Welcome to the second edition of C.O.W.S. In Your Cart, a label reading guide to help you make healthy choices at the grocery store. We’ll also offer homemade versions of the store bought items in case you’d like to try something new. In the last Cart post we gave shopping savvy advice about kid yogurts. Now join us in the aisles for a closer look at snack bars.
Part 1 with Lauren:
Choosing a C.O.W.S. Worthy Snack Bar
These bars sent me on some wild goose chases and down a few rabbit holes as I investigated ingredients, tried to define what a snack bar is, and struggled to physically locate all the bars in my store (Cereal Bars in one area, Natural Bars in another, Granola Bars in a third. Isn’t granola made of oats which is a natural cereal? Ugh). For the sake of my sanity and yours, I decided to focus on granola and nut based bars and to skip the breakfast, biscuit-y, cake-y, or cookie like bars this time.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind for each of our C.O.W.S. categories. For each letter there’s one priority tip to focus on, then one or two extra tips for those wanting to go the extra mile in the label reading journey. Remember, a big goal of mine and Patti’s is to get people to ignore the mayhem on the front of the boxes, turning instead to the back where the true nutrition facts are waiting. If you’d like more background on why we picked the C.O.W.S. categories, click on these links to read past posts: C O W S
C is for Close to Homemade
Short and simple is not always best in terms of ingredient lists. Some ice creams only have 5 ingredients and potato chips only have 3, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for us. Also, think of all the recipes you’ve made at home that have looooong lists of ingredients and the final product is full of good nutrients (salads with multiple veggies, whole grains, and homemade dressing comes to mind. Long list, still healthy).
- Priority Tip: Focus on the Ingredient #1. Instead of getting bogged down on the simplicity or length of the ingredient list, focus on the first one. Ingredient lists on food packages are arranged by weight, so the first thing you see is the most prevalent in the recipe. Make it something good, like nuts or whole grains. If fruit is #1, that’s OK too. Fruit will increase sugar, but at least the fruit brings other healthy nutrients too.
- Extra Savvy Shopper Tip: Ingredients to watch. This C.O.W.S. section is useful for us to point out unfamiliar ingredients that could have unpleasant or undesirable effects on your health. For this post I chose chicory root, an ingredient I saw again and again in the snack bar aisle. This plant derived fiber, also known as inulin, has a tendency to cause abdominal pain, bloating and gas (I can vouch for this first hand – my struggle after a Fiber One bar was real and I’m not alone). Chicory root is not necessarily harmful, may have some benefits as a prebiotic, and likely doesn’t affect everyone the same. Just wanted to offer a warning to avoid a possible unpleasant and embarrassing snack bar aftermath if you’re one of the unlucky ones.
O is for Organic, with a twist
- Organic is great if it’s available and doesn’t bust your budget. But in the case of snack bars, this advice is mainly for the environmental benefits of organic farming. I don’t have evidence to show an organic snack bar is more nutritious than one that is not organic. In fact, the organic snacks bars I found at my store were less nutritious than most of the others with less fiber and protein and many sources of added sugar. Hence the twist!
W is for What’s in it for me?
It’s great when our snacks can also provide us with some of the nutrients our bodies require each day. Get some nutrition bang for your buck by following these tips:
- Priority Tip: Get some Protein & Fiber. Choose a bar with some fiber and protein, nutrients that help us feel full and prevent a search for another snack in 10 minutes. A good goal is 4 grams or more of each.
- Extra Savvy Shopper Tip: Find the Nutrient Gems. Dig deeper into the ingredient list and look for nutrient packed items like nuts, seeds and whole grains (oats, barley, millet, quinoa). There’s only so much room on a label, so you may not see numbers for all the vitamins, minerals and healthy fats these foods provide. But they’re there. Remember, the earlier they appear in the ingredient list the better since ingredients are in order by weight.
S is for Slash the Sugar
- Priority tip: The lower the sugar, the better. Check the amount of sugar grams and use this to compare different snack bars you are considering. Unless the bar has fruit, most or all of the sugar grams you see are from added sugars that give us nothing except empty calories.
