There are days when I think my two year old would happily live on granola bars. He calls them “cookie bars,” and most granola bars are just that… cookies, because they are filled with added sugar. But they are also a convenient, portable snack, and so I wanted to find a few good options. My plan was simple: read a bunch of labels, find some that contained minimally processed ingredients and were not simply glorified cookies, and then see which of these “wise” options my family would eat.
Criteria for choosing a healthier granola bar:
1. Minimize Added Sugar. The amount of added sugar varies widely across different granola bar brands and flavors. When choosing a granola bar, it is important to look at the ingredients for each flavor option as the added sugar content can vary dramatically across a brand. Note: added sugar has many different names. In granola bars, typical added sugars listed in the ingredients include sugar, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, honey, invert sugar, molasses, tapioca syrup, barley malt extract, fructose, and dextrose. The chart below lists the added sugar content per granola bar for some of the top selling granola bars.1 Read more on recommended daily intake of added sugar and why you want to minimize added sugar consumption.
2. Avoid Artificial Preservatives. It is possible to find granola bars that do not contain artificial preservatives. Several brands use vitamin E (tocopherols) or rosemary extract to preserve “freshness,” which simply means the ingredients are antioxidants that keep the oils in the bar from going rancid. However, some granola bar brands use butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), a synthetic antioxidant that, while considered safe by the FDA, is considered by the US Department of Health and Human Services to have carcinogenic potential.2 With non-synthetic antioxidants readily available (such as tocopherol), it is advisable to avoid products that contain BHT.
3. Avoid Genetically Engineered Soy. The majority of soy (94% USA / 62% Canada) grown in North America is genetically modified to be herbicide (typically glyphosate, trade name Roundup®) tolerant.3 This means that genetically engineered soy will likely contain glyphosate residue (more on GMOs and glyphosate soon). In fact, 90% of soy beans were found to have residual levels of glyphosate when tested by the USDA in 2011.4 The safety of chronic, low-level exposure to glyphosate has not been demonstrated, therefore it is advisable to consume non-GMO soy to minimize glyphosate residue consumption.
4. Avoid Caramel Color. Caramel coloring is frequently used in beverages (especially colas) and processed foods. Caramel coloring is made by heating a sugar with a small amount of an acid, base or amine. If amines are used in the manufacture of caramel coloring, there can be trace amounts of contaminants in the caramel coloring that are considered by the WHO as “possible carcinogens” to humans.5 Though only small amounts of caramel color are used in baked goods, it is advisable to avoid products that contain any caramel coloring.
5. Avoid Carrageenan. Carrageenan is a polysaccharide polymer derived from seaweed that is widely used in the food industry. It is used to as gelling or thickening agent or to stabilize a food formulation. Though considered by the FDA and WHO as a safe food additive, there is some controversy around the safety of carrageenan and its potential link to inflammation and possibly even colon cancer.5 In late 2016, the National Organic Standards Board voted to prohibit the use of carrageenan in organic products.6
Bottom line: choose a granola bar with minimal added sugar and ingredients you recognize.
Evaluation of top selling granola bars:
Below are the results of Feed Them Wisely’s evaluation of some top selling granola bars.1 Feed Them Wisely ranked the granola bars into three categories:
- Wise (): The granola bar contains less than 5 grams added sugar
- Acceptable (): 20% or less (by weight) of the granola bar is added sugar
- Avoid (): At least 25% of the granola bar (by weight) is added sugar and / or the granola bar contains ingredients that should be avoided
Because the granola bars range in serving sizes from 24 to 60 grams, the table includes both the total grams of added sugar per bar as well as the percentage of added sugar in each granola bar. The table also highlights any potential ingredients of concern. All forms of added sugar are listed in red while additional ingredients of concern are bolded.
The top selling granola bar in the United States is Nature Valley Crunchy Oats ‘n Honey.1 However, with almost a tablespoon (11 grams) of added sugar, it should be considered more of a cookie than a snack. The brand with the highest added sugar content was Clif Bar. Their Crunchy Peanut Butter flavor contains 20 grams of added sugar, which is 80% of the AHA’s recommended daily intake of added sugar for the average woman.
In the end, our family’s favorite granola bar brands are Kind and Larabar. I prefer the Kind bars because of the crunchy, nutty texture and with many flavors containing only 4 or 5 grams added sugar per serving, they are a quick snack that I can enjoy without using up too much of my daily added sugar allotment. My two year old prefers the Larabar bars, likely due to the soft, chewy texture and the high fruit content. It is worth noting that Apple Pie Larabar contains 18 grams of sugar, but the sugar is from dates and other fruit so it is not considered an added sugar. This is because the sugar in fruit is absorbed by our bodies slower than refined sugar due to the natural fiber contained within the fruit.7
- “Snack Bars 2015: Top 10 best-selling granola, breakfast and nutrition bars”, Bakery and Snacks Website (link)
- Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical Cuisine: BHT (link)
- Non-GMO Project, GMO acreage in 2014: Soy (link)
- USDA PDP Special Projects, Glyphosate, 2011 (link)
- Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical Cuisine: Caramel Color (link) and Carrageenan (link).
- “Board Nixes Use of Carrageenan in Organic Food Production”, Food Safety News Website. 2016 (link)
- Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells & Lose Weight Permanently, David Ludwig, MD, PhD (link)