From protein bars to granola bars to date-based bars, there are hundreds of energy bar options on the market, all promising to feed your cravings, keep you satisfied, and give you energy. But behind that great marketing and pretty label, there are often junky ingredients, fillers, or simply the wrong amounts of macronutrients for the activity you’re doing (think about the difference between what your body needs to fuel a demanding hike vs just satisfy that afternoon craving at your desk). In fact, some energy bars basically have the same nutritional makeup as a candy bar! So how do you know what’s really in that bar and whether it’s healthy? We’re here to help you interpret the ingredient labels to find out.
Here’s what to look for!
Start with ingredients. Many of us have been programmed to immediately look at the calories, fat, or carbs first, and while those are important, often the most important information is found in the ingredient list - and typically the shorter it is, the better. Do you recognize all or the majority of the ingredients? If the first few ingredients are things like nuts, seeds, whey or pea protein, oats, etc., that’s a good indicator that it’s based on real food rather than heavily processed stuff that might make your digestive system go “Huh?!”
Keep an eye on sugar. Sugar comes in many forms, including coconut sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, dextrose, honey (like we use), and so many others. Some bars are sweetened with dates or other fruit which can increase the sugar content of the bar, but also provide extra fiber. Overall, less added sugar is preferable, but you should also consider the purpose you’re eating the bar for. Are you eating it to satisfy your sweet tooth while sitting at a desk or are you eating it for fast absorbing carbs to recover from an endurance sport? These affect what amount and what type of sugar and carbs you might want. (Pssst, here’s why we chose honey for our treats.)
But keep an eye out for artificial sweeteners too. Even if the grams of sugar look low, the culprit may be artificial sweeteners. Sugar alcohols used to keep the sugar content low can be irritating on your digestive system and can cause bloating or abdominal discomfort, especially if you already suffer from digestive issues.
Think in terms of nutrient ratios. If the bar you’re looking at is high in carbohydrates, is it also packing plenty of fiber, healthy fats, and protein? These other macronutrients help slow the process of metabolizing the sugar and carbs so that your blood sugar doesn’t experience such a dramatic spike and crash. It might have 30g of protein, but 350 calories, so consider nutrition facts holistically rather than just aiming for a specific objective on one macronutrient.
Remember micronutrients, too! Often when we reach for a bar, our mind is just on satisfying our hunger quickly and easily, but don’t forget this is fuel for your cells! Yes, we want the protein and carbs to give us a boost of energy, but real food ingredients like nuts, seeds, and fruit can help provide a bit of nutritional bang for your buck because they offer micronutrients like Iron, Calcium, Vitamin D, etc.
Overall, if you’re reading the ingredient and nutrition labels well, a bar can be a healthy alternative to another sweet treat or a convenient way to fuel up during a busy day. Just be sure to consider the situation, look for real ingredients, and think of it holistically within the context of the nutrients and the rest of your meals for the day!