Ask a Nutrition Expert: How to Pick a Food Bar

September 15, 2015
by Michelle Pellizzon for Thrive Market
Ask a Nutrition Expert: How to Pick a Food Bar

Sure, skipping meals can mess with your metabolism, but is that bar that you reach for as you run out the door actually a good choice—or are you better off going hungry?

Nutrition bars have evolved from the sticky, beige blocks of calories and nutrients born in the 90's. These days, it's easy to find lots of organic, tasty options that contain ingredients ranging from nuts and chocolate to bison meat and cranberries.

There are a lot of products out there, and not all are created with equal quality and nutritional value. First, know what you want your food bar to do. Is it an additional source of protein after a hard workout? A full meal replacement? Or is your bar just a snack that to replace a bag of chips or a candy bar?

“When I turn to a bar, it's for quick energy to sustain me until my next meal,” says Kara Griffin, a holistic nutritionist and personal trainer. “I want the ingredients to be whole foods with only a few ingredients present.” Griffin is a fan of eating real food for meals and chowing down on food bars that are organically sourced and all natural for a healthy snack choice.

If you’re going for a protein supplement, pick a bar with over 20 grams of protein and under 20 grams of carbohydrates. For bars that are serving as a meal replacement,  choose one that's a little more nutritionally balanced with enough fat to keep you full and focused but carbohydrates and protein too. Typically, meal replacement bars will be a little higher in calorie count and fiber, so look for something with 300-600 calories. If you’re reaching for a bar as a high-energy snack, stick to something under 200 calories that contains both protein and fiber.

Take a look at the ingredients label. Protein and energy bars full of chemical, natural, and modified ingredients should turn you off immediately. Griffin explains, “I want the vitamins and minerals in my bar to come naturally from the foods that make it since that's how your body will most easily absorb the nutrients. When they're already in whole foods your body knows how to process them, but if you're ingesting synthetic nutrients they'll most likely become body waste.” 

Yuck. Ingredients to be wary of? Industrial processed oils like soybean, corn, and peanut oil; preservatives; and isolated proteins. Isolated proteins are a super-processed version of the proteins that help your body recover and build muscle, but as they break down they lose their nutrient density, says Griffin. Instead, look for protein concentrate as an ingredient.

One more thing—figure out if you’re noshing on an actual food bar or if you’re just biting into a glorified candy bar by examining the sugar count on the nutrition label. “Any of the sugar and carb grams should come from natural sugars already found in the ingredients,”  explains Griffin. About eight to ten grams of naturally occurring sugar is OK, as sugar that comes from natural sources usually contains a good deal of fiber, too.

Be wary of alcohol sugars too; sure, it can be an easy way to cut calories and increase sweetness in a bar, but too much alcohol sugar can be difficult on your digestive system and leave you craving more sugary substances as soon as you get hungry later.

So what does a nutritionist grab on those extra busy days when a bar is the only thing she has time for? “Go Raw bars, LaraBars, and Epic Bars. All have whole food ingredient lists with protein, fats and carbs that come naturally from the foods that make them up—and are gluten and dairy free!”

If you're looking for a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to get your necessary nutrition, nutrition bars can be an awesome choice–as long as you pay attention to what they're made of.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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This article is related to: Food, Healthy Choices, Nutrition

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