Tricked by Health Food – Energy Bars, Snack Bars, Protein Bars

This is the protein and energy bar section at my grocery store. A lot of variety,  but most are just candy in disguise.  To make these bars palatable,  I expect some manner of sweetener. Coconut sugar, dates, monk fruit, stevia, and erithritol are good choices.  High fiber tapioca syrup in small quantities seems to be okay because it’s more like a starchy binder. Cane sugar, honey, agave, and maple syrup can even be fine is small amounts, but typically, once you see these sweeteners,  the companies are just adding a bunch of sugar to make their bars like candy. When it comes to artificial sweeteners,  I avoid them because of research showing they cause insulin spikes. That’s stuff like sucralose and aspartame.  Natural alternatives like Stevia and monkfruit are great because they don’t impact blood sugar or insulin levels, and they have no calories. Finally, when it comes to the sugar alcohol erythritol, studies show it is totally fine to consume. Others like maltitol can cause an upset stomach. Xylitol is poisonous to dogs, so I don’t want it in my house. 

You will hear that the high sugar in these bars is to replenish glucose used by your muscles during a workout. But that is only useful for endurance athletes and intense and prolonged weight lifting, and even then, these bars don’t fit the needs of someone midworkout. Maybe during recovery, but only when a real meal isn’t available.  The standard spin class, 45 minute run, crossfit class, or workout session will be fueled by your regular diet.  My point here is to help you make informed decisions in your shopping by reading the food labels and understanding them.  And you can see, you have a lot of choices to make.

The first bar to jump at me is this Promax bar because it looks like candy. It has Oreos and ice cream on the label! It does have 20 grams of protein, so okay, it is a protein bar.

Now look at the label. That’s 30 grams of sugar. 2 1/2 tablespoons! Fat is only 5 grams, but it comes from Palm oil, which is bad for you and the environment. It is the replacement fat companies used when switching from hydrogenated shortening. It’s a solid fat and you shouldn’t eat it. The ingredient list has corn syrup, fructose, and sugar with soy and whey protein. Not what you should consider a redeeming combination of ingredients.  Might as well eat an egg white omelet for protein and grab a Snickers bar. It will taste better and be equally as bad for you. Ha!

Here is another one I just don’t understand. I see them sell a lot! 

Lenny and Larry's The Complete Cookie front label
It does say cookie right on the label.

It is marketed as a healthy cookie, lots of protein because that apparently is the new requirement for healthful food. 

Lenny and Larry's The Complete Cookie nutrition label
First thing, one package has two servings, so be sure to buy Ziploc bags to store the second cookie.

It frustrates me when a package that is clearly a single serving package has more than one serving. Remember when a 20 oz bottle of Coke was 2 1/2 servings? Like anyway saves the rest, so it can go flat. No one throws the extra Complete Cookie in their pocket for later. Companies are getting better about it, but watch out!

If you eat one of these cookies, you get 8 grams of protein, 6 grams of fat, and 15 grams of sugar at 190 calories. Not bad for one big cookie. Again, not health food; first and foremost, this is dessert. But, if you eat the package,  you get 380 calories and 30 grams of sugar. That’s a lot of calories and sugar when you think you are eating a health cookie after your workout. The 16 grams of protein doesn’t balance that out. Also, the fat is palm oil. Not good. Don’t fall for the hype.

So what about those bars that companies pass off as breakfast? They look good, have while grains, maybe some protein. Let’s look at Quaker.

Quaker Breakfast Bar Peanut Butter front of box
It looks like a health bar!

The front of the box shows 250 calories, only 2 grams of saturated fat, and 11 grams of sugar (almost a tablespoon). I know I go on about the sugar in this blog, but when your limit is 2 tablespoons a day, max, it is not a good idea to have half of that in your breakfast bar. Also, keep in mind that the big problem with added sugar is that it shows up in 74% of the items you see in the grocery store. So it will be incredibly easy for you to eat way more sugar than you should, without even meaning to.

Just like with cereal, you have a calorie issue here too. 250 calories is not enough for breakfast, so you will have to eat something else to start your day. Do you eat two bars? Have some sweetened yogurt? This puts you in a tough spot where you can easily find yourself being hungry and binging on the donuts at work.

Something else to watch: the label claims it fills you up. Another brand of these bars claims you get four hours of energy from their bar. So how does that work? In very simple terms, the measurement of energy in your food is the calorie count. If you expend 2400 calories by breathing, walking, exercising, sitting, etc., you replace that with the calories you eat.  If you divide the 2400 among three meals, you need 800 calories per meal.  Meaning 250 calories won’t fill you up or last four hours. These companies are using misleading language about the whole grains in their food to make everything sound more impressive. 

Recall the whole glycemic index post? The whole grains release energy over a long period of time, which is good, so potentially over a four hour period, that glucose is making its way into your cells.  However, this says nothing about the amount of glucose your body will be needing, which is why we have to tie in calories. 250 calories isn’t enough to power your body for four hours. So, the whole grains in the bar will provide you with slow release energy, but not enough to make it through your morning.

