I'm always on the go and rely on energy bars for snacks. What should I look for to make sure I'm choosing a healthy one?
Energy bars can be a reasonable snack provided you choose wisely and they don't replace whole foods on a regular basis. How nutritious an energy bar is depends on several factors – you need to read labels to know which one is right for you.
Some bars are packed with so much sugar you might as well be eating a Snickers bar. Thanks to the addition of brown-rice syrup and cane syrup, the Chocolate Chip Clif Bar, for instance, packs 23 grams – almost six teaspoons' worth – of refined sugar. Not a good choice if you're sedentary. (Clif Bars are designed to help fuel the energy demands of long workouts.)
Other energy bars are made with artificial sweeteners that can wreak havoc on your gastrointestinal tract. When consumed in excess, sugar alcohols (e.g. maltitol, xylitol, sorbitol) added to certain low-carb and low-calorie bars can cause bloating and gas. Ditto for whey protein. Filling up on protein bars and protein shakes made with whey can make some people feel bloated.
Energy bars coated in chocolate or yogurt can deliver a hefty dose of saturated fat due to the presence of palm kernel and palm oil. The Atkins Advantage S'mores bar has nine grams of saturated fat, nearly half a day's worth. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, adults are advised to consume no more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day.
That said, it is possible to find energy bars with ingredient lists that don't resemble those of chocolate bars. I prefer "whole food" energy bars that are made from natural ingredients such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouted grains. They're sweetened naturally with real fruit, rather than a hefty amount of refined sugar and syrups. Examples include Elevate Me, LaraBar, Kind Bar, Simply Protein Nut & Fruit Bar and Vega One Meal Bar.
Many whole-food energy bars boast high fibre content thanks to the addition of prunes, dates, oat fibre and/or inulin, a type of soluble fibre that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. More fibre also means an energy bar will satisfy you longer.
Bars formulated to have a low glycemic index, such as Simply Protein Bars and SoLo Gi Bars, will balance your energy level longer since their carbohydrates are released gradually, rather than quickly, into the blood stream. Low glycemic energy bars are a good choice for people with prediabetes or diabetes and anyone looking for longer-lasting energy from a snack.
Energy bars vary in taste, so try a few to find one you like. The following guidelines will help you choose a healthier energy bar.
• Read the ingredient list to find an energy bar that's made with minimally processed natural ingredients such as dried fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
• Stay clear of artificial sweeteners and artificial preservatives.
• Limit refined sugars and syrups. Check the ingredient list to find out the source of sugar.
• Choose a bar that provides at least four grams fibre and no more than three grams saturated fat.
• For a midday snack, look for a "balanced" bar that contains both protein (seven to 18 g) and carbohydrate (15 to 30 g). Fruit and nut bars tend to be lower in protein, but their healthy fat content from nuts will help to keep your appetite in check.
• If you're watching your waistline, be mindful of calories. As a between-meal snack, look for bars with roughly 150 to 200 calories (women) and 200 to 250 calories (men).
Final point: Include a variety of snacks in your diet. While many energy bars are better for you than junk food, if you rely on them for all your snacks, chances are you're missing out on many nutrients and phytochemicals found in unprocessed whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes and yogurt.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel; lesliebeck.com.