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?
Healthy granola bars:
1. Contain little or 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.
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)
Granola bars are considered a healthy snack. However, most granola bars contain large amounts of 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 the amount of added sugar you eat).
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.
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). 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.
3. Avoid 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 Conventional 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.
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.(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. 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.(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)
- Healthy granola bars contain minimal added sugar and only real ingredients.
- Okay granola bars for occasional snacking contain 20% or less (by weight) added sugar and no artificial preservatives or colors.
- Granola bars that should be avoided are at least 25% (by weight) added sugar and / or the granola bar also contains artificial preservatives, colors, genetically engineered soy, conventional oats, or other unhealthy ingredients.
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. Types of added sugar are red. Bold ingredients should be avoided.
Examples of Healthy Granola Bars:
Healthy granola bars should contain real ingredients, minimal added sugar, and no preservatives or artificial colors. We should limit foods containing added sugar (even paleo forms like honey and maple syrup). Many of these healthy granola bar options sweeten with dates.
Apple Pie Ingredients: Dates, almonds, unsweetened apples, walnuts, raisins, cinnamon. Contains no GMO ingredients.
Madagascar Vanilla Almond Ingredients: Mixed nuts (almonds, peanuts, cashews, walnuts), honey, glucose, chicory root fiber, crisp rice, Madagascar vanilla, soy lecithin§. §Non-GMO. Contains no GMO ingredients.
Examples of Granola Bars for Occasional Treats:
Healthy-looking granola bars can contain excess added sugar. These granola bars are free of artificial preservatives and colors. However, their added sugar content means they should aught to be occasional treats instead of daily snack staples.
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. §Non-GMO. Contains no GMO ingredients. *Indicates organic ingredients.
Examples of Granola Bars to Avoid:
Many granola bars are candy masquerading as a healthy snack. Some of these unhealthy granola bars contain almost half or more of the American Heart Association’s recommended daily intake of added sugar for children. Other unhealthy granola bars contain unwanted artificial ingredients like artificial preservatives or food coloring. It is best to avoid these granola bars.
Crunchy Peanut Butter Ingredients: Brown 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. §Non-GMO. Contains no GMO ingredients. *Indicates organic ingredients.
Z Bar (Clif Kids)
Chocolate Chip 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. §Non-GMO. Contains no GMO ingredients. *Indicates organic ingredients.
Nature Valley Crunch
Oats ‘n Honey Ingredients: Whole grain oats, sugar, canola oil, rice flour, honey, salt, brown sugar syrup, baking soda, soy lecithin, natural flavor.
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.
Chocolate Chip 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.
Special K Protein
Dark Chocolate 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, contains 2% or less of 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.
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. Contains 2% or less of calcium carbonate, sorbitol, salt, water, soy lecithin, molasses, natural flavor, BHT, citric acid.
Nature Valley Sweet & Salty
Peanut 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.
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.
Oats & Honey with Coconut Ingredients: 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.
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. §Non-GMO. Contains no GMO ingredients.
When looking for a healthy granola bar, avoid products with excess added sugar
The top selling granola bar in the United States is Nature Valley Crunchy Oats ‘n Honey.(1) The Nature Valley Crunchy Oats ‘n Honey is a cookie, not a snack because it contains almost a tablespoon (11 grams) of added sugar.
Clif Bar makes the granola bar with the highest amount of added sugar. The Clif Bar 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.
When I buy granola bars, I tend to buy the brands Kind and Larabar. I prefer the Kind bars because of the crunchy, nutty texture. Many flavors contain only 4 or 5 grams added sugar per serving.
My preschool age son prefers the Larabar bars, likely due to the soft, chewy texture and the high fruit content. The Apple Pie Larabar contains 18 grams of sugar, the sugar is from dates and other fruit and not considered added sugar. Our body absorbs sugar in fruit slower than refined sugar due to the natural fiber contained within the fruit.(9)
Find other healthy store bought snacks and foods
Check out these other popular foods and snacks! Learn which products are healthy and those that are best avoided or only enjoyed as an occasional treat.
Pin article for later:
- “Snack Bars 2015: Top 10 best-selling granola, breakfast and nutrition bars”, Bakery and Snacks Website (link)
- Added Sugars and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Children.
- 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)
- Breakfast with a dose of Roundup?, EWG Website, 2018 (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)
Note: This article was originally published in January 2017. The content has been updated and format changed to be easier to read.