To make things more confusing, I read recently that the next diet fad will be Low Glycemic Index food, and food companies are ready to jump on it. Ingredients have low, medium, or high GI, but the entire product does too. You can offset high GI ingredients with low GI ingredients, like fat, and make a low GI product. A strawberry has high GI. Full fat Strawberry ice cream has low GI. That doesn’t mean the ice cream is better for you. It just means the sugar in the fruit will get to your blood faster than the sugar in the ice cream.

Case and point, look at the label for our bar.

Photo of Quaker Breakfast Bar Peanut Butter nutrition label
Palm oil is back. Invert sugarOligofructose?

Throw in 10 grams of fat, 36% of the total calories,  the GI lowers, and the energy released from the bar into your body stretches over a longer period. So a claim of sustained energy, or “fills you up,” is valid, just misleading because it doesn’t address the whole picture of calories you need to actually get through the morning.

And speaking of fat, palm oil is in the bar and in the sugary peanut butter. You’re not getting 10 grams of good fat. You get shortening. Other than that, some protein, some potassium,  and some iron. Not amazing. 6 grams of fiber, though, is great.

It’s frustrating because they could make this bar good for you. Drop the palm oil. Lower the sugar a lot, maybe using some coconut sugar.  With the great whole grain oats, wheat, and rice, you could have a fantastic snack bar.  

The next one isn’t good for you, and is really just offensive in its presentation as diet friendly.   

Kellogg's Special K Pastry Crisp Strawberry Box front label
100 calorie pastry diet food?

Everyone knows Special K markets to women who want to lose weight, so while this doesn’t specifically read diet food, the brand and the calorie count convey it.  100 calorie snack, 7 grams of sugar, perfect little snack in your day.  Now check out the ingredients.

Special K Strawberry Pastry Crisp Nutrition Label Photo
Notice the sugar, fructose, dextrose, and maltodextrin.

While the sugar is only 7 grams, once you factor in the white flour, dextrose,  and maltodextrin, you have a snack that will dump glucose into your bloodstream with a quickness. Followed by a sugar crash, great for dieters, right? Compare this label to the one below, paying attention to serving size.

Photo of Kellogg's Strawberry Pop Tarts Nutrition Label
Mystery Strawberry Pasty!

Special K is a 25 grams serving, while this is essentially double that at 52 grams. So if we compare apples to apples, or strawberries to strawberries, and cut the mystery serving weight in half, we can then compare the other data. Calories are 105, fat is 3 grams, sugar is 7 grams, protein is 1 gram, and carbs are 18.5 grams.  This has corn syrup, white flour, and dextrose, no maltodextrin.  Really, we are looking at pretty much the same numbers and ingredients.  What is it then?

Kellogg's Strawberry Pop-tarts front label photo
That’s called being tricked by business.

Are you surprised? All Kellogg’s did was cut the serving portion of their Pop-tarts in half, add some maltodextrin to make them a little worse for your blood sugar, and repackage them as Special K, diet food! Sure, dieting at its core is simply reducing your portion sizes,  so you get fewer calories, but no matter how you slice it, Pop-tarts aren’t good for you. You shouldn’t be eating them as part of your regular or weight-loss diet.  That means you shouldn’t eat Special K Pastry Crisps either because they are the same thing! Or, if you read this and say, damn it, I love Pop-tarts.  I’m going to eat one every once in a while,  don’t be tricked into eating Special K, thinking you are making a healthier choice. Just buy the Pop-tart.

You can find dozens of breakfast, energy, protein, and snack bars at the grocery store. The hard part is finding one that works for you. Here is one more that looks great for you but gets you with sugar again.

Nature Valley Blueberry Biscuits Photo of box front
Check out the whole grains! But 12 grams of sugar!

Another long lasting energy like I referenced earlier.  230 calories is too little for breakfast, not bad for a snack. Still, that’s a tablespoon of sugar in one serving. Would you knowingly put a tablespoonful of sugar in your mouth for a snack? Half your daily allowance? 

Nature Valley Blueberry Biscuits Photo of Nutrition Label
The ingredients are pretty solid.

It has a lot of whole grain with oats, barley,  and wheat. They use canola oil for the fat, so they have a neutral fat, meaning it isn’t bad for you,  but it also isn’t a beneficial fat.  No weird ingredients.  Yet, damn, sugar, honey, and tapioca syrup for sweeteners, 12 grams worth.

I totally get when you have one of these bars, you are going to find some sweetener.  Ideally, it is balanced out with Stevia, monkfruit,  or erithritol. Even better,  they use all fruit, coconut sugar, or agave to keep the glycemic load low.  Of course, this also comes with a caveat that these bars should fill an occasional caloric gap in your day. Better to have whole foods. 

I will wrap this up by mentioning some bars I have found and like.

  • Larabar Original: snack bar, just fruit and nuts, no added sugar 
  • Oatmega: protein bar, whey, low sugar, fish oil, monkfruit, fiber, whole grains
  • No Cow Bar: protein bar, vegan, no added sugar, very low sugar, monkfruit, Stevia, and erithritol. 
  • RXBar: protein bar, no added sugar,  fruit, nuts, egg whites.

Eat well!

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