Looking for a quick bite? Here's how the snack bars stack up.
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
They're everywhere! Bars, bars, and more bars. They're in the cereal aisle, in the form of breakfast bars and granola bars. They're in the diet section as meal replacement bars, and they're in the sports section as "power" bars.
Truth be told, a nicely balanced bar can certainly come in handy. I personally keep some around for these situations, which a family of four (or any other number) is bound to find itself in occasionally:
- There's no time for breakfast, and we have to grab something to eat later as we fly out the door.
- We are stuck somewhere (an all-day soccer tournament, work conference, etc.) for hours with no access to food.
- We are driving around, for work or family reasons, with no time or opportunity to stop for a snack or meal to tide us over.
- We need something small and easy to eat 30 minutes or so before we exercise, so we'll have plenty of energy to get through the workout.
After reading many a label on all sorts of bars, I came to one realization: When it comes to choosing your bars, it's a matter of picking your poison. Taste, fat, fiber, protein, sugars -- what means more to you?
Generally, if a bar is "low in carbs," it's also low in fiber and/or higher in fat. Some of these bars even contain quite a bit of saturated fat. SlimFast Meal Options bars, for example, have 8 grams of protein per bar, but that protein comes at a price: Each bar of Milk Chocolate Peanut also contains 3 grams of saturated fat and 44% calories from sugar.
And if a bar tastes pretty good, it's likely to have at least 12 grams of sugars per serving. See what I mean?
To help you make the best bar choices, I researched several brands of bars. I'll get to the breakdown shortly. But first, here are my four keys to a better bar:
1. Does it have at least 3 grams of fiber? I try to make sure my own breakfast and snack choices contain 5 grams of fiber. Fiber helps our bodies in many ways, but in a bar, it will slow digestion and make the energy from the bar last longer. For testing purposes, since so few bars have 5 grams of fiber, I looked for those with at least 3 grams.
2. Does it have at least 5 grams of protein? I also try to make sure my breakfast and snack choices contain 5 grams of protein. This helps balance the carbohydrates, so the bar seems more satisfying and the energy lasts longer. Some bars I tested had 1 or 2 grams of protein, while others had 10 or more grams.
3. Does it contain less than 35% calories from sugar? I've got to warn you; not many bars meet this guideline. One of the bars my daughters really like (Nature's Choice Multigrain Raspberry) has 13 grams of sugar ¬which, at 120 calories a bar, comes out to 43% calories from sugar. I like to calculate the percentage of calories from sugar because different brands of bars differ dramatically in size and calories. Putting sugar into a percentage gives you a way to compare them fairly.
4. How much total fat and saturated fat does it contain? You definitely want some fat in the bar, so that it has a more satisfying taste, texture, and helps slow digestion a bit. But you don't want too much fat, and you certainly don't want any saturated fat if you can help it.
I read labels for the bars I came across and tried to find some that followed my four keys to a better bar. I was able to find some bars with 3 or more grams of fiber, 5 or more grams of protein, lower amounts of fat, and no saturated fat. But it was the rare bar that had less than 30% calories from sugar!
That said, here are my better bar choices (for journaling purposes, you'd generally count 230 calories for a meal-replacement bar and 137 calories for a cereal bar):
Clif Bars (made with organic oats and soybeans).
Clif bars score really well on protein and fiber content. The flavors I looked at had 5 grams of fiber, 10 or more grams of protein, around 33% calories from sugar, and 4-5 grams of fat (1.5-2 grams of saturated fat) per bar.
One of Clif's lowest-sugar flavors is Cool Mint Chocolate: One bar (68 grams weight) contains 250 calories, 10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, 5 grams fat (1.5-g saturated fat) and 27% calories from sugar. (Journal as a meal-replacement protein bar.)
Odwalla Bars (made with whole fruit and grains)
A couple of the Odwalla flavors have more than 5 grams of protein per bar, and most contain 3 or more grams of fiber, too. They tend to be pretty low in saturated fat (1.5 grams of saturated fat or less per bar) but their percentage of calories from sugar ranges from 26% to 47%, depending on the flavor.
One of the lowest-sugar Odwalla bars is Peanut Crunch: One bar (62 grams weight) contains 260 calories, 8 grams protein, 3 grams fiber, 7 grams fat (1.5 g saturated fat) and 26% calories from sugar. (Journal as a meal-replacement protein bar.)
Power Bar Harvest
These bars tend to have 7 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber per bar, and their percentage of calories from sugar hovers around 30%. Fat content tends to be 4-5 grams, while saturated fat ranges from 0.5 to 2 grams per bar.
One flavor that's pretty low in sugar and saturated fat is Cherry Crunch: One bar (65 grams weight) contains 240 calories, 7 grams protein, 4 grams fiber, 4 grams of fat (0.5 g saturated fat) and 30% calories from sugar. (Journal as a meal-replacement protein bar.)
Kashi Go Lean
These bars, which contain whole grains, bran, and soy protein concentrate, score high in fiber and protein. But the sugar and saturated fat are high -- around 47% calories from sugar and 3 grams of saturated fat per bar.
One of the best-tasting flavors is Oatmeal Raisin Cookie: One bar (78 grams weight) contains 280 calories, 13 grams protein, 6 grams fiber, 5 grams of fat (3 grams saturated fat) and 47% calories from sugar. (Journal as a meal-replacement protein bar.)
Luna Bars (made with soy protein)
Luna bars score great for protein and sugar, but their fiber doesn't get to the 3-grams-or-more level. Most of the flavors have 2 grams of fiber, 10 grams of protein, around 27% calories from sugar, and 4.5 grams of fat (3.5 grams of saturated fat) per bar.
One of the best tasting Luna flavors (even my pre-teen girls love it) is Nutz Over Chocolate: One bar (48 grams weight) contains 180 calories, 10 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, 4.5 grams fat (2.5 grams of saturated fat) and 27% calories from sugar. (Journal as 1 cup low-fat yogurt, sweetened.)
Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars
These come packaged as two bars per serving. They have 4-5 grams of protein, and are among the bars with the least amount of sugar (around 24% calories from sugar), but they have only 2 grams of fiber per serving.
One of the highest protein flavors is Peanut Butter: Two bars (42 grams weight) contain 180 calories, 5 grams of protein, 2 grams fiber, 7 grams of fat (1 gram saturated fat) and 24% calories from sugar. (Journal 2 bars as 1 cup low-fat yogurt, sweetened.)
Quaker Oatmeal Breakfast Squares
These bars all contain 4 grams of protein, are low in saturated fat (1 gram), and have at least 2 grams of fiber. But the percentage of calories from sugar ranges from 34 to 38%, depending on the flavor.
The flavor highest in fiber and lowest in sugar is Baked Apple: One square (60 grams weight) contains 220 calories, 4 grams of protein, 3 grams fiber, 4 grams of fat (1 gram of saturated fat) and 34% calories from sugar. (Journal as 1/2 cup granola.)
Quaker Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars
These bars have 3 grams of protein apiece, are low in saturated fat (1 gram per bar), and 25 to 35% calories from sugar, but they don't offer more than 2 grams of fiber.
The flavor that is lowest in sugar and highest in fiber is Mixed Nuts: One bar (35 grams weight) contains 160 calories, 3 grams protein, 2 grams fiber, 6 grams fat (1 gram saturated fat) and 25% calories from sugar. (Journal as 1 cereal bar + 1 teaspoon peanut butter).
Originally published June 18, 2004
Medically updated July 26, 2005