I'm going to give it to you straight: I believe that bars are really a last resort option. You’ve entirely run out of snacks, you’re stuck in a 4 hour meeting, airplane food grosses you out, or eating on the subway makes you feel awkward. See what I’m saying? We live in a world where real, whole, and natural foods are generally ubiquitous. If you have the opportunity to design your meals and snacks, why settle for often processed ingredients, loads of fat, or excess sugar?
.... But I also understand that the aforementioned situations really do happen. If you’ve ever been stuck in a meeting or taken a really long flight or have been caught in some “emergency” situation that prevents you from eating real food, bars can be the most convenient option. So I’m going to help you make the best decision you possibly can for the next time your boss holds you hostage in a meeting.
In my opinion, there is no single most important factor to consider when you read the nutrition label of a bar. You should take everything into account and weigh the pros and cons. Calories, fat, sugar, ingredients, additives, etc., all are important. You also have to determine what’s a deal breaker for you personally. Someone who is trying to gain weight is going to be less concerned with calories than someone who is trying to lose weight.
Personally, I won’t opt for a bar with more than 250 calories. I prefer it has closer to 200, but 250 is where I tap out. That’s because I don’t view a bar as a meal or a meal replacement, but rather as a snack to hold me over for a few hours until I can have my next meal. Most people don’t mentally register bars as meals, so they end up eating real meals shortly after, in addition to the bar. This is an easy way to mindlessly pack in the calories.
I like to see bars have at least 8-10 grams of protein. Protein combined with fiber and fat helps to keep us full, so it’s important that there’s a decent amount of protein. Oh - and I will only eat a bar made with vegan protein. I’m by no means a vegan, but I do try to stay away from protein isolates. Look for protein from sources like peas, hemp, brown rice, nuts, and seeds.... Or any vegetable.
Sugar can be a deal breaker. I really don’t like to see more than 10-12 grams of sugar in my bars. Sometimes bars contain 15, 20, or even 25 grams of sugar. If I wanted to eat that much sugar, I’d eat a candy bar! I don’t really care whether the sugar comes from the most organic agave syrup from the most exotic island or not… sugar is sugar people! Some people are sensitive to sugar alcohols, which are common ingredients in bars. They’re often used instead of or in addition to sugar. While I happen to not be sensitive, if you’re inclined to suffer from gastrointestinal issues, you’re going to want to watch for ingredients like “xylitol,” “mannitol,” and “sorbitol,” as those are sugar alcohols that frequent the nutrition labels of bars.
It’s important to read the ingredients carefully. Is the first ingredient some kind of syrup? Is the second ingredient cane sugar? A little tip: ingredients are listed in the order in which they’re most prevalent in a given food product. If syrup is the first ingredient, it is also the primary ingredient in that bar. While the last ingredients are the least prevalent, I still never want to see artificial food dyes or lakes. If your bar is going to be colored, it should be from natural sources, like beets, turmeric, or other spices.
The macronutrient that I haven’t touched on thus far is fat. That’s because I have yet to find a bar that is low in fat. Often bars contain ingredients like nuts and seeds, which are naturally high in fat, so that adds up. For example, if I'm going to eat a bar loaded with almonds or peanuts, I would be confused if the bar was in fact low in fat. It's important to know what you're signing up for.
By now you’re probably thinking, “well what bar can I eat when I’m in a bind,” right? One brand of bars that seems to do a good job of keeping all of these components in check in SHANTI BARs. Their Spirulina bar has 220 calories, 9 grams of (vegan) protein, 11 grams of sugar, and 6 grams of fiber (bonus!).
Still, more often than not, I find myself having to sacrifice one of these macronutrients (protein, fats, or carbohydrates) for another. For instance, if the ingredients look clean, it may come with a price of 15 grams of sugar. Or, perhaps it’s low(er) in sugar, but instead contains loads of protein isolates. (note: if anyone knows of a bar that doesn't require nutrient sacfrifices, I'm totally open to trying it!!) Quite frankly, I’d prefer to not have to sacrifice anything! Society tends to make us a feel like snack foods should be packaged and store bought, but that’s simply not the case!
The moral of the story is that you should always opt for real, whole food, like an apple and nut butter, or a small lentil soup, or half of a turkey sandwich on multi-grain bread. Bars should be your plan B, not your daily afternoon snack. And when bars are your plan B, be a label detective!