April 16, 2015

How to Tell if a Nutrition Bar Is Actually Healthy

You may have heard the recent news that the FDA sent a warning letter to KIND Snacks. The agency's main beef with some of the company's bars? They call themselves "healthy"—even though certain flavors contain more than 2.5 grams of saturated fat (and the FDA's definition of being "low in saturated fat" is having less than one gram per typical serving and no more than 15 percent of the calories coming from saturated fat). The FDA also took issue with the fact that the KIND Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein and KIND Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants products use the "plus" symbol as part of their name without adhering to the agency's standards for that term. 
KIND of course responded on its blog in defense of its bars, pointing out that it uses real food as ingredients, some of which are naturally high in saturated fat. But the whole thing got us wondering—how can you tell if a nutrition bar is really, well, nutritious? We went to Alexandra Caspero, R.D., founder of Delicious Knowledge, to see what she looks for when picking them out on her own. Here are her criteria for a grab-and-go bar that's actually healthy:

If you're eating the bar as a snack, you want it to be about 200 cals—although Caspero says she will go up to 250 if the bar is fruit- and nut-based. "Those items tend to be more caloric but are also nutrient-dense," she says. "There is a huge difference to me in 200 calories of cashews versus 200 calories of puffed rice." If your bar is standing in for your lunch, you can go up to 400 or 500 calories. "For my busy clients, I sometimes recommend adding to the nutrition bars for a full meal," says Caspero. For example, having an apple, string cheese, or yogurt and a bar made of whole foods can make a great breakfast or lunch.
Four to five grams of protein will help keep you satisfied if you're eating a bar as a snack. If you're having one as a meal replacement, look for 15 or more grams of this filling nutrient. 
"I look at the ingredients list first on this one to determine where the fiber is coming from," says Caspero. "Is it from inulin [a component food manufacturers sometimes use to up their products' fiber content] or dried fruit? There are a few bars out there masquerading as 'health bars' because they have added fiber. Just because they list six-plus grams doesn't mean they're a good choice. I like to see three-plus grams from [whole-food ingredients] for fiber."


"I hate to sound like a broken record, but honestly, ingredients are so, so important," says Caspero. If the fat is coming from oil or nuts, Caspero's okay with the fat count—and even the saturated fat count—being a little higher. "For my nut-based bars, 10 to 11 grams of fat is a good range, with about two grams of saturated fat," she says. "For others, five to six grams is a good range to look for."
If the sweet stuff is coming from dried fruits like dates, cranberries, and raisins, you'll be getting extra nutrients along with it—so 10 to 12 grams of sugar is okay. But if glucose, honey, or agave are high on the list of ingredients, you might want to skip the bar altogether (or at least make sure it packs no more than six to seven grams of sugar).  


Nutrition bars in general tend to be pretty low in sodium, especially if they're made from whole foods. Caspero suggests picking a bar with no more than 200 milligrams—or 100 milligrams if you have a medical condition that requires you monitor your sodium intake really closely.

Still, Caspero doesn't think a bar that falls out of range for any one of these categories should necessarily be off-limits. "I like to look at food in a larger picture, not just nutrient by nutrient," she says. "The FDA requires that 'healthy' can only be used if the food has less than three grams of fat or one gram of saturated fat per serving. It's a good guideline, but it doesn't take into account that some foods are contradictory. [For example,] nuts are a really healthy food, but they have fat and to a lesser extent, saturated fat. Since KIND Snacks are primarily nut-based, they contain nutritious fats that exceed the amount allowed under the FDA's standard. Regardless of this change, I will still recommend their snacks to my clients as they are chock-full of nutritious ingredients like nuts, whole grains, and seeds."

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