Nutrition Bars: Healthy or Harmful?

As a nutrition coach, I will always recommend fresh, whole-food options when possible, but we’ve all got a few of these bars lingering at the bottom of our gym bags. Convenience doesn’t have to be a dirty word when we are talking about nutrition, but we should know as much as possible about our convenient choices.

Nutrition Bars: Healthy or Harmful?

By: Brittany Snyder, BLOC Staff Coach, PBC

Brittany currently lives in Santa Fe, NM where she serves as a Fire Captain and Paramedic. In addition to her 17+ years in the fire service, she has experience coaching strength athletes, teen lifters, older populations, group classes and fire academy cadets.
She is a Professional Barbell Coach and Precision Nutrition Coach. Get coaching from Brittany.

You might have noticed that your grocery store has become saturated with packaged nutrition bars. That’s no accident. The global nutrition bar market was about $4.6 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $7 billion by 2027. Since 1999, Americans have spent at least half their food money on prepared foods that require little to no cooking (Katz, 1999), and the simultaneous rise of convenience foods and growing health-conscious populace means that the once-niche nutrition bar is now a huge market all its own (Sharma, 2020).   So it should be no surprise that there is an abundance of options. But these bars are not all created equal, making the bar-laced aisle a challenging one to navigate.

As a nutrition coach, I will always recommend fresh, whole-food options when possible, but we’ve all got a few of these bars lingering at the bottom of our gym bags. (Some of mine date back to 2018. Please don’t judge.) Convenience doesn’t have to be a dirty word when we are talking about nutrition, but we should know as much as possible about our convenient choices. Nutrition bars are targeted toward different types of goals, diets, and dietary options, and the wide range of ingredients means that some may fit with the rest of your diet, while others should be permanently off the menu. 

“Keto-Friendly”

“Whole-food based”

“Non-GMO”

“Gluten-Free”

“High Fiber”

Marketing strategies are clever, so it’s important that we get past the initial urge to grab the prettiest packaging and actually look at which nutrition profiles support our goals.

First, the broad use of “protein bar” misrepresents much of what is on the market. Not all bars offer a reasonable dose of protein, and their intention is not to do so. For example, CLIF Bars are flat out labeled as “energy bars.” With 45 grams of carbs and 9 grams of protein, the purpose is to sustain you on a long outing.

A Nature Valley Crunchy Oats N’ Honey granola bar is similar. One serving offers 7 grams of fat, 29 grams of carbs, and only 3 grams of protein. It’s worth reading the label and considering whether it contributes well to your nutrition or performance goals.

KIND Bars clock in at 15g of fat, 16g of carbs, and 6g of protein. Imagine you’re a strength athlete whose aim is to get 65g of fat daily and 150g of protein. You won’t get far on 6 grams per serving, and you’ve managed to rack up nearly one-quarter of your daily fat intake in this one 180-calorie bar.

For those looking for whole-food-based options with minimal ingredients, RX bars and Lärabars might be good options. They aren’t particularly high in protein (most range from 4g-12g). But, if they agree with your digestion, and they saved you from a 1,500-calorie impulse trip through the fast-food drive-through, then they are doing their job! Bonus: They don’t have a chocolate/yogurt dipped outer shell, which can melt against the inside of the wrapper and get messy when left in your hot car, purse, or gym bag.

If high protein is what you’re after, there are quite a few bars on the market that offer 20 grams of protein or more. The following are just a few examples and are generally easy to find at your local grocery store. I wouldn’t put an automatic “health halo” around them, but compared to the bars above, they are on the right track for protein. Still, consider the ingredients and what their purpose is.

Think! Bar: 230 cals, with 9 g of fat, 24 g of carbs, and 20 g of protein

ONE Bar: 220 cals, 8 g of fat, 24 g of carbs, and 20 g of protein

Builders Bar (made by CLIF): 290 cals, 11 g fat, 29 g carbs, 20 g protein

Other things to consider in your selection

Fiber. I suggest looking for something that offers around 5 grams of fiber. The benefits of fiber are outlined in this terrific article, though too much of a good thing in one sitting can have a downside. In a moment, we’ll touch on why too much added fiber could upset your digestion.

Digestion. It’s not uncommon for bars to cause gas or bloating. One common trigger for this is sugar alcohols (erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol). While not necessarily “bad for you,” it’s something to keep an eye on. Tolerances differ greatly from person to person. Pay attention to what’s working for you and what’s not.

Another thing that folks could have trouble with is too much added fiber. Some nutrition bar makers jam in a ton of added fiber (12-15g) because it boosts their marketing abilities. But fiber is best increased gradually, aiming for a daily total of 35-45g.

More info for avoiding bloat/gas can be found in this BLOC article here.

In Summary

When selecting a nutrition bar, consider the following:

Does the calorie/macro profile support your goals or performance needs?

Do the ingredients agree with your digestion?

What is the nutrition bar’s “job”? In a pinch, will it help to avoid an energy crash or an impulsive trip to a fast-food joint? Maybe that’s a victory!


References
Sharma, Chetan & Kaur, Amarjeet & Sachdev, Poonam & Singh, B.. (2014). Cereal bars – A healthful choice a review. Carpathian Journal of Food Science and Technology. 6. 29-36.
Katz, Fran, “‘How Nutritious?’ Meets ‘How Convenient?'” Food Technology Magazine (Oct. 1999) available at: https://www.ift.org/news-and-publications/food-technology-magazine/issues/1999/october/features/cover-story_how-nutritious-meets-how-convenient

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