Once upon a time, when you wanted to eat a bar, you had three choices: a candy bar, a granola bar or a meal-replacement bar. Gradually, the selection expanded, garnished first with healthful-sounding words like energy, power and protein, and eventually with antioxidants, fiber, gluten-free and GMO-free.
But all bars are not created equal. As with any food that’s manufactured rather than grown, it’s important to ask two questions. First, “What’s in it?” Second, “Should I really be eating this instead of whole food?” Let’s compare the ingredient lists from two popular and widely available brands of bars.
Bar 1: Dates, peanuts, chocolate chips (unsweetened chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla), sea salt.
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Bar 2: Soy rice crisps (soy protein isolate, rice flour), toasted oats (rolled oats, dried cane syrup), soy flour, flaxmeal, brown rice syrup, coating (dried cane syrup, cocoa, palm kernel oil, soy lecithin, vanilla), inulin (chicory extract), peanut butter (peanuts, salt), peanuts, peanut flour, natural flavors, oat syrup solids, vegetable glycerin, sea salt.
Which one more closely resembles actual food? (Hint: Bar 1).
An average bar has roughly 150 to 250 calories. If you regularly eat bars, ask yourself if you feel satisfied after you eat one. Even when made from quality, nutritious ingredients, bars are compact and calorie dense.
Part of feeling satisfied after a meal or snack depends on the volume of food you just ate. Bars don’t have much volume. In fact, you can easily wolf them down in a few bites.
On the other hand, vegetables and fruits contain water, which means more volume for fewer calories. Think about how long it takes to chew and swallow a large apple and 12 almonds or a half-cup of baby carrots dipped in a quarter cup of hummus (each snack duo has less than 200 calories).
In addition to offering more satiating volume, the fact that it takes you longer to eat these real food snacks means you’re more likely to actually notice that you’re eating something, which also contributes to satiety and satisfaction.
One reason many health-conscious consumers are attracted to bars is what’s added (fiber, protein or vitamins) or subtracted (gluten or sugar). Beware this “health halo.” Gluten-free does not necessarily equal healthful (consider the other ingredients).
The types of fiber added to bars and other manufactured foods don’t always have the same health benefits of fiber found in whole foods. Some, such as inulin, may even cause intestinal distress. Many sugar-free bars add non-caloric sugar alcohols like maltitol or xylitol that can also cause bloating — or worse.
There’s no denying a bar is a very portable snack. You can toss it in a purse or backpack, tuck it in a pocket, and leave it in a desk drawer or glove compartment and know that it will still be OK to eat in a week. If your lifestyle demands this kind of convenience, be a smart shopper. Read labels and look for bars with a short list of ingredients that you actually recognize.
Next time: Why you need to know about choline
Carrie Dennett: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dennett is a graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Program at the UW; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com.