There are two classes of products that drive me absolutely crazy, because they are marketed as healthy – and are often marketed to athletes – but most are clearly anything but. One is sports drinks, most of which are loaded with GMOs, sugar, artificial colorings, and food additives. The other is the subject of today’s post: power bars.
Since these two things are popular grab and go items, especially during the summer months, I’ve chosen to focus on them for this swap and the next.
So, have you looked at a power bar label lately? Ugh. Power bars are a perfect example of the clash between conflicting nutritional theories! You have the vegan bars, that often contain processed soy as a main ingredient (YUCK!), the candy bar-like power bars, that are chock full of sugar and GMOs (ICK!), and the more Paleo-like, handful of real ingredients kind of bars (YES!).
Unfortunately, the supermarkets, and even more natural ones, like Whole Foods, often offer mostly the kind that are not much healthier than candy bars, if at all. But there are certainly diamonds in the rough, as I will bring to your attention in just a bit (feel free to skip ahead if you don’t want to hear the ugly truth about some of these bars).
First, I just have to say that the thing I can’t stand the most about food industry marketing is when products are deceptively marketed as healthy when the fine print (that many don’t read) clearly indicates they are NOT. I mean, really soy protein isolate?
That’s the main ingredient in the bar that ranks the highest in a Google search: PowerBar brand. I chose to look at PowerBar ProteinPlus 30g Chocolate Brownie, because athletes looking for a quick, easy source of protein will select one that highlights the high protein content like this one does. Here are the ingredients, according to the web site:
TriSource Protein Blend (soy protein isolate, calcium caseinate, whey protein isolate), maltitol syrup, chocolate flavored coating (sugar, fractionated palm kernel oil, cocoa powder, whey, nonfat milk, soy lecithin, natural flavor), cane invert syrup, fructose syrup, oligofructose (from chicory root), soy crisps (soy protein isolate, tapioca starch, salt), alkalized cocoa powder, whole oats (contains wheat), roasted almonds, high oleic canola oil, and less than 2% of: chocolate, water, soy lecithin, natural flavor, sugar, dextrose, caramel color, peanuts
The items in red are all very common food allergens, first of all. Pumping yourself up with so many is a recipe for the development of food sensitivities for sure. Not cool. To make matters worse, ALL of the red ingredients, plus the orange ones, are very likely from genetically modified (GMO sources). That means you’re eating ingredients that have been doused with a “probable human carcinogen,” the herbicide, glyphosate. GMO soy is especially concerning, as it’s also suspected of contributing to the development of food allergies AND hormonal problems (as is all processed soy). (source 1) (source 2) (source 3) (source 4)
Shall I continue? I won’t even bother to get into the mysterious additives and “natural flavor.” Let’s put these back on the shelf and move on!
Honestly, I didn’t even have to read through all of those ingredients, because the first warning sign that this bar was not a good choice was the very long list of unrecognizable ingredients. I would have put it back just by that one indicator.
Now let’s look at one of my old favorites: a chocolate chip Clif Bar. Here are the ingredients:
Organic Brown Rice Syrup, ClifPro® (Soy Rice Crisps [Soy Protein Isolate, Rice Flour, Barley Malt Extract], Organic Roasted Soybeans, Organic Soy Flour), Organic Rolled Oats, Chocolate Chips (Dried Cane Syrup, Unsweetened Chocolate‡, Cocoa Butter‡, Soy Lecithin, Vanilla Extract), Organic Cane Syrup, ClifCrunch® (Organic Oat Fiber, Apple Fiber, Inulin [Chicory Extract], Organic Milled Flaxseed, Organic Psyllium), Organic Date Paste, Organic Soy Butter (Organic Roasted Soybeans, Organic Soybean Oil, Salt), Organic Sunflower Oil, Molasses Powder, Sea Salt, Natural Flavors, Cinnamon. ALLERGEN STATEMENT: CONTAINS SOY. MAY CONTAIN TRACES OF MILK, PEANUTS, WHEAT, AND TREE NUTS.
This product also contains the red flag of a long list of ingredients, although at least some of them are organic, and most are recognizable. So, this is a better choice, but not the best choice.
Like the PowerBar above, it contains many common allergens, and a lot of processed soy. At least it’s not GMO (if it’s organic), but the so rice crisps are not, and are the second ingredient. I did see a disclaimer on the Clif site that it sources soy that is NOT GMO, but there seems to be nothing stated on the ingredient label to indicate that. Although I did take the info off the their web site, and not off of an actual label, which might indicate that.
The main concern here is the main ingredient: organic brown rice syrup. Not only is it a sweetener, but it’s one that might contain high levels of arsenic, as per this article in Food Safety News.
In case you haven’t heard already, all kinds of rice have the possibility of being contaminated with high levels of it; it’s not just this additive. And it doesn’t matter if the rice source is organic or not! Here’s an article from Consumer Reports on that.
Even without the arsenic, why is a sweetener the main ingredient? There are 23 grams of sugar in one bar! That’s quite a lot for something that’s supposed to be a healthy choice, and pretty much a full day’s sugar allowance in one shot!
