how to choose a healthy granola bar

Choosing Healthy Granola Bars

Meredith 8:00 am

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

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

added sugar in popular granola bars by teaspoon

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 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.

Added sugar in popular granola bars by American Heart Association RDI sugar

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).  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 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 2011, the USDA found that 90% of soy beans tested contained residual glyphosate.5  The safety of chronic, low-level exposure to glyphosate is not proven.  Therefore, it is advisable to consume non-GMO soy to minimize glyphosate residue intake.

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  

guidelines for evaluating granola bars

  •  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, 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 redBold ingredients should be avoided. 

healthy fruit strips and healthy fruit roll-upsExamples 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.

Larabar

Lara Bar is a healthy granola barApple Pie Ingredients:  Dates, almonds, unsweetened apples, walnuts, raisins, cinnamon.  Contains no GMO ingredients.

Kind Bar

Kind Bar is a healthy granola barMadagascar 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.

Kashi Bar

Kashi Peanut Peanut Butter is a healthy granola barPeanut 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.

okay fruit strips and healthy fruit roll-upsExamples 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.

Kind Bar

Kind Oats & Honey is an okay granola barOats & 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.

Nature Valley Sweet & Salty

Nature Valley Sweet & Salty is an okay granola barPeanut 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.

Luna Bar

Luna Bar Nutz Over Chocolate is an okay granola barNutz 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.

unhealthy fruit strips and healthy fruit roll-upsExamples 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.

Clif Bar

Clif Bars are not healthy granola barsCrunchy 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)

Z Bar Chocolate Chip is not a healthy granola barChocolate 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

Nature Valley Crunch Oats' n Honey are not healthyOats ‘n Honey Ingredients:  Whole grain oats, sugar, canola oil, rice flour, honey, salt, brown sugar syrup, baking soda, soy lecithin, natural flavor.

Fiber One

Fiber One Oats & Chocolate granola bars are not healthyOats & 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.

Sunbelt Bakery

Sunbelt Bakery Chocolate Chip are not healthy granola barsChocolate 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

Special K Protein Dark Chocolate is not a healthy granola barDark 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.

Quaker Chewy

Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chip granola bars are not healthyChocolate 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.

Annie’s Chewy

Annie's Chewy Chocolate Chip granola bars are not healthyChocolate 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.

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. 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 bodies absorb sugar in fruit slower than refined sugar due to the natural fiber contained within the fruit.8

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.

what cereals are healthy
Choosing Healthy Breakfast Cereals
what crackers are healthy
Choosing Healthy Crackers and Snacks
what fruit roll ups are healthy
Choosing Healthy Fruit Snacks

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 
  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)

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

6 Comments

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

  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. 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!

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