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They contain teaspoons of sugar, layers of chocolate and a laundry list of unpronounceable ingredients.

So why is it that granola bars are considered a nutritious snack?

The North American appetite for the handy, individually wrapped bars has been rising for years, and with it, the steady introduction of new products. Row upon row of granola bars now eat up close to an entire grocery-store aisle.

Granola bars, breakfast bars and cereal bars, which are referred to collectively as "snack bars," are part of a food category that's grown 5 per cent a year since 2005 and is worth an estimated $720-million in Canada, according to figures provided by PepsiCo Foods Canada, which owns the Quaker brand.

In 2008, the average Canadian ate 55 granola, cereal or breakfast bars over a 12-month period, according to NPD Group, a market research firm. By 2010, that number had jumped to 73, representing growth of 32 per cent.

That growth is fuelled, in large part, by health-conscious consumers craving nutritious foods that offer convenience. Many granola-bar makers have begun to tap into the consumer health trend by fortifying their bars with omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and fibre. Other bars tout the fact they are low in calories and can help consumers maintain a healthy lifestyle.

"It's definitely been growing," said Joel Gregoire, food and beverage industry analyst with NPD Group. "That whole notion of that 'better for you' halo that's wrapped around it, I think, is really pervasive with snack bars."

Now, the makers of granola and similar snack bars are hoping a recent ruling from Health Canada will give a boost to perceived benefits and further drive sales.

Last month, Health Canada approved a new claim that will, for the first time, allow companies to promote products fortified with fibre, such as granola bars, as helping to lower cholesterol.

At least one company is wasting no time to incorporate the new health claim on product packages.

"As a result of the Health Canada confirmation, Quaker will be able to better communicate the specific benefits of eating oat fibre to Canadian consumers," Kathryn Matheson, vice-president of marketing at Quaker and PepsiCo Foods Innovation at PepsiCo Foods Canada, said in an e-mail. "We will start reinforcing these communications to Canadians on Quaker packaging in the new year."

Despite the push to emphasize the health benefits of granola bars, loyal consumers might be surprised to learn their place in cupboards is drawing fire from nutrition experts who say they are nothing more than dressed-up junk food.

"They're not health food," said Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist with U.S.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They're basically cookies masquerading as health food."

Indeed, one 46-gram package of peanut butter Nature Valley barscontains 230 calories, 11 grams of fat, 150 milligrams of sodium and 11 grams of sugar.

Compare that to a 45-gram Kit Kat chocolate bar, which contains 230 calories, 12 grams of fat, 35 milligrams of sodium and 22 grams of sugar.

(General Mills, which sells Nature Valley bars, did not respond to a request for comment.

Traditionally, granola bars are made by pressing granola, a nutritious dish typically made by baking a combination of ingredients such as rolled oats, nuts and spices.

But in the past few decades, the basic granola bar has evolved into a powerhouse snack that may contain hunks of chocolate, marshmallows, significant amounts of sugar and numerous artificial flavours.

Their appeal is wide, reaching to parents who want to send their children to school with a nutritious snack as well as health-conscious adults who want a convenient bite they can munch on at work.

The perception of their healthfulness, however, often doesn't match up to reality, according to Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute and outspoken advocate on nutrition issues.

"I think the public perception is that if there is the word granola in it that it's healthy for you," Dr. Freedhoff said. "There's a lot of things that sound healthy but then tend to get stuck together with lots of sugar and lots of high-calorie fats."

Take the Special K chocolaty crunch bars, sold in boxes emblazoned with a statement that each bar only contains 90 calories and that they can help with healthy body weight.

But the bars, which weigh a mere 22 grams, also contain eight grams, or nearly two teaspoons, of sugar, in addition to packing in 120 milligrams of sodium. Sugar is listed as the first ingredient in the bars.

One 30-gram serving of All-Bran original cereal bars contains six grams of fat, 130 calories and nearly two teaspoons of sugar. By comparison, two Oreo cookies contain five grams of fat, 120 calories and just over two teaspoons of sugar.

The All-Bran bars are sold in boxes that claim they are high in fibre. Yet, each bar contains just four grams of fibre; Health Canada says women need 25 grams of fibre a day, while men need 38 grams.

Kellogg Canada declined to respond to questions about its products.

Although Quaker dark chocolate-chunk bars do contain a significant amount of omega-3 fats, 300 milligrams, each 35-gram bar also has nine grams - or more than two teaspoons - of sugar, and are 150 calories. Two Chips Ahoy cookies contain 10 grams of sugar and are 140 calories.

Ms. Matheson said the company tries to offer products that are flavourful while still offering ingredients Canadians are looking for, such as whole grains and omega-3 fats. "We know that consumers are looking for food choices that taste good and are convenient but still offer maximum nutritional value."

But as a nutritionist, Ms. Hurley doesn't buy those industry arguments. She said consumers who believe granola bars are healthy are being fooled by clever marketing and that they would be much further ahead to snack on a piece of fruit.

"[Granola bars]evolved because people thought they were better for them than a cookie," she said. "The companies do an amazing job at selling them as something much more than a cookie."

Even though many granola bars come smothered in chocolate or contain other high-sugar and even high-fat ingredients, Dr. Freedhoff said consumers believe they are healthy because of messages on product labels.

"People buy these things in the hope they're making healthy choices, and really all they're buying is candy bars," he said. "If you're going to have a chocolate bar, I'd say have a chocolate bar."

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