It makes me sad that something I used to think was healthy is so NOT, but it’s better than many of the other alternatives.
Now let’s look at a bar that has been marketed as a much healthier choice, a Kind Cranberry Almond + Antioxidants with Macadamia Nuts bar. Here are the ingredients:
Almonds, dried cranberries (cranberries, sugar), macadamias, honey, non GMO glucose, crisp rice, chicory root fiber, sunflower oil. VITAMINS: Vitamin A (Vit. A Acetate), Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid), Vitamin E (D-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate).
Vitamins and Minerals
Vit. A (50%), Vit. C (50), Calcium (4%), Iron (4%), Vitamin E (50%),Vit. B1 (4%), Vit. B2 (8%), Vit. B3 (4%), Vit. B6 (2%), Folate (2%), Selenium (2%), Phosphorus (8%), Magnesium (10%), Zinc (4%), Copper (10%), Manganese (30%)
Contains tree nuts. May contain nut shell fragments.
A shorter list of pretty recognizable ingredients is good, but interestingly, NO organic ones. That’s puzzling. What concerns me is why is there sugar added to the cranberries (and is it GMO?), and why the added glucose, which is at least non GMO? At least the bar only contains 13 grams of sugar, but it is a lot smaller than your average power bar. And the glucose syrup is better than agave syrup, which contains too much fructose.
Arsenic in the rice is somewhat of a concern here as well as mentioned above. Sunflower oil, or vegetable oil, I’m not crazy about, either. That’s another post for another day.
And why are vitamins added? Usually that happens when a food is highly processed and lacks vitamins that naturally are in real ingredients. So why are they needed here?
So, sorry Alicia Silverstone. I like you, but I’m not loving this particular Kind bar.
What’s a concerned power bar eater to do?
I don’t really eat power bars all that often, to be honest, and it was my daughter who found one with just a handful of real ingredients a few years ago, and she’s been eating them ever since. They’re not organic, but you know what you’re getting. They are like trail mix in a bar, pretty much.
Have you heard of Larabars? I picked the Chocolate Chip cookie one to look at, to compare to the similar Clif Bar.
Drum roll, please….
The ingredients are:
Cashews, dates, chocolate chips (unsweetened chocolate, cocoa butter, vanilla), sea salt
That’s it! 4 real ingredients. And while unfortunately, they are not organic, they are labeled as:
Gluten Free • Dairy Free • Non-GMO • Vegan • Kosher
None of 3 of the top 8 common allergens: gluten, dairy, and eggs! And no GMO is the next best alternative to organic.
Not a perfect choice, but MUCH BETTER than any of the previous alternatives. Right?
The only thing is that dates DO have a lot of natural sugar, so those of low/no sugar diets need to be keep that in mind. There are 16 grams of sugar in one bar, but it’s not refined like all the other ones are!
Onward and upward.
A couple of years ago, we discovered a very similar choice, but an organic bar. And ironically, it’s made by Clif Bar! Isn’t that funny? Well, these big food companies realize that people are willing to pay more for organic (rightly so), and there is a lot of demand for such products.
So, let’s look at the ingredients of a Kit’s Organic Dark Chocolate Coconut Bar:
Organic Dates, Organic Almonds, Organic Unsweetened Dark Chocolate, Organic Coconut, Organic Virgin Coconut Oil, Sea Salt. ALLERGEN STATEMENT: Contains almonds and coconut. May contain traces of other tree nuts.
These contain 15 grams of natural sugar from the dates only, but no GMOs, none of 7 of the 8 top allergens, and none of the synthetic pesticides that are used to produce conventional ingredients.
And now for my favorite: a Thunderbird Energetica Cashew Fig Carrot bar.
Organic Dates, Organic Cashews, Organic Figs, Carrots, Organic Nutmeg, Vanilla, Pink Bolivian Rose Salt.
Very similar to the Kit’s Organic Bar, but with 26 grams for sugar (11 grams more), since it contains dates AND figs. Interestingly, the the Thunderbird bar contains 2 grams LESS fiber, and the same amount of protein. So it seems that the Kit’s Organic bar is the better choice. I had never compared them before!
Still, the Thunderbird Energetica Cashew Fig Carrot bars are much healthier than Fig Newtons, and a much better power bar choice in general.
Certified Gluten Fee, Soy Free, Vegan, Agave Free, Refined Sugar Free, Non GMO Project Verified, and have a compostable wrapper! So, it’s a great choice for athletes who could use some extra carbs after a workout.
Need a bar that’s higher in protein?
My daughter is a college student, and does a lot of strength training via weight lifting, and so she likes the next two high protein options as well:
Rise Almond Honey Protein+ Bars, for those who can tolerate dairy. They contain 20 grams of protein for those who are very active, or who need to have keep a source of protein on hand due to a busy lifestyle.
ALMONDS, HONEY, PROTEIN WHEY ISOLATE
3 real ingredients. They are not organic, but non GMO, soy free, gluten free, peanut free and kosher. (Not Non GMO Project Verified or certified allergen free, though).
