Let’s take a minute to talk about snack bars.

snack bar

No, not that kind of snack bar. This kind:

Clif bar

Granola bars. Energy bars. Nutrition bars. Whatever you call them, they’re certainly tasty and convenient. What’s not to love?

How about the massive amount of sugar some of these products can contain, not to mention a veritable laundry list of synthetic chemical additives? How about the murkiness of organic claims around some of them?

Last month, the Cornucopia Institute released a helpful report, aiming to distinguish healthier options from “gimmicky junk food.” Overall, they found that

The majority of mass-market bars contain long ingredient lists with unfamiliar chemical names. In contrast, certified organic bars have far fewer and much simpler ingredients that are, in many cases, nutritious whole foods.

Many companies charge higher prices for ‘natural’ products when there is little, if any, difference from other, less expensive conventional products. Many popular brands shower themselves in ‘do-gooder ethos’ but stop far short of actually fulfilling a legitimate mission, especially when they make the choice to source conventional ingredients.

Those conventional ingredients can be a significant source of pesticide residues and other toxins, counteracting the goodness of any organic, non-GMO ingredients they may contain. Additionally, in products labeled as “made with organics,” the organic ingredients used are “likely” to be cheap ones such as oats or rice flour.

This enables them to legally use the words ‘made with organic’ on the packaging, but not the USDA seal. This rule allows the word ‘organic’ on the front package, even though up to 30% of the contents are not organic.

“Organic,” of course, confers a pretty tremendous health halo around any food it marks, regardless of what that 30% of non-organic ingredients consists of.

The Institute also put together a “snack bar scorecard,” ranking over 100 different bars from a variety of brands. By far, most ranked from merely good to junk food. Only four brands made it to the very top tier: Bearded Brothers Energy Bar (which earned 1550 out of a possible 1600 points), Simple Squares, Raw Crunch Blueberry Lemon, and Lara Bar Organic with Superfoods. (Interestingly, a number of other varieties of Lara Bar ranked much lower.)

The lowest on the list? Fiber One Protein Bars, with a score of exactly zero.

The report is a good read, and includes helpful tips for choosing healthier options from among the dreck. A snapshot:

  1. Buy certified organic products.
  2. Support companies that exclusively manufacture and offer USDA certified organic products.
  3. Look for whole ingredients.
  4. Avoid protein isolates, especially those that are not labeled organic.
  5. Choose bars with lower levels of added sweeteners.
  6. Choose bars without added flavors and colors.
  7. Choose bars without harmful synthetic and non-organic preservatives, emulsifiers, and gums.

Or you could just make your own. Bars are quick and easy to make, and you have more control over what goes in them (or doesn’t go in them, as the case may be). There are tons of great recipes online, including gluten-free and vegan options. Here are a few recipe collections to get you started.

Do be aware, though, that some of these can still contain high amounts of sugar. Yes, honey, agave, maple syrup, and other “natural” sweeteners count, as do dates, which are commonly used to help bind bars, as well as sweeten them. Sugars, of course, fuel both decay and the chronic inflammation that marks gum disease.

Similarly, bars can often be on the sticky side, giving those sugars more time in contact with your teeth – and the bacteria that colonize on them between cleanings.

We suggest that if you do choose to eat them, you make them just a once-in-a-while thing, not, say, a daily pick-me-up in the afternoon or regular meal replacement. And do brush and floss afterwards.

To download the full report from the Cornucopia Institute, click here.

Images by Leonard J. DeFrancisci & Marco Verch, via Wikimedia Commons

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