Cracking the Bar Code: How to Buy a Healthy Granola Bar

Granola bars are one of those foods that claim to be healthy. But unfortunately, if you take a hard look at the label, that glow of goodness can crumble. Most bars start with a handful of wholesome ingredients, like oats, nuts, and seeds. But they can get into a sticky situation with syrup (read: sugar). Roll in a handful of chocolate chips, and those nutrition facts start climbing into dessert territory. “Granola bars can hide surprising amounts of sugar and fat, so it’s really important to read the nutrition facts and the ingredient list,” says Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging. “Otherwise, you might as well be eating a cookie.”

That said, it’s hard to beat the convenience of a bar! So if granola bars are one of your go-to snacks, do your best to buy a good one. Flip over that box, smooth out that wrapper, and start scanning the fine print. Here’s how to make smart snacking choices.

Nix Iffy Ingredients

The best snacks set the bar by keeping it simple. Ingredient lists should be short and you shouldn’t need a PhD in chemistry in order to read them. Make sure minimally processed oats, nuts, and seeds are at the top of the list.

Avoid Added Sugar

Some brands boast 5 grams of sugar or less, which might be as sweet as it gets. But Ansel clarifies that what you really want to avoid is added sugar. “I’m less concerned with the total number of grams as I am the source,” she says. Brown rice syrup and agave nectar are just as bad as sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, in terms of giving you a rush and crash. “Dried fruit contains natural sugars, but it still supplies a little bit of fiber and nutrients,” says Ansel. To figure out if sugar is mostly natural or added, read the ingredients list. Dried fruit should appear before sugar or syrup (or added sugar by any other name!).

Get a Few Grams of Fiber

The whole point of chewing on oats is to get good fiber, which will keep you satisfied until your next meal. The National Academies recommend eating 25 to 38 grams of fiber every day, so if your snacks aren’t contributing, that’s a red flag. A good guideline is at least 3 grams per serving. Ideally, that fiber is coming from whole food sources, like oats, other whole grains, or nuts, rather than additives, like inulin or chicory root extract, which can be hard on a sensitive stomach in large quantities.

If you’re kind of crafty, you may also wonder—how about homemade? Making your own bars from scratch is a great way to dodge processed ingredients, but you still have to keep an eye on the sticky stuff! Most recipes rely on honey, maple syrup, and nut butters to bind the dry ingredients together, and that quickly drives up sugar and fat. Run the numbers on a recipe before making it a favorite. For quick kitchen math, you probably don’t want to munch on more than 1 teaspoon of syrup and 2 tablespoons of nut butter per serving.

You may never catch a nutritionist handing her kid a traditional, chewy, chocolaty granola bar. But there are a few brands trying to offer better choices. Ansel actually prefers grain and nut bars, which she considers a slightly different category. “Personally, I don’t give my family granola bars, but we do enjoy other snack bars, like Kashi Chewy Nut Butter BarsNativas Organics Superfood + Snack Bars, and Kind Healthy Grains Bars.” Still, even “natural” bars, which tend to have fewer artificial ingredients, can sneak in added sugar. So the best snacking advice is to think of granola bars as a treat for special occasions, and reach for fresh fruits and veggies, instead. Take a bite out of an apple, a cup of carrots, or a small handful of nuts, and you’ll never have to worry about added sugars.

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