Medical Doctors Say Nutrition Bars Can Be as Unhealthy as Candy

Joel Eisenberg

Some nutrition bars deliver on their promises while others are nutritionally lacking and can cause more harm than good, say U.S. doctors.

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Author’s Note

This article is free of personal opinion and bias, and is based solely on medical science and accredited media reports. No medical advice is offered herein on the part of the author. All listed theories and facts within this article are fully-attributed to several medical experts, scientists, and media outlets, including those quoted for Straits Research, WebMD.com (Gary D. Vogin, MD, Dawn Jackson, RD, and Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD), American Dietetic Association, Healthline.com (Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, and Jillian Kubala, MS, RD), Harvard Health (Robert H. Shmerling, MD), and Good Housekeeping (Stefani Sassos MS, RDN, CSO, CDN, NASM-CPT, and Amy Fischer MS, RD, CDN).

Introduction

An October, 2021 press release, composed by data firm Straits Research, values the protein bar portion of the global nutrition bar market at $79.3 billion, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.3%. See here for Global Newswire press release.

Though protein bars may be the most popular such nutrition snack in terms of sales on a worldwide basis, the remainder of the nutrition bar market is not a homogenous lot. According to “Nutrition Bars: Healthy or Hype?” from WebMD.com, as medically reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD: In the current bar-wars environment, there are literally hundreds of these prewrapped and portable products competing for shelf space at gyms, health-food stores, and supermarkets, with names ranging from PowerBar and Luna Bar to Balance Bar and MET-Rx. But nutritionists agree that not all bars are created equal. There are high-carbohydrate bars, protein bars, energy bars, breakfast bars, brain-boosting bars, meal-replacement bars, diet bars, and women-only bars.

There are further varieties not listed in the article, such as vitamin-enriched bars, sold as being of benefit for overall health and easily found online.

The WebMD.com article goes on to quote nutritionist Dawn Jackson, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, who says: “Some of the bars have as much sugar and as much saturated fat as a candy bar. So use them in moderation."

A March, 2020 article from Healthline.com focused on protein bars and largely concurred with Jackson’s general assessment. Written by Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, and medically reviewed by Jillian Kubala, MS, RD, “Are Protein Bars Good For You?” states the following: When examining ingredient labels, be aware that some protein bars use a proprietary blend of ingredients and don’t disclose any of its details on the packaging. Many protein bars also contain high amounts of added sugar and use unhealthy sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, which adds excess fructose to your diet and can increase your risk of fatty liver, obesity, and diabetes when consumed in high amounts.

In line with Jackson’s piece, the Healthline.com article also acknowledges the potential benefits of protein bars: The average protein bar contains 5–10 grams of fat, 25–35 grams of carbs, and 5–10 grams of fiber. In addition to offering protein and carbs, many protein bars are a good source of micronutrients, such as calcium, B vitamins, potassium, and iron.

With all the choices, what do doctors and dietitians recommend? Some health experts extoll the virtues of such bars, others urge to steer clear entirely.

On Nutrition Bars and Health

A second WebMD.com article utilized as research for this article, this one written by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD and titled “Meal Replacements: Choose Those Bars and Drinks Carefully,“ says about the former: Nutrients should be primarily complex carbohydrates, with small amounts of simple sugars and a bit of fat, along with a moderate amount of protein. Look for products that fit the following guidelines: 220-230 calories per serving, less than 5 grams of fat per serving, 3-5 grams of fiber per serving, 10-15 grams of protein per serving and fortified with a third of daily vitamins and minerals.

Medical experts agree that healthy options do exist, though most offer the caveat that natural, unprocessed foods are far more beneficial.

Health.Harvard.edu goes one step further for a comparative study, as shared in an article by Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor of Harvard Health Publishing. In his vintage 2015 piece, “Are Protein Bars Really Just Candy Bars in Disguise?” Dr. Shmerling writes: So, I carefully compared the nutritional contents of a Snickers Bar, a Luna Bar (Nutz Over Chocolate, my personal favorite) and, for good measure, a Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey granola bar.

It should be noted that calls to those three brands, as well as ingredient listings online, verify no change in formula to either the aforementioned Snickers Bar, Luna Bar, or Nature Valley granola bar varieties in the intervening seven years.

Dr. Shmerling concludes, by comparing the three samples in terms of calories, fat, sugar and salt, protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals, that gram for gram the calories were similar, and in all other aspects the Luna Bar came out ahead and is considered a healthy snack option.

It is not the intention of this piece to promote nutrition bar brands, however, for those of you searching for healthier options, refer to “15 Best Protein Bars, According to a Nutritionist,” written by Stefani Sassos MS, RDN, CSO, CDN, NASM-CPT, and Amy Fischer MS, RD, CDN, for Good Housekeeping.

Conclusion

Health-wise, nutrition bars have been a mixed lot since their inception. As protein bars are the highest-selling in the global market, their health claims over the years have become increasingly scrutinized. As far as other nutrition bars, the same applies — as verified by the numerous medical studies found and attributed online in accredited media outlets.

As Kathleen Zelman noted, in her above WebMD.com article: Bars and meal replacement drinks were initially targeted to the serious athlete who needed extra fuel for workouts. Today, these products have gone mainstream, targeted to anyone needing a nutritional boost.

Indeed, the choices are many. Based on your needs, some research may be helpful.

I hope you have found this article of benefit. Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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