A dietitian's take on health bars – are they actually healthy?

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Energy bars, protein bars, fruit and nut bars, granola bars, cereal bars, carb free bars, etc., etc.

Living in our fast-paced world, where convenience is key, these bars offer a quick and easy, on-the-go snack, or even meal replacement for many of us.

However, how do these bars weigh up when it comes to incorporating them into a healthy diet?

It can be a challenge to categorise bars as “good” or “bad”, because it largely depends on our reason for consuming them. 

It's important to assess the products by checking the contents on the label and not believing the manufacturer's health claims.

Your selection should also be based on your goals. A high calorie protein bar may be a good choice if you train regularly and want to increase your muscle mass, but not ideal if you're watching your weight.

More specifically, for a long-distance athlete, a higher carbohydrate and sugar content may be exactly what they need during an endurance race, while higher levels of protein may be ideal for a body builder trying to bulk up.

How to choose wisely

Ingredients are listed in descending order, with the most abundant ingredient listed first. If sugar is one of the top three ingredients, you'll know that the bar is high in sugar. 

Many health bars are highly processed products, devoid of nutritious ingredients, while others are simple blends of nuts or other healthy ingredients without any added sugar, artificial colours or other additives.

After checking the list of ingredients, move on to the nutritional information panel.

The following components are important to consider:

Energy (kilojoules): This value is important if you're trying to manage your weight or body fat. Many bars are high in kilojoules (around 1 000kJ) – close to what a chocolate bar contains or equal to the kilojoules in three and a half slices of bread. One medium apple weighing around 150g contains just 340kJ. 

Sugar: Words like sucrose, glucose syrup, honey, fructose and golden syrup all indicate sugar. Those with a sugar content of more than 23g per 100g are considered high in sugar. A challenge when looking at sugar content is that the labels do not distinguish between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar. For example, a bar that is made of just blended dates and nuts contains 39g of sugar per 100g. This is why it is important to look at both the ingredients list and nutritional panel.

Total fat: According to the South African food labelling legislation, a product is low fat when the total fat content is below 3g per 100g. It is important to consider the type of fat, as saturated fat increases cholesterol levels and inflammation, and ideally fat should be predominantly unsaturated. As with sugar, it's important to look at the ingredients list as well because some bars made with just healthy ingredients, like nuts, may still exceed this cut-off.

Fibre: The higher the fibre content, the better the satiety value and benefit for your digestive health. We consider a product high in fibre if the content is 6g or more per 100g.

It may be difficult to find bars that meet all these criteria. We went shopping to look at some of the bars available and the list below provides some examples.

Be cautious of health claims

The descriptions and claims on some bars can be misleading. Claims such as “guilt free”, “gluten free”, “made with whole grains”, and “sugar free” all give the impression that the bar is healthy.

The reality is that it may still contain many ingredients that are far from desirable in terms of nourishment.

Many consumers perceive these bars to be healthy because they contain some healthy ingredients, such as seeds, nuts, oats or added vitamins or minerals. However, remember that some of the other added ingredients that are not so healthy, such as the fats and sugar, may outweigh the benefits of these, and some bars may still contain more sugar and kilojoules than a chocolate bar.

A final word

Health bars cannot replace the nutrients found in fresh, unprocessed foods and snacks, and it is advisable not to rely on them too often. If your diet already provides adequate energy, protein and nutrients, eating too many of them may add unwanted kilojoules. 

For some of us, however, health bars can be helpful in meeting nutritional requirements. Therefore, if you decide to include them in your diet, choose wisely.

The following five bars come up tops:

  • Primal protein bar
  • USN Trust crunch bar
  • Future Life high protein bar
  • Jungle nuts energy bar "Lite" 
  • Nakd cashew cookie bar.

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