Please note these are not organic, and the whey is not specified as being from grass fed cows, but for an easy, on-the-go protein source, these are a good occasional choice.
And last, but certainly not least (before we get to homemade options):
Epic bars, for those who want a high protein bar without all the nuts and dates. These bars are made from high quality, 100% grass fed beef, buffalo, or lamb, or humanely raised turkey (seeking a pasture based turkey source, but not available yet). They also contain more protein and less sugar than the date based nut bars above.
A great alternative to Epic bars is Epic Bites. They are like small pieces of jerky, but extra flavorful and not as hard to chew. My teenage son loves the 100% Grass Fed Beef Steak bites, with cranberries, and the non GMO, Certified Humane Chicken Meat ones are very tasty (sweetened with currants) as well. The bites contain less protein per serving, but less sugar as well.
Nut allergic eaters take note: some Epic bars and bites contain nuts and other don’t. The Bison Bacon Cranberry bars and the Beef Steak bites do not. Please always double check the ingredient label every time you purchase, if you have a severe allergy.
You could actually make your own trail mix with various nuts, seeds, unsweetened coconut, and Epic Bites, if you preferred. That’s a good way to reduce your nut intake, as too many nuts can be a bad thing, as most are heavy on omega 6 fat and phytic acid, which can actually decrease mineral absorption. (source)
Energy Bars with Soaked & Dehydrated Nuts
To increase digestibility of nuts, many people soak and dehydrate, or sprout them before eating them. Here’s one bar that contains raw, soaked and dehydrated nuts! It’s not on the label, but the company confirmed with me over the phone that their nuts and seeds are soaked and dehydrated, and the latter is indicated on their web site. I can’t wait to try these, but I had to order them since they are not available locally – yet.
Organic Sesame Seeds, Organic Sunflower Seeds, Organic Pumpkin Seeds, Organic Cashews, Organic Dark Chocolate* [organic sugar, organic unsweetened chocolate, organic cocoa butter, organic vanilla beans, organic soy lecithin], Organic Pecans, Organic Macadamia Nuts, Organic Flaxseeds, Raw Honey, Celtic Sea Salt® *Dark Chocolate is a heated ingredient, whereas the rest are not.
Organic Sesame Seeds, Organic Sunflower Seeds, Organic Pumpkin Seeds, Organic Cashews, Organic Cranberries, Organic Pecans, Organic Macadamia Nuts, Organic Flaxseeds, Raw Honey, Celtic Sea Salt®
Please note that both Raw Crunch bars only contain 5 grams of sugar, and only 5 grams of protein. So, they are more of an energy bar than a protein bar.
Time to make your own?
Now for the homemade options (which are always the best choice, as it’s the least processed if you buy single, real, fresh ingredients)!
I have not tried any of these, but I am hoping to experiment and create one of my own as well. They all sound good!
Elana’s Cranberry Coconut Power Bars (nut/allergen free!)
Homemade Larabars! All Kinds.
Raw Goji Cacao Energy bars (replace the agave with pure maple syrup or raw honey)
Real Food Sprouted Nut Energy Bars (with sprouted nuts and seeds) – includes information about the soy controversy
Whole New Mom’s Homemade Protein Bars – similar to above sprouted nut recipe, but using less sweetener – I’d replace nut butter with coconut butter.
If you would like more information on how and why to soak and dehydrate nuts, check out Radiant Life’s article here.
Want to ditch the power bars altogether and make your own trail mix? Here are some online sources of soaked, dehydrated, and sprouted nuts:
Wilderness Family Naturals (I get raw cacao powder from here too.)
That about wraps it up!
To sum up, let’s go back to our original question:
Are power bars healthier than candy bars? Well, I really didn’t talk about candy bars here, did I?! This post is long enough as it is, don’t you think?
The simple answer is that you really can’t generalize. You need to look at the fine print of each item, because as is clearly evident, there are vast differences in quality of various power bars AND candy bars. Fake and GMO ingredients are often in both. I started that discussion back during Halloween last year in this post.
No matter what food item you are looking for, here are the key things to look for to quickly get an idea of whether or not it is healthy enough for you to eat:
-a short list of real ingredients
-few, if any, unrecognizable ingredients, especially artificial colors, flavors, and other mysterious food additives
-less than 10 grams of sugar; no refined sugar, no agave or brown rice syrup
-not an excessive amount of salt (recommended max per day is 2,000 grams)
-ideally, Non GMO Project Verified, USDA organic, and certified gluten/allergen free
Wow! This could very well be my longest post yet. When I start connecting the dots, I really immerse myself in the products available, although obviously there are many power bars I haven’t mentioned at all.
In case you’d like more information about any of these products, or can’t find them at your local stores, here is my Amazon affiliate link. If you make any purchases through it, please note that I may receive a small commission, which will offset the cost of maintaining this blog.
Do you have a favorite power bar that I haven’t mentioned? Please share!
Have a very Happy Father’s Day! Wishing you much peace, joy, and sunshine this weekend.