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Choosing Healthy Granola Bars

Choosing Healthy Granola Bars

Are granola bars a healthy snack?  Some of the top selling granola bars contain more than 30% sugar!  How do you know if a granola bar is a healthy snack or just a cleverly marketed cookie?

How do you know if a granola bar is healthy?

1. Healthy Granola Bars Have Minimal Added Sugar

Healthy granola bars should contain little to no 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.

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 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!  Granola bars loaded with added sugar are not healthy snacks.

Added sugar in popular granola bars ranked by the American Heart Association Recommended Daily Intake of sugar

2. Healthy Granola Bars Avoid Pesticide Residue

Healthy granola bars should not contain pesticide residues

Avoid GMO 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.(4

This means that genetically engineered soy will likely contain glyphosate residue (more on GMOs and glyphosate soon).  In 2011, the USDA found that 90% of soy beans tested contained residual glyphosate.(5)

Avoid Conventionally Grown Oats. Oats are not a genetically modified to be glyphosate resistant.  However, that doesn’t mean that they are free of glyphosate residue.  A recent report from the Environmental Working Group found high levels of glyphosate residue in popular cereals made from oats.(6

While oats are not Round-up resistant, the pesticide is sprayed on the crop to speed up drying at harvest.  It is worth noting that the EWG did find glyphosate residue on organically grown oats, however the levels were significantly lower than that of conventional oats.  

The safety of chronic, low-level exposure to glyphosate is not proven.  Therefore, it is advisable to consume non-GMO soy and conventional oats to minimize glyphosate residue intake.

3. Healthy Granola Bars Do Not Have Artificial Preservatives

Healthy granola bars should not contain artificial preservatives

It is possible to find granola bars without 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).  BHT is 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.

4. Healthy Granola Bars Avoid Caramel Color

Healthy granola bars should not contain artificial colors, including 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.(7)

Though only small amounts of caramel color are used in baked goods, it is advisable to avoid products that contain any caramel coloring.

5. Healthy Granola Bars Avoid Carrageenan

Healthy granola bars should not contain 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.(7

In late 2016, the National Organic Standards Board voted to prohibit the use of carrageenan in organic products.(8)

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, 9-20)

Healthy Granola Bar Evaluation Criteria.  Healthy snack bars added sugar and heavily processed gums and thickeners

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.

Types of added sugar are red

Ingredients to avoid are bold

Examples of Healthy Granola Bars:

Healthy granola bars should contain real ingredients, minimal or no added sugar, and no preservatives or artificial colors. 

Larabar

Lara Bar Apple Pie snack bar Nutrition Information

Larabar Apple Pie Ingredients:  Dates, almonds, unsweetened apples, walnuts, raisins, cinnamon. 

Contains no GMO ingredients.

RXBAR

RXBar Chocolate Sea Salt nutrition information

RXBAR Chocolate Sea Salt Ingredients:  Dates, egg whites, almonds, cashews, chocolate, cocoa, natural flavors, sea salt.

Contains no GMO ingredients.

Examples of Granola Bars for Occasional Treats:

okay fruit strips and healthy fruit roll-ups

These granola bars are free of artificial preservatives and colors.  However, they do contain added sugar which can quickly add up if enjoyed as a daily snack.

Kind Bar

Kind Bar Madagascar Vanilla Almond granola bar nutrition information

Kind Bar Madagascar Vanilla Almond Ingredients:  Mixed nuts (almonds, peanuts, cashews, walnuts), honey, glucose, chicory root fiber, crisp rice, Madagascar vanilla, soy lecithin.

Contains no GMO ingredients.

Autumn’s Gold Grain Free Granola Bar

autumns gold grain free granola bars nutrition information

Autumn’s Gold Grain Free Cinnamon Almond Granola Bar Ingredients: Almonds, pecans, maple syrup, honey*, unsweetened coconut, pumpkin seeds, coconut oil*, cinnamon, sea salt, vanilla extract.

Contains no GMO ingredients.  *Indicates organic ingredients.

Examples of Granola Bars to Avoid:

unhealthy fruit strips and healthy fruit roll-ups

Most granola bars are not healthy snacks. They often contain too much added sugar or other additives that should not be included in a healthy diet.

