It’s not so easy to choose the right nutrition bar these days. Besides seeing countless brands on the market, there are a ton of different ingredients and health claims to shuffle through. Do you pick high protein? Gluten-free? What about low-fat? The options are endless. That’s why we turned to registered dietitian Alyse Levine, founder of Nutritionbite, to find out what to look for and what to steer clear from when it comes to nutrition bars.
“Different nutrition bars provide specific benefits and cater to a particular lifestyle (think athletes versus kids),” Levine says. “Regardless of your bar type preference, there are key things to look for and others to steer clear of.”
What to look for: Levine says the first ingredient should be a whole grain, nut, or seed, not a refined carbohydrate like rice flour, wheat flour, or syrup. Mystery ingredients are also a no-no.
“Seeds in particular are some of the most energy- and nutrient-rich foods on the planet,” she says. “These bars will contain the most fiber, healthy fat (from nuts and seeds), and protein (again, thank you nuts and seeds) to keep you satisfied longer and do your body good.”
Next, she says to skip the calorie-count and focus on the breakdown of fat, carbs, and protein: “More often than not, a wholesome bar will be higher in calories whereas a “fake” bar will contain additives and questionable substitutes to keep the calorie count under a certain number.”
When it comes to fat, “choose bars that have the highest poly- and mono-unsaturated fat to saturated fat ratio,” Levine says. “Ingredients like flaxseed, chia, pumpkin seeds, and many nuts provide this healthy fat composition.”
And for carbs, look for high fiber content. “Ensure that the fiber is sourced in the food ingredients, not added in separately. Added fiber is often disguised under the names of inulin (usually extracted from chicory), polydextrose, and maltodextrin (synthetically produced),” she says. “Look for at least 3 grams of naturally occurring fiber per bar.
Sugar counts as carbs, so she says to “pick bars that have 8 grams or less. If a bar has more than 8 grams, make sure it has an almost equal number of protein grams as a buffer for the higher sugar content.”
As for protein, she says, “bars with the ingredients mentioned above will be naturally high in protein,” but she says to avoid the “soy protein isolate” which is an additive in many bars (more on that below).
What to avoid: This list of ingredients to avoid can get long, so Levine’s best tip is: “Are there any names you can’t pronounce? Those are likely additives that you want to stay away from,” but she specifically mentions the following…
· Mannitol: It can make you bloated and inhibits gastric acid secretion (slows digestion).
· Xylitol: It can cause diarrhea. Essentially any ingredient ending in “ol” is a sugar alcohol. Avoid them if your gut is on the sensitive side.
· High fructose corn syrup: It may contribute to obesity as reported in a review from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
· Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil and Hydrogenated Fats: If an ingredient sounds like it comes from a chemistry textbook, it probably isn’t good for you. Fractionated palm oil has a higher saturated to unsaturated fat ratio because of the way it is processed, and most of us know by now that saturated fat contributes to increased levels of “bad” cholesterol, which in turn increases risk for heart disease and stroke. Hydrogenation on the other hand actually destroys good fats and turns them into bad fats, ultimately leading to the same unsalutary effects.
· Refined Carbohydrates or Sugars: Wheat, rice flour, cane syrup…in contrast to complex carbs (like oats), they cause a blood sugar spike and contain little fiber. The take-away? They’ll give you a short burst of energy followed by an energy drop, and will leave you hungry an hour later. Avoid bars that list these as the first ingredient.
· Soy Protein Isolate or SPI: Derived from soy, SPI contains isoflavones that act as hormones in our bodies, mimicking estrogen. Ingesting too many isoflavones can increase the risk of developing prostate or breast cancer. There is no set limit as to how much isoflavone you can consume daily, but the average daily intake in Japan, where breast and prostate cancer rates are very low, is 25 to 50 milligrams. A single protein bar can contain 50 milligrams, so if you’re consuming soy milk, protein shakes, and protein bars, consider replacing your energy bar with naturally present protein.
Two nutrition bars that follow all of Levine’s rules include the Kind Honey Smoked BBQ Bar—if you’re looking for protein—because the primary ingredients are almonds, pumpkin seeds, and honey. And for fiber, she recommends 18 Rabbits Nibblin’ Apricot because the main ingredients are a granola that’s made with whole oats, unsweetened coconut, and whole nuts, along with tapioca syrup and apricots.