Are Nutrition Bars Really Healthy?
Let’s face it, nutrition bars can be lifesavers. Whether you’re on a trail, crunching numbers at your desk, or running around town, they are super convenient ways to eat in this busy, fast-paced world. And they easily fit into your pocket and don’t require you to lug around a container, silverware or a refrigerator!
These days, it’s gotten harder to know what’s actually good for you given the health claims most nutrition bars boast, like high fibre, low sugar, gluten-free, high in omega-3’s, low carb, vegan, high protein, etc. This only furthers the need to answer the question, are nutrition bars actually nutritious or are they just a lot of hot air?
Let me start out by saying that not all nutrition bars are created equally. As part of my Master’s degree in applied clinical nutrition, I had to choose a common nutrition bar and determine whether or not it was healthy by analyzing each ingredient. I was excited to dive into this assignment to see how one of my favorite nutrition bars stacked up. I’m purposefully not naming the brand of the bar I chose to help you make up your own mind about a nutrition bar you might be considering.
What I Learned:
After going ingredient by ingredient in my bar of choice, I found that some were decent (like nuts), whereas others, like sucralose, were questionable and could raise blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as negatively impacting gut bacteria. The overall quality of the ingredients could’ve been better too. None of the ingredients in my bar were organic. Although there is debate about whether organic foods are truly superior to conventionally grown foods, a study shows that organic foods can lower toxin levels after just one week!
Additionally, the protein source for this particular bar is whey protein. Whey is derived from cows and is a byproduct of cheese manufacturing. It is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. Such amino acids must be obtained through diet since the body doesn’t produce them on its own. However, the whey contained in this bar is grain-fed, as opposed to whey derived from grass-fed cows. One study showed that grass-fed cows have a higher profile of omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed cows. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for brain development and functioning. Another study found that the quality of vitamin E, beta-carotene and conjugated linoleic acid are of much better quality from grass-fed cows.
The Verdict: What Makes a Nutrition Bar Healthy?
At the end of the day, I placed this particular nutrition bar at the top of the list: a list of candy bars that is. While it was of better quality than the average candy bar, it was still junk food.
That begs the question, what makes a healthy nutrition bar without having to dive into an in-depth analysis like I did?
When looking for a nutrition bar, the first thing to consider is quality. Go organic whenever possible. This doesn’t just apply to animal-based ingredients, but to all others like nuts, fruits, legumes, seeds, etc. The more organic it is, the better.
Additionally, keep an eye out for natural or artificial colors or flavors, or ideally, the lack thereof. Natural flavors can mean up to 100 different ingredients in a single flavor, all engineered somewhere in a laboratory. Although many natural flavors are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, they haven’t all been well studied. Natural flavors are added to enhance taste, not to add nutritional value.
In fact, in trying to get to the bottom of what natural flavors actually are, I didn’t get very far. It’s a bit of a secret which makes me suspicious.
While nutrition bars aren’t whole foods per se, we can still strive for bars most like them. For one, we can look for bars that are minimally processed and contain few ingredients. That means their ingredients are organic, you can pronounce them (if not, then either pass on them or look them up), and they come from clean and sustainable sources.
Healthier nutrition bars will contain healthy fats (from animal or fruit sources), high-quality protein (although high amounts of protein doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier), and be high in fibre. They may or may not be low carb and they may be animal-based or vegan, depending on your preferences.
Keep these guidelines in mind the next time you’re grabbing a nutrition bar. If your options are limited, then simply choose the lesser of two evils.
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