The Real Nutrition Behind ‘Healthy’ Packaged Snacks

Packaged snack bars are a food item many of us rely on daily breakfast, as a quick snack in between meals, and in a time crunch while on the go. Personally, I always keep a bar in my bag, especially if I’m traveling or running around the city. Unfortunately, though, there is a lot of speculation surrounding the real nutritional value of snack foods. For some brands, a bar’s deliciousness may be deceiving after diving deep into the nutrition label.

To get a better understanding of the real nutritional value of packaged bars, I spoke to three registered dietitians/nutritionists so you can be confident your on-the-go snack is healthier than a donut. (Some bars actually have 22 grams of sugar—that’s more than 5 teaspoons—so you may be better off grabbing a donut!).

Fortunately, if we choose a healthy bar, it can be great for busy, on-the-go situations. “Pack one in your bag to snack on after your workout, or keep a bar in your desk to avoid snacking on less-nutritious office snacks,” Abigail Kinnear RDN, says.

When choosing a bar, the “first thing to do is check the ingredients list,” she says. “Look for real, whole-food ingredients you recognize. Next, you should look at calories, fiber, protein and fat. Choose a bar that provides protein, fat and at least 3 grams of fiber. All three of these work together to aid in satiety. Do your best to keep the sugar under 12 grams.”

While Kinnear does not recommend calorie counting, it’s important to keep in mind a bar is a snack, not a meal. So try not to go over the top. Her rule of thumb is to “always read the nutrition label and to stick to bars made with ingredients you would find in your kitchen.”

Another label aspect to focus on, according to Gisela Bouvier, MBA, RDN, LDN of B Nutrition and Wellness, LLC, is the carbohydrate to protein ratio. To put it simply, she recommends choosing a bar that has half the protein as carbohydrates.

Dr. Susan Hazels Mitmesser, senior director nutrition and scientific affairs at Nature’s Bounty Company, reinforces the importance of protein. “Research shows protein is a vital component in making a healthy snack bar,” says Dr. Mitmesser. “It serves as the building blocks to forming strong muscle and other tissues. Protein is also used to produce hormones, enzymes and hemoglobin, providing clear benefits to both men and women looking to lead active and fit lifestyles.”

Now that we know to prioritize real, whole-food ingredients and a good carb to protein ratio, let’s see what these women say about some of our favorite packaged bars:

Health Warrior

Health Warrior offers super food bars with plant-based proteins. Kinnear likes their Chia Bars, “as they only have 100 calories and are a great balance of fat, fiber and protein packed into a small, convenient package.”

Clif Bar

While most of us can agree Clif Bars are quite tasty and conveniently available for purchase just about anywhere, you may want to think twice before your next indulgence.

“Clif Bars are not snack bars that I recommend to any clients. Each bar contains 250 calories, however, they are not quality calories,” says Bouvier. The total carbohydrates per Clif Bar is 45g, 22g being of sugar alone. Protein is also minimal, at only 10g for its caloric density.”

KIND

If you read the label of a Kind bar, you’ll see that most of these bars are made with real-food ingredients, which we learned is key when choosing a bar. “My favorites are the nut-based bars, as these provide good-for-you monounsaturated fats and fiber,” Kinnear says.

Luna Bars

“Luna Bars are part of the Clif Bar & Company. They are certified gluten-free, therefore a good snack bar option for people with Celiac Disease,” Bouvier says. She took a look at the carb to protein radio and reports the original Luna Bar contains a 26g to 9g ratio of carbs to protein. “Having such little protein compared to carbohydrates minimizes satiety and additional protein would be needed to help curb hunger until a person’s next meal,” she points out.

Pure Protein Plus

By now, we know protein is crucial to the nutritional value of the snack bars we choose. However, “not all protein sources are created equal and they are generally categorized as complete or incomplete. A complete protein, such as animal protein, provides all of the essential amino acids at an adequate level to meet biological demand,” says Dr. Mitmesser.

She adds, “Whey is a complete protein found in cow’s milk, provides high levels of the essential and branched chain amino acids and is a natural source of essential minerals. Pure Protein PLUS is made of whey protein and other complete proteins, while also providing an adequate amount of fiber.”

RXBAR

This is hands-down my favorite post-workout bar,” Kinnear says. “This brand’s ingredients are super simple, and are all things I have in my kitchen. They are a good source of complete protein (from eggs), and they taste amazing!”

Now that we know what the experts think about some popular snack bars—and what they consider when choosing one—we can quickly pick out nutritional, on-the-go snack bars that are full of protein and real, whole-foods. We’ll maybe even throw a Clif Bar in the mix every so often just because they’re so delicious.

Chelsea Dowling works in consumer public relations in Chicago. She loves coffee, friends, Golden Doodles and chips and salsa (in no particular order). Her ideal day starts with a walk along Lake Michigan and ends with either a HIIT class or homemade Old Fashioned.