One of the most common questions I receive from clients is: "What are some healthy bars?" usually followed by "Aren't most of them filled with sugar?"
Considering the popularity of this question, I'd like to share with you the three tips I share with clients when asked this question.
1. Look for "real" food in the ingredient list
By "real" food, I mean things like nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dried fruits. The best bars are the ones that are as close to you making them yourself as possible. Many bars are filled with processed ingredients like sugars, syrups, and filler ingredients that do little to boost the nutritional value. It's not to say these bars can't offer sustenance from time to time, but for an everyday type snack bar, choose one made from ingredients you can identify without having to consult a food dictionary. For example, Larabars are made with only whole food ingredients. Their recent special edition Lemon Bars are simply dates, cashews, almonds, and lemon.
2. Steer clear of bars loaded with added sugars
Any ingredient that ends with the suffix "ose" identifies an added sugar. For example: dextrose, glucose, frustose, sucrose. Also, any ingredient with the word 'syrup' such as agave syrup, maple syrup, cane syrup, and brown rice syrup identifies an added sugar. These sugars and syrups are often added to snack bars to boost their taste and act as a binder (think of how honey helps hold dry ingredients together). But how much is too much when it comes to added sugars in a bar? For starters, every 4 g of sugar = 1 tsp of sugar. So if you see on the Nutrition Facts table a bar contains 12 g of sugar, that actually equates to 3 tsp of sugar (yes, go ahead and picture 3 tsp of sugar being added to any food - does that seem like a lot to you?). According to trusted health authorities like the American Heart Association and Canadian Heart & Stroke Foundation, 6-9 tsp (equivalent to 100-150 calories) of added sugar is more or less the maximum amount most adults should have each day to keep health problems related to high amounts of added sugars at bay. Maybe 3 tsp in a bar can fit as part of your daily allotment or maybe once you factor in everything else you eat that contains added sugars (think sugar sweetened drinks like juices, sodas, iced tea, coffee shop drinks), baked goods, packaged snacks, flavoured milk and milk alternative products (e.g. yogurts, beverages), condiments, and even things like packaged soups, salad dressings, and sauces, 6 tsp can easily creep up. Rather than overthink it, simply start to be more aware of food labels. When it comes to snack bars, it's best to choose ones with as few added sugars as possible in the ingredient list and as few grams as possible on the Nutrition Facts table.
As a caveat, Nutrition Facts tables do not distinguish between added and natural sugars (i.e. those found naturally occurring in fruit which we do not have health limits on when consumed in moderation as part of an adequate, balanced, and varied diet) so you can't exactly count on the number of grams of sugar as a surefire strategy to determine the actual added sugar content (sometimes it's a mix of both). If you only look at the grams of sugar to make your bar snacking decisions, you may pass up on some of the best quality and most nutritious bars out there, like Larabars.
3. Choose a bar you ENJOY the taste of!
This one is super important and should not be under valued. I am a huge proponent of eating foods you LOVE. Eating truly is one of life's great pleasures and with so many delicious and nutrition options out there, why bother crunching on something that makes you miserable and brings upon images of dustpans while you eat it? A good snack bar should taste sensational and leave you feeling satisfied. Personally, I love chewy bars where the flavours of the "real" food ingredients stand out. I don't like bars that are dry and make me feel like I'm munching on sandpaper or chalk (ugh!) or that are sickeningly sweet (either from added sugars and/or artificial sugars).
What the bottom line?
A good snack bar will not only taste great but offer you a balance of long lasting carbohydrates for energy, protein to help fill you up, and fibre to sustain the fullness factor. Look for ingredients you recognize and try to avoid those oozing with added sugars.
Let us know what your favourite nutrition and delicious snack bars are in the comments section below!