- Extra savvy shopper tip 1: Sugar Sources. Check out the ingredient list and see how many added sugars you find (cane sugar, honey, molasses, syrups, etc). Also take note of how early they appear in the list. First or second ingredient? That bar is mostly sugar. Organic or “natural” sounding doesn’t mean the sugar is any less harmful to our health.
- Extra savvy shopper tip 2: Sneaky Sugar Claims. Take a second look at products labeled “lower sugar” or “less sugar.” Many contain artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol (a sugar alcohol. In the picture below sorbitol is part of the polydextrose listed) and sucralose (Splenda). Are these definitely dangerous? The answer is I’m not sure, but there is enough iffy evidence to make me uncomfortable with them in our foods (like this article and this article if you’re curious. Plus this one stating sorbitol can have a laxative effect. Yuck). I’m especially cautious with kids. Artificial sweeteners are in so many foods and drinks now, so kids can consume amounts that are higher than the amounts recommended as safe. More research is needed to better understand artificial sweeteners and their long term effects. In the meantime, my advice is to go easy or pick something else.
Put these snack bars in your cart
Here are our picks for the better bars to buy. These items follow most, but not all of the C.O.W.S. guidelines (unfortunately perfection doesn’t usually exist in packaged products).
Note: Yes, there is a lot of fat in this one, the highest in all the bars I reviewed actually. Higher fat numbers are to be expected with nut based bars, forgivable since it’s mostly the heart healthy type of fat. But this product also has coconut which boosts the unhealthy saturated fats we have been trained to avoid. Another example of everything in moderation.
Did you spot it? Yes, this one has chicory root fiber! It follows so many of the other guidelines that I had to include it (even the higher fat amount is forgivable since most of this fat is the heart healthy kid from the nuts). If chicory root doesn’t upset your stomach, then go for it.
Ok, but not great bars
Sugar is on the high side, protein and fiber are just ok. However, I appreciate that the serving size is two bars (may be a more satisfying use of 180 calories) and that the front of the label claims aren’t total bunk. “320mg ALA Omega-3” is actually something useful since this amount meets about 20% of our daily needs of an important omega-3 fat. Thanks to chia seeds for this nutrition burst, but I wish their presence had boosted the protein and fiber a bit more.
Most Nature Valley, Special K, and KIND products fall into this blah category too. They’re not terrible, but the fiber and protein are too low and the sugar is too high for a true C.O.W.S. stamp of approval. Better than a candy bar, but not as nutritious as I would hope. Confession: one of my favorite bars is in this category. I’m a sucker for the peanut Sweet & Salty Nut bars by Nature Valley. Not the most nutrient packed and a high on the sugar side, but so tasty. Everything in moderation, right?
Snack Bar Bummers
This one snuck on the shelves with the snack bars. I expected better from this company (and from the store that stocked the shelves this way). We can argue about quality of ingredients compared to a typical marshmallow cereal treat, but nutrition wise I think it’s silly to boast about quinoa crisps when the protein and fiber in the product is <1g (clearly the organic navy bean flower is not doing much nutritional good either). Also, check the #1 ingredient: organic tapioca syrup = sugar.
#1 ingredient is sugar and other sweeteners follow, boosting the numbers to 21 grams! That’s a lot, especially when there is no fruit to be found that could contribute sugar + other nutrients. The protein and fiber is pretty good and seems to be from legit ingredients (soy is a complete protein, meaning is has all the protein building blocks we can’t make in our bodies), but it would be nice to see some other nutrient dense, whole food ingredients instead of all the syrups and flours. Not a favorite.
Had to revisit this one more time. Remember, “Less Sugar” doesn’t mean perfect food. Calories and sugar may be lower, but fiber and protein are puny, there are few nutrient dense ingredients, and some of the ingredients that are there are not my favorite (inulin, polydextrose/sorbitol, sucralose, and some trace amounts of heart hating trans fats). Yes, these ingredients are farther down in the list meaning they are not super prominent in the food. But, even trace amounts can add up if eaten regularly.
