Something as easy as a snack bar shouldn't be complicated, but the rows and varieties of options available tells a different story. Just take a look at this photo from my local grocery store:
Overwhelmed yet? Yeah, me too. I've listed the top five tips for choosing a snack bar, so the next time you're in the store use this list to find your go-to options.
Number 1: Narrow Your Category - Meal or Snack?
There're two categories of bars - meal bars and snack bars. Meal bars are those with 300 - 400+ calories. If you're looking for a meal bar then this list isn't for you. And if your meal consists of just a bar then let's chat (where are your veggies??). Also of note: this list is for the average person - not the professional athlete, body builder, or others requiring more calories than the average population. For the rest of us though, a bar of more than 300 - 400 calories is closer to a meal than it is a snack. Looking for a snack bar? Proceed to number 2.
Number 2: Added Sugar
Bars coated in yogurt flavoring or chocolate are pretty standard on store shelves. It gets even more confusing when those same bars are boasting “protein plus!” or “antioxidant rich!” on the label. Ignore the front of the box and flip straight to the back where the good stuff is – the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list. You’ll use these two resources for the rest of your steps, so get familiar with them. First, check the grams of sugar. A good rule of thumb is 10g or less for the entire bar, not half, so check the serving size. Another important consideration is where that sugar is coming from. Is it added sugar in the form of brown rice syrup (a standard in snack bars) or is it sugar from fruit such as dates? There is a difference! Added sugars like brown rice syrup are unfortunately plentiful in the American diet. Women should have no more than 6 tsp of added sugar per day and men no more than 9 tsp. That’s 24g for women and 36g for men (1 tsp sugar = 4g). Until the updates to the Nutrition Facts Panel are put into play then determining the grams of added sugar will continue to require a closer look at the ingredients list. Consider where the sugar is coming from, even within that 10g limit.
Number 3: Keep an Eye on Saturated Fat
Can of worms – officially opened. Is saturated fat as detrimental to your health as once thought? No. Is it something you should eat in excess? Nope. However, what's more important is that saturated fat isn't replaced with refined carbohydrates (read: added sugars), so see number 2. There is still a limit to how much saturated fat is considered healthy for the average person and making sure you’re not going overboard in your post-workout bar or snack is an important consideration. Limit saturated fat in a snack bar to 5g or less. I’m not saying less is better here either. Fat is known to aid in satiety and most likely, a bar with some fat probably tastes better. Don’t let the total fat category freak you out either. Total fat is encompassing of all fats in the food, so not just saturated fat. It includes mono- and polyunsaturated fats as well which are considered heart-healthy fats. Some sources, like nuts and seeds, are a standard in bars which is why the total fat can sometimes be 10g or more. Just keep that saturated fat in check. Read more here.
Number 4: Know Your Ingredients
There really is no number you can put on an ingredient list to call a bar better-for-you. As with any packaged food, ingredients vary and one brand may have 25 ingredients that are all wholesome, familiar, whole foods while another may have 5 ingredients all consisting of things you’d rather not eat. I encourage you to check the ingredient list and make sure you know what you’re eating. Does the bar have additives to modify the color? What about added sugar as we talked about earlier? Are there partially hydrogenated oils in the bar (trans fat)? Take a closer look and know what you’re eating.
Number 5: Love the Taste!
Bars are convenient snacks for the car, gym bar, purse, desk drawer, etc., making them ideal for preventing ravenous hunger, but what’s the point in choking down a bar just because it has your 20g of post-workout protein if you hate the taste? Eat a turkey sandwich or a greek yogurt if that’s the case. Choose a bar that you enjoy eating and one that makes you feel great after you eat it. Realize that some days you may need a bar that’s higher in calories because you’re hungry after a workout or you know you’ll have a later lunch and need a substantial snack in the morning. Other days you may want something lighter or sometimes you’ll only want half of the bar. There are no hard and fast rules here, but the truth is you have to enjoy what you’re eating.
Curate Salted Decadence Bars – the taste is incredible (as in I would eat these all day if I could) and they’re still only 10g sugar
Thrive GoMacro Bars – yum, yum, yum! And all are under 10g sugar
KIND Nuts & Spices – delicious flavor combinations and all around 5g sugar