Granola bars are a great on-the-go snack option for busy people, athletes, and lovers of the outdoors. The word granola may conjure up thoughts of healthy oats, grains, and nuts all nicely molded into an easy to eat bar. But snackers beware— what lies behind the wrappers of these seemingly innocent bars may be an over-processed nutritional mess.

Granola Decoded — The-Need-to-Know

Photo by Kristine Lockwood

While brands like Quaker Oats and Nature Valley may be the kings of the granola bar aisle, they typically rank low in the hierarchy of good nutrition. Containing as many as 25 ingredients, 12 grams of sugar, and sugar-filled ingredients like a chocolate sheath, these babies can be almost as bad as eating a real candy bar (a Twix Bar contains around the same amount of calories and sugar as an average granola bar).

Similar to candy or cookies, many of the bars contain high fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to weight gain and insulin resistanceFructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome Elliott, S.S., Keim, N.L., Stern, J.S., et al. Department of Nutrition, University of California. Davis, California. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2002 Nov;76(5):911-22.; hydrogenated oils, which can raise cholesterol levelsTrans-fatty acids–effects on coronary heart disease Karbowska, J., Kochan, Z. Gdański Uniwersytet Medyczny, Katedra i Zakład Biochemii. Polish Merkur Lekarski. 2011 Jul;31(181):56-9.; and monosodium glutamate (MSG), which has been linked to obesity and type 2 diabetesMonosodium glutamate (MSG): a villain and promoter of liver inflammation and dysplasia Nakanishi, Y., Tsuneyama, K., Fujimoto, M., et al. Department of Diagnostic Pathology, Graduate School of Medicine and Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Toyama, Toyama, Japan. Journal of Autoimmunity. 2008 Feb-Mar;30(1-2):42-50..

Grains and Nuts and Fruits, Oh My! — Your Action Plan

The number of granola bars on the market has exploded over the past few years, and with the focus shifting to healthier ingredients, it’s easier than ever to choose a healthy— or at least healthier— option.

Reading the nutritional information is key to making the best choices, and the more recognizable the ingredients, the better. Many granola bars are fortified with vitamins and minerals, and while fortification is not a replacement for eating a well-balanced diet, it can help to make up for lacking nutrientsDiscretionary food fortification: implications of consumer attitudes Kalergis, M., MacDonald, A. Dairy Farmers of Canada, Montreal, QC, Canada. Canadian Journal of Dietary Practice and Research. 2009 Winter;70(4):e26-31.Can multi-micronutrient food fortification improve the micronutrient status, growth, health, and cognition of schoolchildren? A systematic review Best, C., Neufingerl, N., Del Rosso, JM., United Nations World Food Programme, Programme Design and Support Service, Rome, Italy. Nutrition Review. 2011 Apr;69(4):186-204.. Look for bars that are high in fiber (containing at least 5 of the 14 recommended grams per day), which can prolong that full feeling and possibly reduce “bad” LDL cholesterolWhole-grain ready-to-eat oat cereal, as part of a dietary program for weight loss, reduces low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in adults with overweight and obesity more than a dietary program including low-fiber control foods Maki, K.C., Beiseigel, JM., Jonnalagadda, SS., et al. Provident Clinical Research, Glen Ellyn, IL. Journal if the American Dietetic Association. 2010 Feb;110(2):205-14., and options with less than 25% of the calories from sugar and 3 grams of fat or less.

While many pre-packaged granola bars can be nutritional land mines, choosing a simple granola bar packed with nutrients and fiber will be more satisfying than a bar loaded with fat and sugar. Ingredient lists full of easily identifiable choices— like oats, grains, fruits, and nuts— is a good sign. And make sure whole grains— not sugar— are the first ingredients listed. Calories should come in at 100-175 per serving (which for many bars is around 30-40 grams— about the size of two 9-volt batteries). When a bar has quality ingredients, it should easily pass the label test. And for the best hand-picked ingredients, homemade granola bars are an easy, cost effective way to go.