Oats, nuts, seeds, raisins and honey: a healthy snack. Photo © J. Java | Fotolia.
STEPHANIE ZONIS focuses on good foods and the people who produce them.
Page 2b: How Healthy Are Granola Bars?
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Now, about those health claims: When time is short, a granola bar may seem like a great solution to hunger. They’re portable, they can be eaten quickly, and the marketing seems to promise that you’re doing something good—or at least better—for yourself. But how accurate is that idea?
- Ingredients. Ingredients common to granola bars (oats, dried fruits, nuts, seeds) are nutritious in and of themselves, if not especially low-calorie, and some are significant sources of fiber.
- Sweeteners. But unlike granola cereal, granola bars have an intrinsic problem: They must somehow be held together. Honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup or agave syrup often functions as a binder, and that’s going to boost the sugar content (as is any dried fruit in your bar).
- Fat. Further, fat is frequently added to granola bars. Fat is a major carrier of flavor and adds a moister mouthfeel.
When you add up all the ingredients, granola bars can be relatively high in both calories and sugars. And the bars with nuts, added fat and/or peanut butter (a common granola bar flavor) will naturally be higher in fat than those containing solely oats and dried fruit.
Solutions To High-Calorie Bars
There are two solutions to this.
- Smaller Bars. The first is to make the bars in a smaller size, something commonly done by manufacturers of granola bars seen on supermarket shelves. While there’s no standard size for these bars, 34 or 35 grams per bar, around 1.2 ounces, was the size I saw most frequently. These bars tend to be in the 100 to 140 calorie range, with 25 to 45 of those calories from fat. It isn’t by chance that there are so many similarities between these bars. The large companies that manufacture them have done their research, and they understand that such figures are acceptable to American consumers.
- Portion Size. A few manufacturers, usually those who make bars found in natural food aisles or stores, take an opposite approach: They simply state that one bar equals two servings. I strongly oppose this tactic. I know no adult who would look at a two- or three-ounce granola bar and decide that such a product constitutes two servings. I’m not a big eater, and even I can’t do that. It’s time for these manufacturers to face the music and admit to themselves (and everyone else) that their granola bars simply aren’t a low-calorie food. Muschie’s High Energy Granola Bars state that one bar equals two servings, but at least the bars weigh in at five ounces each, so one serving is 2-1/2 ounces. That’s still not enough for some people, I’m sure, but at least it’s more reasonable.
Still A Good Snack Alternative
If you’re used to picking up a doughnut and coffee on your way to work or grabbing a candy bar as a snack, granola bars are likely a better alternative. (Then again, if you have to depend upon a granola bar to provide 35% of your daily value of fiber, you might want to re-think the way you eat altogether.) If you’re canoeing or hiking and want something to keep you going until dinner is ready at some far-off, indeterminate hour, a granola bar can be a fine choice.
But as a well-balanced meal, the majority of granola bars I’ve run across (even those that bill themselves as meal replacements) just won’t get the job done. Having said that, there are a number I tasted that I really enjoyed. If you eat a healthy diet and get in your exercise, there’s no reason that granola bars can’t be part of your life. And they might just add some nutrients and fiber into the bargain.