We’ve often heard that energy bars or snack bars are no more than candy in a healthy-looking wrapper. While legitimately nutritious alternatives to common candy are available, most of the items consumed as snacks by children and adults alike were originally developed as meal replacements or athletic supplements, not for general between-meal eating. Yet that is exactly how they are now being marketed, packaged and purchased.
Splashy labels like “All Natural!” and “Whole Grain!” play across box fronts with strategic punches of the latest wonder-food: cereal bars now have pomegranate hidden away in a sea of fillers, binders, artificial flavor and “Red Dye # 40” , while a “yogurt coating” (made of sugar, palm kernel oil, maltodextrin, yogurt powder [non-fat milk, whey protein concentrate, yogurt cultures], non-fat milk, soy lecithin and natural flavor) enhances a popular trail mix concoction.
While there may be a few desiccated oat flakes and a vitamin or two under the wrapper, most run-of-the-mill granola bars are more sugar than sunshine-kissed fruit. And you don’t always get more nutritional bang for your buck in the snack food world, either. The organic, gluten free and non-GMO bars look like healthy alternatives to the chocolate sitting next to them in the checkout line, but don’t forget – they’re still in the candy rack. Your $2 or more per five-bite bar may earn you a handful of organic raisins and possibly some agave nectar, but the truth lies in the label. A “Berry Almond” flavoured LunaBar still contains three different sugars, added flavourings and a few other preservatives , and the popular BumbleBar still relies on added sweetener as its main component .
As long as in-between-meal items are small portions of nutrient-rich foods, eating frequently over the course of the day (up to three “meals” and three “snacks”) is actually a healthy habit. Snacks don’t have to be wrapped in fancy paper to be a nutritious addition to your menu – but the first step is to really realize what a “snack” should be.
Ideally, anything eaten as a “snack” – bar or otherwise – should be less than 200 calories, with under 7 grams of fat (or 30% calories from fat), and over 3 grams of fiber. Keeping the sugar content to a minimum is also ideal, especially if the main source listed in the ingredients is not from whole fruits. Fruit juice concentrates, honey, agave nectar and malted barley or rice are simply fancy forms of sugar syrup. Considering that the much-maligned corn syrup is just as natural in origin as agave, so an otherwise wholesome concoction with corn syrup listed near the end of the ingredient list should not necessarily be ignored.
Nor should you eschew fat entirely when choosing a snack bar. As long as it’s from a nutrient-dense source such as nuts, nut butters or seeds, a small amount of fat keeps you full and helps you absorb the rest of the nutrients the bar (hopefully) has. When shopping, a good rule is the fewer and more pronounceable the ingredients are, the better. LÄRABARs have less than 10 ingredients – all whole foods – and even though the BumbleBar is a bit heavy on the added sugar, its ingredient list doesn’t take a PhD to understand.
The obvious solution to avoiding all these label games is to make your own snacks. Home-made snacks can be as complicated as your own baked cereal bars (see the recipe below) or as simple as a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts. For example, an apple and half an ounce of almonds clocks in at 164 calories, 7.5 grams of fat, 5.5 grams of fiber and less than one gram of sugar . You also get a healthy dose of vitamin E and magnesium, which help keep you calm and content, while the fiber and fat prevent further snack attacks. These whole foods also take longer to eat than any snack bar, so your stomach has a chance to register the mini-meal and rev up your metabolism (and energy levels) for another hour – without the energy bar hangover.
Chewy “Everything” Snack Bars
Everything in these chewy gluten-free bars can be sourced at your local bulk food store for much less than a health food emporium! This recipe makes approximately 16 bars.
¼ cup (dry) buckwheat kasha
¼ cup cool water
2 cups puffed millet or quinoa cereal (such as Nature’s Path)
½ cup slivered almonds
¼ cup dried cherries
¼ cup dried cranberries
¼ cup unsalted sunflower seeds
¼ cup unsalted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
¼ cup hulled hemp seed (also called hemp hearts)
¼ cup whole flax seed
3 tbsp. sesame seeds
1 tbsp. ground flax seed
¼ cup psyllium fiber husks
1 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ cup dark corn syrup
1/3 cup dark (buckwheat or similar) honey
2 tbsp. natural almond butter
1 tbsp. fresh-grated ginger
1. Preheat oven to 300°F and line a 9″ x 13″ pan with parchment.
2. Combine kasha and water in a microwaveable dish, cover and microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.
3. In a bowl, combine cooked kasha, puffed millet, almonds, cherries, cranberries, seeds, psyllium fiber husks and cocoa powder.
4. In a small saucepan, heat corn syrup, honey, almond butter and ginger, stirring until smooth and liquefied.
5. Pour over the cereal mixture and fold in, stirring well to coat everything. It may not appear as if everything will be incorporated, but it will blend!
6. Scrape into the prepared pan, and with moistened or lightly greased hands, press down firmly into an even layer.
7. Bake for 1 hour, covering pan with foil after 30 minutes.
8. Cool completely, then lift out of the pan and cut into bars.
9. Wrap individually in wax paper or cling wrap and keep at room temperature for up to five days or in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.
Total Fat 7.4 g
Saturated Fat 0.7 g
Polyunsaturated Fat 3.6 g
Monounsaturated Fat 2.8 g
Cholesterol 0.0 mg
Sodium 15.6 mg
Potassium 117.9 mg
Total Carbohydrate 22.1 g
Dietary Fiber 3.6 g
Sugars 12.0 g
Protein 4.6 g
Vitamin A 1.2 %
Vitamin B-6 2.0 %
Vitamin E 11.6 %
Calcium 4.0 %
Copper 9.3 %
Folate 2.3 %
Iron 8.4 %
Magnesium 7.2 %
Manganese 12.5 %
Niacin 2.2 %
Pantothenic Acid 1.7 %
Phosphorus 6.4 %
Riboflavin 3.1 %
Selenium 2.8 %
Thiamin 1.8 %
Zinc 3.7 %