It is best to avoid following granola bars, listed in alphabetical order.

Annie’s Chewy Granola Bars

annies organics chewy chocolate chip granola bar nutrition information

Annie’s Chewy Granola Bar Chocolate Chip Ingredients:  Granola (whole grain oats, tapioca syrup, cane sugar, sunflower oil, sea salt, vanilla extract, baking soda), tapioca syrup, semisweet chocolate chips (cane sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, vanilla extract), rice crisps (rice, cane sugar, salt, barley malt extract), rice crisp (brown rice flour, cane sugar, sunflower oil, sea salt), rice flour, whole grain oat flour, sunflower oil, rice extract, sea salt, natural cream flavor, vanilla extract, natural flavor.

Contains all organic ingredients and no GMO ingredients.

Reasons to avoid Annie’s Chewy Granola Bars

  • Sugar is the second ingredient
  • More than 1/4 of the bar is added sugar
  • 7 grams of added sugar per bar

Clif Bar

clif bar crunch peanut butter snack bar nutrition information

Clif Bar Crunchy Peanut Butter IngredientsBrown rice syrup*, rolled oats*, cane syrup*, soy protein isolate, peanut butter*, peanut flour, rice flour, peanuts, soy flour*, oat fiber*, roasted soybeans*, date paste*, natural flavors, sea salt, barley malt extract.

Contains no GMO ingredients. *Indicates organic ingredients.

Reasons to avoid Clif Bars

  • Sugar is the first ingredient
  • 1/4 of the bar is added sugar
  • 20 grams added sugar per bar

Fiber One Chewy Bars

fiber one oats and chocolate granola bar nutrition information

Fiber One Chewy Bars Oats & Chocolate Ingredients:  Chicory root extract, semisweet chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, natural flavor), whole grain oats, high maltose corn syrup, rice flour, barley flakes, sugar, canola oil, glycerin, maltodextrin, honey, tricalcium phosphate, palm kernel oil, soy lecithin, salt, nonfat milk, fructose, malt extract, cocoa processed with alkali, baking soda, caramel color, natural flavors, mixed tocopherols.

Reasons to avoid Fiber One Bars

  • Sugar is the second ingredient
  • 1/4 of the bar is added sugar
  • 10 grams of added sugar per bar
  • Possible pesticide residue from conventionally grown oats
  • Contains caramel coloring

Kashi Bar

Kashi peanut peanut butter granola bar nutrition information

Kashi Bar Peanut Peanut Butter Ingredients:  Rolled whole grain blend (hard red wheat, oats, rye, triticale, barley), soy protein crisps (soy flour, tapioca starch, soy fiber), peanuts, brown rice syrup, invert cane syrup, peanut butter (peanuts), dried cane syrup, acacia gum, honey, expeller pressed canola oil, vegetable glycerin, oat fiber, peanut oil, cornstarch, sea salt, soy lecithin, rosemary extract for freshness, molasses, organic skim milk, xanthan gum, almonds.

Contains no GMO ingredients.

Reason to avoid Kashi Bars

  • Possible pesticide residue from conventionally grown oats

Kind Bar Healthy Grains

kind bar oats and honey granola bar nutrition information

Kind Bar Healthy Grains Ingredients (Oats & Honey with Coconut):  Whole grain blend (oats, brown rice, millet, oat flour, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa), tapioca syrup, dried cane syrup, honey, coconut, canola oil, brown rice syrup, gum acacia, sea salt, vitamin E.

Contains no GMO ingredients.

Reason to avoid Kind Bar Healthy Grains

  • Possible pesticide residue from conventionally grown oats

Luna Bar

luna bar nutz over chocolate snack bar nutrition information

Luna Bar Nutz Over Chocolate Ingredients:  Protein grain blend (soy protein isolate, rolled oats*, rice flour*, roasted soybeans*, soy flour*, milled flaxseed)*, brown rice syrup*, dried cane syrup*, peanut butter*, vegetable glycerin, inulin (chicory extract), sunflower oil*, peanuts*, peanut flour*, cocoa*, palm kernel oil, palm kernel solids*, natural flavors, sea salt, soy lecithin*, vanilla extract*, mixed tocopherols. 

