Granola bars make on-the-go eating efficient, but are they actually healthy? Usually not—even though most people think so. A 2016 New York Times survey of about 2,000 Americans and 672 nutritionists revealed that while more than 70% of Americans described granola bars as "healthy," less than a third of nutritional experts agreed.
People think they're healthy because they're often made with grains, which are high in fiber, and contain protein-rich nuts and dried fruit. But despite their health halo, many granola bars are full of added sugar, coated in chocolate and dressed up with a little protein powder—making them nothing more than a glorified candy bar. "I've seen bars with as much as 25 grams of added sugar, which is ludicrous," says Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian and strategic director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity.
However, it is possible to find a truly healthy granola bar (and other nutrition bars that don't contain granola specifically). "I definitely think the nutrition bar market has come a long way in the last few years," Bellatti says. "Now there are more whole food based bars that are nutrient dense."
Here are some tips for finding a truly healthy granola bar, as well as some specific brands that nutrition experts recommend.
Read the label
The best place to start is the ingredient list. Look for bars that feature simple foods: if the primary ingredients are foods like nuts, berries and fruits, rather than complicated ingredients with names you can't pronounce, you've likely found a bar with a good ratio of fiber, protein and healthy fats, says Bellatti.
Sometimes bars with basic ingredients have long lists, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “ The ingredient lists are long because Mother Nature doesn't tend to consolidate a whole meal's worth of nutrition into a single food,” says Keith Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System. “The ingredients may be all good, but there can be a lot of added vitamins and minerals, and high protein levels will probably involve added protein concentrates.” While experts say getting protein naturally from foods like quinoa and chicken can offer extra nutrients and fiber, protein powders can be more easily added to foods like smoothies and bars. Just keep in mind that not all protein powders provide the entire range of essential amino acids that natural forms of protein can.
Pay attention to sugar
It's also important to track where the sugar in each bar is coming from. Bars that rely on sweetness from whole foods like dates, rather than table sugar, artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup, are typically healthier. But it may be tricky to distinguish between sugar from whole ingredients like dried fruit, and added sugars. For most products, the amount of “sugars” listed on the nutrition facts labels don’t distinguish between the two. That’s going to change, but for now, calling out added sugar on a label is voluntary. So “if there’s a bar and the ingredients are dates, almonds, chia seeds, coconut and granola, you are getting nutrition and fiber without added sugar,” says Bellatti.
Fat is not your foe
“ Don’t be afraid of fat, but focus on the source,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, a registered dietitan and author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet. “Some granola bars are high in fat, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid them.” Palinski-Wade says unsaturated fats coming from plant-based sources such as nuts and seeds can provide health benefits while making the granola bar more satisfying. “Just watch out for bars that contain more than 20% Daily Value of saturated fat,” she says.
Make sure the bar is filling
“A granola bar that contains mostly refined grains and added sugars will digest rapidly, leaving you hungry,” says Palinski-Wade . That’s why you should look for a bar that’s a good source of fiber, protein, and healthy fat, which will keep you feeling full for longer.
Palinski-Wade says she tells her clients to use the “rule of 5.” That means looking for bars that contain at least 5 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, and 5 grams of unsaturated fat. “This mix will usually result in a filling option,” she says.
Here are five especially healthy bars—listed in no particular order—that meet the above requirements and are recommended by Bellatti, Palinski-Wade, and Ayoob. (The experts do not have any financial relationships with the bars they recommended).
RXBARs: The bars are around 210-220 calories each and have about six easily recognized ingredients, like nuts and dates. They contain a lot of protein, which comes from egg whites. But they contain don't have added sugar, gluten, soy or dairy.
LÄRABARs: “Although these bars may look high in sugar at first glance, the majority of the sugar comes naturally from the dates which make up one of just six simple ingredients in these bars,” says Palinski-Wade. The bars are also high in healthy fat and fiber, which will help you feel full while still providing sweet flavor.
KIND: KIND healthy grain bars are high in nutrients, and while they do contain a little added sugar, it's typically low, says Ayoob. For example, a KIND cinnamon oat bar contains just 5 grams of added sugar.
CORE Foods bars: Bellatti says this hearty bar made entirely of whole foods is his top choice. They come in flavors like walnut banana and sunflower carob, are made from 100% plant products, and are gluten-free, organic, and vegan. They're higher in calories than other bars, at over 300 calories per bar, but can be eaten as a meal. Core bars are also perishable because they do not use any preservatives (no salt, syrup, oils or natural flavors). That makes them a bit more high maintenance, since they need to be refrigerated, but the added freshness might be worth the hassle for some people.
This Bar Saves Lives: “Made of mostly of nuts and seeds, these bars contain little added sugar while providing a good source of fiber,” says Palinski-Wade , “In addition, every bar purchased helps to feed a child in need, so you can feel good enjoying these bars in more ways than one.”
The bars range in pricing, from around $15 to $35 for a box of about a dozen. If some of the prices seem excessive, or it's a challenge to find the bars (you can buy the ones above online in bulk), you can get the same filling effects for fewer calories by eating a handful of almonds or an apple. “Bars aren’t the be-all and end-all,” says Ayoob. “They’re another tool in the toolbox, that’s all.”