Vegan, gluten-free, low-sugar, high-fiber, nut-free, prebiotic, probiotic, protein, organic, cereal, meal-replacement, granola, energy, pre-workout, post-workout, keto…the choices seem endless as the snack bar market booms. Grocery stores, superstores, quick-marts, and juice bars, to name a few, have displays (some even full aisles) dedicated to snack bars.
Don’t get swayed by pretty pictures, flashy packaging, and ingredients or flavors listed on the front of the bar. Many bars have as many (if not more) calories, fat, and sugar as regular candy bars. Therefore you should always look at the nutrition label and read the ingredients before choosing one.
Here are 5 key nutritional values to take into account across all categories of snack bars before making your pick:
There are two types of sugars in our diets – naturally occurring and added sugars. The naturally occurring sugars are those in whole food products like fruit. The added sugars are just that – added products to naturally sweeten whole foods. Added sugars are anything from artificial flavors, colors, and sweeteners to chemically manufactured ingredients like corn syrups and concentrates.
On average males should not consume more than 35.5 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar daily, while females should not consume more than 25 grams or 6 teaspoons daily. And yet on average, Americans are consuming around 80 grams or 19 teaspoons of sugar a day, many from foods like soft drinks, cookies, cakes, candies, ice cream, sweetened cereals and more. For more specifics on sugar substitutes and which ones are ok to consume, read the following article titled “Are These 6 Sugar Substitutes Actually Healthy?” and this article on the “7 Food Additives To Eliminate Now” for more information on artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners.
Before choosing a snack bar it’s important to consider how many grams of sugar, per serving, are in each bar. If a bar has 12 grams of sugar or more, and many do, you’re looking at almost one third to a half of your daily allotment in a single bar or serving. That's too much. Ideally you want to target bars that are 5 to 7 grams on average per serving, or less.
The Mayo Clinic suggests that adults should limit their fat intake to about 20 to 35 percent of their total calorie intake. To start, there are three different kinds of fats in our food - saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and trans fat. Ideally you want to find bars that have less (or zero) saturated and trans fats and more unsaturated fats. There are two types of unsaturated fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Typically these types of fats come from nuts, seeds, oils (nut, seed, fish), and avocados. The American Heart Association discusses “The Skinny on Fats” in great detail for more information on healthy and unhealthy oils.
When considering different snack bars you want to look for oils listed in the ingredients. You will want to avoid any bars that contain trans fats like hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, instead opting for un-hydrogenated oils like naturally occurring vegetable oils – sunflower, olive, safflower, coconut or canola.
Fiber is a critical component to our daily diet and something that we should all be eating more of. There are 5 key health benefits to eating a fiber-rich diet. 1. Keeps you regular. 2. Helps with weight-loss and weight maintenance. 3. Lowers cholesterol. 4. Can help prevent disease. 5. Acts as a natural detox. You can read more about each of the benefits of fiber here.
In general, the daily fiber guidelines range from 30 to 38 grams daily for men and 25 grams for women, when on average most Americans are only getting around 15 grams daily. In order to reach your daily allotment of fiber, based on those guidelines, you should be eating high-fiber foods with every meal and snack. When choosing a snack bar, you should look for those that have at least 5 or more grams of fiber per serving.
Protein is probably one of the most important nutrients for our bodies. In general, the Recommended Dietary Allowance suggests 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight for a sedentary person. Now, if you’re active and workout the allowance increases to somewhere between 0.5 to 0.9 grams per pound of body weight.
Healthline describes protein as ”the main building blocks of your body, used to make muscles, tendons, organs and skin, as well as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and various tiny molecules that serve many important functions.” While animal proteins (meat, fish) are one of the best sources of protein in a diet, there are plenty of plant-based and animal-free protein options to consider. In addition, there are great supplemental protein sources, often times found in snack bars that can be quite beneficial to meeting your daily protein requirement – whey protein in particular is often found in snack bars.
Based on your daily eating habits, protein intake at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you can determine how many grams of protein you should look for in a snack bar. Keep in mind, though, that most people in the US get enough protein in a day so eating bars with super high amounts of protein may not be necessary.
U.S Dietary Guidelines set average daily calorie ranges as follows: 1,600 – 2,400 for adult women, and 2,000 to 3,000 for adult men. It’s important to keep in mind that your physical activity levels can both increase or decrease your suggested calorie range. It should go without saying that the majority of your calories should come from a well-balanced, fiber-rich, protein-solid meal plan and not from highly-processed, sugar and fat-heavy foods. Maintaining a good whole-food diet is the best way to ensure your not eating empty calories.
In general, you want to look for snack bars that stay under 200 calories (ideally from real food ingredients). One exception to this rule would be meal-replacement bars that should be higher in protein (from pure, natural, and wholesome sources) and will likely exceed 200 calories.
There are other considerations when it comes to nutrition in bars -- but generally the cleaner the label, the better. Look for ingredients that sound familiar, are from real food, and serve beneficial purpose in your body.
(For a high-quality gluten-free low-sugar snack bar that is packed with pre and probiotics for gut health try Truth Bars. These bars are customer-rated to taste just like candy bars with only 4-5 grams of sugar, and 12-14 grams of fiber as well as probiotics, prebiotics and Omega-3!)