Contains no GMO ingredients. *Indicates organic ingredients.

Reason to avoid Luna Bars

  • 10 grams added sugar per bar

Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars

nature valley oats and honey granola bar nutrition information

Nature Valley Crunchy Oats ‘n Honey Granola Bar Ingredients:  Whole grain oats, sugar, canola oil, rice flour, honey, salt, brown sugar syrup, baking soda, soy lecithin, natural flavor.

Reasons to avoid Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars

  • Sugar is the second ingredient
  • 1/4 of the bar is added sugar
  • 11 grams of added sugar per bar
  • Possible pesticide residue from conventionally grown oats

Nature Valley Fruit & Nut Bar

Nature Valley Fruit & Nut Trail Mix Bar Ingredients : Whole grain oats, corn syrup, almonds, raisins, sugar, roasted peanuts, rice flour, glycerin, cranberries, canola oil, fructose, corn starch, soy lecithin, salt, barley malt extract, baking soda, natural flavor, mixed tocopherols.

Reasons to avoid Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Granola Bars

  • Sugar is the second ingredient
  • 7 grams of added sugar per bar
  • Possible pesticide residue from conventionally grown oats

Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Granola Bar

nature valley sweet and salty nut granola bar nutrition information

Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Peanut Granola Bar Ingredients :  Roasted peanuts, corn syrup, sugar, whole grain oats, palm kernel oil, rice flour, whole grain wheat, vegetable glycerin, whey, peanut butter (peanuts, salt), fructose, canola oil, salt, soy lecithin, peanut flour, corn starch, barley malt extract, honey roasted almond butter (almonds, honey, maltodextrin, palm oil, mixed tocopherols), baking soda, natural flavor, vitamin E.

Reasons to avoid Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Granola Bars

  • Sugar is the second ingredient
  • 7 grams of added sugar per bar
  • Possible pesticide residue from conventionally grown oats

Quaker Chewy Granola Bar

quacker chewy chocolate chip granola bar nutrition information

Quaker Chewy Granola Bar Chocolate Chip Ingredients:  Granola (whole grain rolled oats, brown sugar, brown rice crisp (whole grain brown rice flour, sugar, salt), whole grain rolled wheat, soybean oil, dried coconut, whole wheat flour, sodium bicarbonate, soy lecithin, nonfat dry milk), semisweet chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla extract), corn syrup, brown rice crisp (whole grain brown rice flour, sugar, salt), invert sugar, sugar, corn syrup solids, glycerin, soybean oil, calcium carbonate, sorbitol, salt, water, soy lecithin, molasses, natural flavor, BHT, citric acid.

Reasons to avoid Quaker Chewy Granola Bars

  • Sugar is the second ingredient
  • More than 1/4 of the bar is added sugar
  • 7 grams of added sugar per bar
  • Possible pesticide residue from conventionally grown oats
  • Contains the artificial preservative BHT

Special K Protein Meal Bars

special k protein dark chocolate chewy granola bar nutrition information

Special K Protein Chocolate Chip Meal Bar Ingredients:  Soluble corn fiber, soy protein isolate, rolled oats, sugar, cereal (rice, whole grain wheat, sugar, wheat bran, soluble wheat fiber, salt, malt flavoring, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, fructose, semi sweet chocolate (chocolate, sugar, dextrose, soy lecithin, artificial flavor), vegetable oil, corn syrup, chicory root fiber, rice, dextrose, cocoa, chocolate, sorbitol, glycerin, whey, natural and artificial flavors, soy lecithin, salt, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate, niacinamide, BHT, almond flour, peanut flour, malt flavor, distilled monoglycerides, vitamin B6, reduced iron, vitamin B2.

Reasons to avoid Special K Protein Bars

  • 1/4 of the bar is added sugar
  • 7 grams of added sugar per bar
  • Possible pesticide residue from conventionally grown oats and soy protein isolate
  • Contains the artificial preservative BHT

Sunbelt Bakery Granola Bars

sunbelt bakery chocolate chip granola bar nutrition information

Sunbelt Bakery Chocolate Chip Granola Bar Ingredients:  Granola (whole grain oats, sugar, palm kernel and soybean oils, corn syrup, coconut, honey, molasses, soy lecithin, salt, corn starch, peanuts, almonds, soy flour, egg whites), corn syrup, chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, dextrose, soy lecithin, vanilla, milk), crisp rice (rice flour, sugar, whey, salt, barley malt, wheat flour, dextrose), palm kernel and soybean oils, water, nonfat dry milk, sorbitol, soy lecithin, salt, sugar, carrageenan.

