Choosing Healthier Granola Bars

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.  Some of the top selling granola bars contain more than 30% sugar!  However, granola bars are also a convenient, portable snack, and I like to have a few healthier options available for days when we need grab-and-go snacks.

How to choose a healthier granola bar:

1. Minimize added sugar

minimize added sugar contentThe 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

Total added sugar found in top selling granola bars (per bar)
Total added sugar found in top selling granola bars (per bar)

Many of us turn to granola bars as a healthier snack option, but most granola bars are loaded with added sugar.  Consuming excess added sugar not only causes us to gain weight, but it has been associated with increased triglyceride levels and higher blood pressure (read more on why you want to minimize added sugar consumption).

The AHA recommends that children consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day (a little over 6 teaspoons, read more on recommended daily intake of added sugar).2  Some of these granola bars contain almost half of the AHA’s daily allotment of added sugar for children!  Added sugar laden granola bars are not healthy snacks.

Total added sugar in popular granola bars as a percentage of the American Heart Association's recommended daily intake for children
Total added sugar in popular granola bars as a percentage of the American Heart Association’s recommended daily intake for children

2. Avoid artificial preservatives

artificial preservativesIt 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.3  With non-synthetic antioxidants readily available (such as tocopherol), it is advisable to avoid products that contain BHT.

3. Avoid genetically engineered soy

GMO SoyThe majority of soy (94% USA / 62% Canada) grown in North America is genetically modified to be herbicide (typically glyphosate, trade name Roundup®) tolerant.4  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 2011.5  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

avoid caramel coloringCaramel 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

avoid carrageenanCarrageenan 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.6  In late 2016, the National Organic Standards Board voted to prohibit the use of carrageenan in organic products.7

Bottom line: choose a granola bar with minimal added sugar and clean ingredients you recognize.

Evaluation of top selling granola bars:

The top selling granola bars were evaluated and ranked into three categories based on the following criteria:1  

how to choose healthier granola bars

  • 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 artificial preservatives, colors, GE soy, or other ingredients that should be avoided

The granola bars evaluated range in serving sizes from 24 to 60 grams. Therefore, the below 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 ingredients to avoid are bolded. 

Feed Them Wisely's Evaluation of Granola Bars, www.feedthemwisely.com
Feed Them Wisely’s Evaluation of Granola Bars

The top selling granola bar in the United States is Nature Valley Crunchy Oats ‘n Honey. 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 children and the average woman.

Summary:

Our family’s favorite granola bar brands are Kind and Larabar.  I prefer the Kind bars because of the crunchy, nutty texture.  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.8

Note: Content updated Aug 2017.

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References:

  1. “Snack Bars 2015: Top 10 best-selling granola, breakfast and nutrition bars”, Bakery and Snacks Website (link)
  2. Added Sugars and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Children. 
  3. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical Cuisine: BHT (link)
  4. Non-GMO Project, GMO acreage in 2014: Soy (link)
  5. USDA PDP Special Projects, Glyphosate, 2011 (link)
  6. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical Cuisine: Caramel Color (link) and Carrageenan (link).
  7. “Board Nixes Use of Carrageenan in Organic Food Production”, Food Safety News Website. 2016 (link)
  8. Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells & Lose Weight Permanently, David Ludwig, MD, PhD (link)

6 Comments

  1. This is so very interesting especially as granola bars are a travel staple for us. Are there any safe soy products to consume?…What about tofu? I look forward to a healthy granola bar recipe. Ah so many more interesting columns for you to write!

    • Great topics – I will definitely look into them – thank you for the questions! Soy is not inherently unhealthy, it is just important to be aware of how it is grown if you want to avoid glyphosate. A healthy granola bar recipe may take a while… I haven’t yet found one that is healthy, delicious and does not instantly turn into a pile of crumbs!!! Thanks for reading!

  2. Great article! Love all the good info! Any suggestions for a healthy Nut free granola bar? Preschool is Nut free and I need suggestions!

    • Katie – thank you for you comment and for asking about nut free granola bars! Many nut free bars are quite high in added sugar (Made Good, Nature’s Path), however Kind has line of granola bars “healthy grains” that are nut free and relatively low in added sugar. I have updated the above table to include their “Oats and Honey with Coconut” flavor since it has only 6 grams of added sugar (per 35 gram bar). Thanks for reading!

  3. Loved this article Meredith…Need to feed seniors as wisely as children.Thank you.

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