A few final words before I turn this over to Patti:
- If you find an amazing product that I missed or that our store doesn’t stock, please let me know! I do my best to do thorough searches, but aisles are long, shelves are plentiful, and new products are always popping up.
- Forgive me if I bashed your favorite product. I’m certainly not a perfect eater or shopper either! I’m just trying to shed some light on the crazy world of food shopping, reminding readers that even our go-to products deserve a second look sometimes.
Part 2 with Patti:
C.O.W.S. In Your Cart, at home
Of course, I always feel better if I can make a bar, when I have time. All of these bars here meet the C.O.W.S. constraints, are ridiculously simple, are easy to adapt for substitutions, and freeze well (just make sure to cool completely – if they are baked- and wrap individually in waxed paper before you throw into a freezer bag or tupperware container). Makes mornings and snack time uber fast. Oh, and did I say they taste aMAzing? – I guess that is the most important point.
Quick hint when making homemade bars with liquid sweetener: the stickier the sweetener, the more it will hold together. Honey and brown rice syrup are the most ‘gluey’, then agave, and then maple syrup. If you are more of a maple syrup fan (like me), you may want to add a bit more nut butter (just a spoonful or two).
These bars are favorites of both of these Easy as Pineapple people. They are CHOCK. FULL. of nutrients. Sure, some of the ingredients might require a trip to the store (I see you dates, chia seeds, and coconut), but believe me when I say that they are worth it. These bars will keep you full for a while — great for a meal substitute, like breakfast or lunch on the go, along with a piece of fruit, some milk, or a yogurt – with ingredients like oats, nuts, and chia seeds, which add fiber, fat, and protein. 7 grams of fiber and 4.5 grams of protein! Yes, the sugar content is higher, but it is due to naturally occurring sugar from the dates; there is no added sugar. Use whatever nut or seed you choose, if you are not a walnut fan (or don’t have any on hand). Sub chocolate chips if you don’t have a chocolate bar lying around.
Can’t get much easier than this. 3 ingredients. Use whatever cereal you have on hand (for the most C.O.W.S. friendly version, stick with low- or no-sugar added cereals – think Rice Krispies, Original Cheerios, Chex, etc.). Use your favorite nut or seed butter. Use your favorite liquid sweetener (honey, agave, maple syrup, brown rice syrup). Want to get crazy? Add some more nutrient boosting ingredients, like dried fruit, ground flax seed, chia seeds, chopped nuts or seeds of choice. Let your creative side flow! I calculated the nutrition with Cheerios, natural peanut butter, and maple syrup. For 9 bars, I came up with approximately 115 calories, 3 grams of protein, 8 grams of sugar. This is definitely more of a snack on its own than a full breakfast. This may be a good homemade bar to start with, since it may already be the closest to the commercial products that your child may already eat.
Yummy – Pumpkin! Remember, it is technically a vegetable. These have a great chewy consistency. 9 grams of sugar, 2 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber – not too bad for homemade. While you are at it, double the recipe, make it in a 13×9 pan, wrap the individual bars in waxed paper once cooled and throw in a freezer bag in the freezer for easy-to-grab snacks and breakfast.
Yes, yes – I know. The idea of beans in a granola bar sounds ridiculous. But don’t knock it until you try it. The beans (especially white beans or chick peas) are almost undetectable. And how great would it be to get in some extra protein and fiber in a food you can really feel good about. If you are going to use a dark bean, I suggest adding cocoa; it makes it quite palatable. This cheat sheet above (from No Meat Athlete) makes whipping up some bars as simple as can be. These are totally customizable based on what is in your cupboard and what your child likes. And – my go-to trick that works EVERY SINGLE TIME: add a few mini chocolate chips to the top of the bar. It makes any food item so much more inviting! Substitutions can include: Honey as another sweetener, any nut or seed butter for the binder, any standard flour (including gluten-free) for the dry base. As always, go organic if it’s your thing.