Snack bars often appear to be nutritious ways to fuel up in the morning as you fly out the door or on the way to your Wednesday Zumba class, but some of that is just clever marketing. Slap the words “granola” and “whole grain” on any box, and suddenly everyone thinks they’re healthy. In reality, granola bars, meal replacement bars, and other similar chews can include high amounts of sugar, sodium, oil, and other not-so-healthy additives.
Take one yogurt-dipped granola bar: Yogurt and oats sound wholesome, but this bar actually contains 14 grams of sugar and 4 grams of fat. The American Heart Association recommends just 25 to 36 grams of sugar a day, so that single so-called healthy bar contains around half of your daily limit.
Plus, that seemingly nutritious bar is also lacking in other healthy nutrients, offering just 2 grams of protein and 1.5 grams of fiber. Um, by comparison, a Snickers bar contains 4 grams of protein and 1 gram of fiber.
But you don’t have to ditch snack bars altogether. And the right selection is for sure healthier than eating your favorite Halloween candy (if you know what to look for). Here’s what experts recommend for healthier snack bars that pack nutrition and convenience into one healthy-looking wrapper.
Your snack bar is low in sugar. Keep your snack bar under 8 grams of added sugar. (The naturally-occuring sugar from dried fruits are totally fine here.)
Your snack bar is high in fiber. Only 5 percent of Americans actually get the daily recommended amount of fiber every day. On average, Americans get about 15 grams per day—about half of the recommended 25 to 38 grams. Look for a bar with at least 10 percent of your daily value of fiber to get the benefits of improved satiation, healthy digestion, and a lowered risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Your snack bar isn’t packed with sodium. Too much salt in the bloodstream puts pressure on your blood vessels, which can increase your risk of heart disease. Americans get 75 percent of their sodium from processed and prepackaged foods—not the salt shaker—and these typically sweet bars can pack a surprising amount of sodium. (Here are more unexpected sources of sodium to look out for.) For a heart-healthy snack bar, limit sodium content to 140 mg.
Your snack bar is low in saturated fat. This “bad fat” can raise blood cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association. (Learn more about the types of fats and where to find them here.) A bar high in saturated fat may mean it’s made of unnecessary oil. Make sure 15 percent or less of a bar’s calories come from saturated fat.
Your snack bar is packed with other nutrients. Find a bar that offers 10 percent or more of at least one beneficial nutrient, like iron, protein, calcium, fiber, or vitamins A or C. If a bar seems like it’s offering little more than carbs and calories, it’s not as healthy as its package may claim.
Your snack bar has a short ingredients list. The best snack bars have minimal ingredients. (Think whole grains, dried fruit, and nuts.) These simple ingredients supply protein, fiber, vitamin E, magnesium, and potassium—nutrients that can give you the energy boost you’re looking for.