5 Steps to Choosing a Healthy Nutrition Bar
Nutrition and energy bars are one of the most handy and portable snacks. They can fit in your purse, your gym bag. and your office desk with ease. Plus, they travel extremely well.
As an avid traveler, I've learned to pack a large ziplock bag of bars for each and every trip I take. When on the road, I'm definitely grateful for these treats.
When I was recently traveling in Paris, my chocolate coconut Sports Vega bar saved me from eating a second piece of chocolate cake one night at dinner. I knew the Vega bar would be there in my hotel room waiting for me when I arrived back there after dinner. In New York City, my Kit's Organic peanut butter bar served its purpose as my pre-workout breakfast and saved me from making a run to the store or wracking up a $30 room service bill. On my Africa trip, I took Rise bars (which are Non-GMO) to stave off my hunger when I was in a remote village to ensure I wasn't eating anything that could potentially make me sick.
Nutrition bars serve so many different nutritional purposes, and there are so many different bars on the market today, how do you choose one that is healthy, rather than harmful and tastes good as well?
5 Rules to Be Sure You're Choosing a Healthy Nutrition or Energy Bar:
1. Be able to count and pronounce the ingredients.
Take a page out of Michael Pollan's book, "In Defense of Food," and "Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar B) unpronounceable C) more than five in number or that include D) high-fructose corn syrup." My only exception to his rule is that if you are unfamiliar with healthy ingredients like chia or maca, don't necessarily discount them. Do your research and find out if an ingredient is health-promoting or health-depleting.
2. Choose the protein source carefully. Avoid soy protein isolate.
Avoid bars that contain soy protein isolate, which will be many. Soybeans are not the problem (although 90% of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically-modified), but when you artificially extract soy protein isolate in a highly processed form, its properties are no longer health-promoting. Instead, soy protein isolate can act as a hormone disruptor in the body.
There are also many nutrition bars on the market that contain whey protein isolate. For vegans and other people who avoid dairy, this would be another ingredient to avoid. For those that are fine with consuming dairy, whey protein can be a good way to boost your protein intake for the day. However, as with all dairy products, always choose the best quality you can and try to avoid dairy coming from cows treated with human growth hormones and tainted with antibiotics.
Last, but definitely not least, there are some great plant-based protein bars out there. Some of these contain ingredients like sprouted rice or hemp protein and others just use nuts and seeds to add healthy fat and a bit of protein to round out the sweetness of a bar, make it hearty and bring down the glycemic load of the bar as well.
3. Look for natural sweeteners, and avoid any bars that contain high fructose corn syrup.
My personal recommendation is to never buy anything with high fructose corn syrup, period. High fructose corn syrup on a product's ingredients list is the first sign that you have a low quality food. Other processed sugars such as fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and corn syrup are also unnecessary and just add empty calories to an otherwise healthy snack. Raisins, dates, apricots, figs, cranberries and other dried fruits are really all an energy bar needs to sweeten it up. Occasionally, honey, agave nectar, or brown rice syrup are used as more natural sweeteners, if no fruit is added. Be sure these ingredients appear toward the end of the ingredient list and not in the beginning. Ingredients on a product label are listed in order of quantity, so if the sweetener is the first ingredient, that means that the bar is mostly made of that item. Lastly, stevia, considered a natural sweetener, is used in some bars and can also be used in moderation.
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4. Avoid processed oils such as corn, soy, and canola.
Corn, soy, canola and any kind of hydrogenated oils have no place in a healthy nutrition bar, although they are found in the ingredients of many granola bars. Once highly processed, these oils become pro-inflammatory agents in our body and add to increasing your risk of heart disease. Healthy fats will come from natural ingredients such as: coconut, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and hemp seeds.
5. Find some brands and flavors that you love.
Now that you've identified how to spot a healthy bar, the final essential step is making sure you find a flavor and brand that tastes good to you — and not like a cardboard box. If the bars aren't sold separately, it can be tough to choose a bar off the shelf that will please your palate. I try to buy a sampler box that includes many flavors in one, if possible. If not, split a couple of boxes with a friend or your officemates until you find the perfect fit.
Readers - Do you eat or avoid nutrition bars? If you eat them, what's your favorite kind? Do you pay attention to the list of ingredients in your nutrition bars? Will you be putting these tips to use next time you are looking to buy one? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Jennifer Cassetta is a third degree black belt, clinical nutritionist and personal trainer. She loves kale, chocolate and wine. She loves to punch, kick, lift weights, meditate, and dress up in stilettos. She empowers people to be strong, safe and sexy through nutrition, fitness and self-defense, and you can read more at www.jennifercassetta.com.