It would be great if the whole family could enjoy a breakfast of homemade whole-wheat pancakes and fresh berries, but that's not the reality in many households. Mornings can be a mad dash, with one or more family members grabbing something to eat on the way out the door — or worse, not eating anything at all.
With eating on the go now the norm, nutrition, protein, diet, energy, and cereal bars have flooded the market. What they offer is convenience, a quick little "meal" or snack neatly wrapped and ready to go.
But how do they stack up when it comes to good nutrition?
Evaluating the Choices
These bars have pros and cons. They'll never beat a well-balanced meal or snack, but are better than a stop at the local fast food chain, donut shop, or vending machine. A bar can come in handy when kids need a quick energy boost after school or during sports practice. And the truth is, if the other option is skipping a meal entirely, a nutrition bar is better than nothing.
But their nutritional value varies. Some are fairly rich in nutrients, while others are closer to the nutritional content of candy bars, providing a quick sugar boost without a lot of vitamins and minerals.
And even if they are fortified with vitamins and minerals, pay attention to the amount of fat, added sugar, and calories in each serving. It's important to read the nutrition labels carefully before buying.
Breaking Them Down
Here's a look at some of the different bars:
Granola bars. Granola sounds healthy enough, and when you make it at home, it is: Rolled oats, honey, raisins, and nuts make for a filling, nutrient-dense breakfast or snack. Some store-bought granola bars are still made with relatively healthy ingredients, but beware of those that are dipped in fudge or full of ingredients that can make them as high in sugar and fat as some candy bars.
Cereal bars. At first glance, these bars appear to have it all: "cereal" outside, "real fruit" inside, and possibly even "real" milk or yogurt swirled in or on top. Some are healthy choices; others are not. Read the labels carefully and look for cereal bars made from whole grain and low in fat. Watch out for added sugar and high calorie counts. In some, the fruit is more likely to be high-fructose corn syrup or juice concentrates than real apples or strawberries. And the yogurt, usually made from powder, does not contain the healthy live, active cultures found in a cup of yogurt. A meal that includes a bowl of whole-grain cereal, a glass of low-fat milk, and a piece of fruit is lower in sugar and packs a much greater nutritional punch than any all-in-one bar.
Diet bars. Often advertised as meal-replacement bars, diet bars are meant to be eaten in place of breakfast and lunch to aid weight loss. Ingredients vary widely, but most contain a combination of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Some are low in calories and saturated fat; others are not. But more than that, consider the message diet bars send to kids: that "replacing meals" is good and that it's OK to take shortcuts to lose weight. A healthier message is that nutrients can and should come from healthy meals, not something out of a wrapper, and that good eating habits are the key to maintaining a healthy weight. If your child is overweight, talk to your doctor about creating a weight-loss plan that includes a balanced diet and regular exercise.
Protein bars. These often contain more protein than other nutrition and diet bars — anywhere from 10 to 30 grams per bar. Those with a very high protein content are often marketed to athletes as a way to help build and repair muscle tissue. They come in low-carb and high-carb options. Bars with higher carb levels and calories are designed for serious adult athletes who need the energy to sustain long bouts of intense physical activity. Generally speaking, many protein bars tend to contain less sugar and more nutrients than some of the other bars, and might be a better choice than granola or cereal bars with a lot of carbs and little fiber and protein. But most kids don't regularly need extra protein, and young athletes would do better to rely on protein-rich foods like lean meats, cheese, eggs, and nuts, which are considered higher quality protein sources. So read the labels carefully and watch for high levels of calories, fat, and carbohydrates.
Energy bars. Marketed to athletes — and anyone else who could use an energy lift — most energy bars tend to be high in calories and contain a mix of carbs and proteins. Some may include caffeine and additional ingredients like vitamins, herbs and other supplements that are claimed to improve athletic performance or endurance. But no magic bullet can enhance sports performance — aside from eating right and practicing. Plus, caffeine can cause side effects like jitteriness, upset stomach, headaches, and difficulty sleeping, and many herbal supplements have not been studied in kids and are not recommended.
When thinking about buying these bars for your kids, get into the habit of reading the nutrition contents carefully and consider the rest of your child's diet. Descriptions like "all natural," "pure," "low-carb," "low-fat," and "whole-grain" are often used on labels, but don't necessarily mean that the food is right for your child.
Here's what to look for when reading the labels:
Calories. Consider your child's activity level when choosing a bar. Kids who are active in sports — long-distance running, swimming, etc. — will use up calories more quickly for energy than less-active kids.
Fat. Fat is essential to growth and development, but consider the total amount and type of fat being consumed. Unsaturated fats are the best fats (canola, vegetable, olive, or peanut oils). It's important to limit the amount of saturated fats (including palm and coconut oils) and trans fats in a child's diet. Trans fats are often listed as "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils on the ingredient list, but are also included under fats on the nutrition facts label.
Proteins. Protein helps our bodies maintain and repair tissues and build muscle. Proteins from animal sources and milk products (lean meats, eggs, and cheese) are considered more complete than proteins from vegetable sources (soy, nuts, and beans) and grains, but protein in the diet should come from a variety of sources. In the United States, few people get too little protein, and high-protein diets are not recommended for kids.
Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the body's most important source of energy, but they've gotten a bad rap amid the wave of low-carb diets that have become popular. Complex carbohydrates (such as unrefined grains like oats, barley, and bran; whole-wheat flours; and whole-grain breads and cereals) are better than refined grains like white flour and white rice or added sugars (including high-fructose corn syrup). It can be hard to tell good carbs from bad on an ingredient list, so look to the fiber content for a clue: The best carb sources are also high in fiber. Also, look for whole grains and pass on any bars that list simple sugars as the first or second ingredient.
Fiber. Fiber helps us feel full, keeps bowels regular, and plays a role in warding off heart disease and obesity. A good source of fiber is one that provides 2.5 grams or more per serving.
Vitamins and minerals. Just as most cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals, so are most nutrition bars and snack bars. Eating a balanced diet is the best way to ensure your child gets the vitamins and minerals needed. If you're concerned your child isn't getting enough, talk to your doctor.
"Everything in moderation" is the best rule of thumb when it comes to nutrition bars and a healthy diet. If your child is skipping meals and relying on bars to make up the difference, explain the importance of regular meals and eating a balanced diet. Make time for family meals and be a role model yourself when it comes to healthy eating habits.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2011