’s best to stick to whole foods whenever you can.
Enjoy a handful of nuts. They’re whole, unprocessed and loaded with minerals, fiber, protein and healthy fats.
Instead of a peanut butter energy bar, dip a square of dark chocolate in almond butter for a “natural” nut butter bar.
Here’s something I enjoy. Buy crystallized ginger slices at your local grocery store or natural food market. Soak them in warm water to remove the sugary layer on the outside. Roll a ginger slice around a nut – I use a pecan and bite into it.
To me, it tastes like candy. Dr. A doesn’t like it since he hates ginger. If you’re not a ginger lover, it may not be for you.
We don’t eat nutrition or energy bars often and don’t recommend that you do either. When you do, stick with ones that are minimally processed and lower in sugar.
Diabetes Self-Management. “Healthy or Not? Energy Bars”