Are breakfast bars healthy? It depends on the bar you’re talking about, of course, but it also depends on your definition of healthy.
Prevention magazine says that healthy breakfast bars should contain no more than 15 grams of sugar and at least 5 grams each of fiber and protein. At LiveStrong.com, they say 6 grams or less of sugar, at least 4 grams of fiber and at least 5 grams of protein. Fitness magazine’s 2012 Healthy Food Awards for Breakfast Bars recognized 8 varieties from brands like Clif, Corazonas and Kind. The winners had minimal added sugar, 200 or fewer calories, and at least 3 grams of fiber and protein per serving.
Despite the best intentions, nutritional guidelines like these miss the mark. More important than analyzing the nutrients and tallying up the calories in a product after the fact is understanding what goes into making it. A genuinely healthy breakfast bar should be made of whole foods and other wholesome ingredients. Very few bars on the market are, however, and many are as processed as any candy bar.
1. Added Sugar
Breakfast bars can have a lot of added sugar, but manufacturers can make it seem as though they don’t. Ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with those used in the greatest amounts first. By using a variety of added sugars, manufacturers can list them separately and lower down among the other ingredients. Two of the breakfast bars that earned Fitness’s Healthy Food Award contain 6 different sugars, including organic dried cane syrup, organic brown rice syrup, organic oat syrup solids, sugar, molasses, pineapple juice and vegetable glycerin/glycerol.
Organic or not, “natural” or not, all added sugars, with the possible exception of honey, are processed. The taste of sweet should come straight from the source, from whole foods and ingredients. LARA Bars, for example, may be a bit higher in sugar than other breakfast and energy bars, but all of it comes from fruits like dates, bananas and raisins.
2. Soy Protein Isolate
Soy protein isolate is found in many breakfast bars and is used to establish their protein content. It’s the protein on which the breakfast bar is built and by which it becomes “an excellent source of protein.” Soy protein isolate, however, is hardly natural or wholesome.
In “Twinkie, Deconstructed,” Steve Ettlinger describes how soy protein isolate is manufactured. Soybeans are first heated and then pressed into flakes. Oil is extracted from the flakes by using the solvent hexane, which is obtained from natural gas. “The hexane solvent is so flammable,” writes Ettlinger, “that the entire extraction area, an OSHA ‘controlled environment,’ is off-limits… The risk of explosion is so severe that wrenches in the plant are made of special alloys that can’t cause sparks.”
The oilless flakes are dumped into “a vat of warm water and lye (or lime, ammonia, or tribasic phosphate)… After about an hour of gentle agitation, the proteins and sugars are dissolved and the protein can be extracted in an airplane hangarlike building full of centrifuges.” The next step involves adding hydrochloric acid to the mixture to curdle the protein, and the last step is to dry the soy protein isolate into any number of shapes and sizes, depending on its intended use.
Soy has come to be regarded as a healthy source of protein, but the many ingredients derived from it, including soy lecithin and soybean oil, in addition to soy protein isolate, are highly processed. Add to that the fact that 93% of soybeans planted in the U.S. are genetically engineered.
3. Isolated Fibers
Soluble vegetable fiber, agave fiber, citrus fiber, chicory fiber and oat fiber are some of the ingredients used to up the fiber content in breakfast bars, enabling manufacturers to claim that their products have this or that many grams of fiber per serving. But the fiber here is processed and tacked on to the product only to make it more marketable. It may not be harmful to health, but does it really do any good?
In most cases, breakfast bar manufacturers are not making us healthy foods. Rather, they are formulating products to fit a particular nutritional profile, such as the ones recommended by Prevention, LiveStrong.com or Fitness. Low in sugar? Check. High in protein and fiber? Check. Who cares how you get there as long as these numbers satisfy the latest guidelines? For balanced nutrition from whole foods, you’re on your own. And that’s actually okay, because you’d be better off with an apple and a handful of nuts anyway.
Photo Credit: JanCho