Reasons to avoid Sunbelt Bakery Granola Bars

  • Almost 1/3 of the bar is added sugar
  • 9 grams of added sugar per bar
  • Possible pesticide residue from conventionally grown oats
  • Contains carrageenan

Z Bar (Clif Kids)

clif kid zbar chocolate chip granola bar nutrition information

Z Bar Chocolate Chip Bar Ingredients:  Oat blend (rolled oats*, oat flour*, oat fiber*), tapioca syrup*, chocolate chips* (dried cane syrup*, unsweetened chocolate*, cocoa butter*, soy lecithin*, vanilla extract*), fig paste*, cane syrup*, maple syrup*, soy butter* (roasted soybeans*, soybean oil*, salt), milled flaxseed*, natural flavors, baking soda, sea salt.

Contains no GMO ingredients. *Indicates organic ingredients.

Reasons to avoid Z Bars

  • Sugar is the second ingredient ingredient
  • 1/3 of each bar is added sugar
  • 12 grams added sugar per bar

When looking for a healthy granola bar, avoid products with excess added sugar

When it comes to finding a healthy granola bar, simple ingredients are best.  But watch out for added sugar! Several popular granola bars are essentially cookies masquerading as a healthy treat.

I tend to buy RXBAR, Kind and Larabar snack bars.  Though these are not traditional granola bars, but they are made with less processed ingredients and contain no or minimal added sugar.

Find other healthy snacks and foods

Check out these other evaluations of popular foods and snacks!  Learn which favorite packaged foods are healthy and which ones best to avoid or enjoy as an occasional treat.

List of healthy fruit snacks
List of healthy breakfast cereal
List of healthy crackers and healthy snacks
Evaluation of popular flavored yogurt and list of healthy strawberry yogurts

Pin article for later:

What are the healthiest granola bars? You might be surprise to learn that some favorite granola bar brands are filled with added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. Find out what ingredients are in healthy granola bars

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. Circulation. August 22, 2016 (link)
  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. Breakfast with a dose of Roundup?, EWG Website, 2018 (link)
  7. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical Cuisine: Caramel Color (link) and Carrageenan (link).
  8. “Board Nixes Use of Carrageenan in Organic Food Production”, Food Safety News Website. 2016 (link)
  9. Larabar Website (link)
  10. RXBAR Website (link)
  11. Kind Snacks Website (link)
  12. Autumn’s Gold Website (link)
  13. Annie’s Website (link)
  14. Clif Bar Website (link)
  15. Fiber One Website (link)
  16. Kashi Website (link)
  17. Nature Valley Website (link)
  18. Quaker Oats Website (link)
  19. Special K Website (link)
  20. Sunbelt Bakery Website (link)

Note: This article was originally published in January 2017.  The content has been updated and format changed to be easier to read.

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Mary

Wednesday 3rd of October 2018

what about glysophate?

Meredith

Thursday 4th of October 2018

Hi Mary,

This is a great question. To date, glyphosate residue on food is not tested by the USDA. In 2011, the USDA did test for glyphosate residue in soy only, and found glyphosate residue on 90% of soy plants tested.

There was a recent report from the Environmental Working Group that showed high levels of glyphosate residue in oats. https://www.ewg.org/childrenshealth/glyphosateincereal/#.W7bIVxNKinc Based on this report, it would be prudent to avoid conventionally grown oats to avoid glyphosate residue.

I plan to update this post soon to reflect this new information. Thank you for reading, Meredith

Susan

Wednesday 1st of February 2017

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

Meredith

Wednesday 1st of February 2017

I couldn't agree more Susan - thank you for reading!

Katie

Monday 30th of January 2017

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

Meredith

Tuesday 31st of January 2017

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!

Judi

Friday 27th of January 2017

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!

Meredith

Friday 27th of January 2017

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!