Nutrition Action Healthletter
Center for Science in the Public InterestOctober 2000 — U.S. Edition 
Behind Bars: Dr. Atkins & Friends Take The Wrap
In the beginning, there were candy bars.
They were individually wrapped concoctions of fat (from chocolate, nuts, or peanut butter) and sugar (from nougat, caramel, or marshmallow). They weren’t supposed to be healthy. They were “fun foods”—snacks with little or no redeeming nutritional value.

Candy bars begat granola bars, which begat cereal bars (like Nutri-Grain), which begat diet bars (like Slim-Fast), which begat energy bars (like Power) and supplement bars (like Think!).

   Each generation had its own roots and its own raison d’être. But each category is constantly evolving. And if you step back and look at the big picture, you can see that they’re all moving closer to...the candy bar.

   Yet while candy bar sales were up by just two percent in 1999, sales of granola, diet, and other non-candy bars jumped by 13 percent, while energy bars and gels soared by more than 60 percent.

   What’s driving the sector? The aging of the population.

   “As you get older, you pay attention to what you snack on,” Connie Franceschi, director of marketing services at candy manufacturer Harmony Foods Corporation, told the trade publication Professional Candy Buyer last March. “At the same time, you still like the indulgence and pleasure associated with candy. When you get those two things going, it’s a formula for success.”

   Bars are so successful, in fact, that we couldn’t review them all in one issue. This month we start with granola, cereal, snack, and diet bars. In an upcoming issue we’ll tackle energy and supplement bars.

Granola Bars

Homemade granola is a mixture of whole oats, nuts, raisins, and honey, all baked (with or without oil) until deliciously crunchy. It isn’t low in fat or calories, but at least its fat is unsaturated...unlike some store-bought versions, which are made with hydrogenated oil and coconut.

   Some of the first granola bars—like Nature Valley Oats ’N Honey—were (and still are) true to their roots. Now most brands have ingredients like chocolate chips and chunks, cookies, fudge, or M&Ms, Snickers, or Butterfinger pieces.

   But even candy-laden granola bars are a cut above candy. Standard-size chocolate bars (like Snickers, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, and Milky Way) supply roughly 250 calories, mostly from their sugars (20 to 35 grams) and fat (10 to 14 grams). What’s more, most candy bars harbor five to nine grams of saturated fat (that’s chocolate for you)—a quarter to half a day’s worth.

   Granola bars, on the other hand, typically have about half the calories and less than half the sugar of candy bars. Fat ranges from zero to seven grams, with zero to three of them saturated. (Exception: Sunbelt Fudge Dipped bars hit ten grams of fat—four of them saturated.)

   That’s partly because a standard granola bar is only about two-thirds the size of a standard candy bar. But it’s also because granola bars generally have at least some whole-grain oats and less sugar and sat-fat-filled chocolate.

   We gave Best Bites to bars if their only grain was whole grain and they had at least two grams of fiber (a sign that those whole grains aren’t scarce) and no more than one gram of saturated fat and 14 grams of sugar. (The sugar limit is generous, because the number on a bar’s Nutrition Facts label includes sugars that occur naturally in its fruit.)

   Only Health Valley Granola Bars or Fruit Bars (they’re granola bars with some added fruit) and Barbara’s Nature’s Choice Granola Bars rose to the challenge. If you can’t find them, look for any bar with no more than one gram of sat fat.

Cereal & Snack Bars

Ready-to-eat cereals were designed for people who have no time to cook a hot breakfast. Cereal bars are targeted at people who have no time to sit down and eat a bowl of cereal.

   Don’t fool yourself. Despite the fruit and whole grains on the boxes, most cereal bars consist of white flour fortified with vitamins and wrapped around a jam-like filling. Most have more sugar than fruit. They’re glorified Pop-Tarts.

   Nearly all are low in sat fat and not terribly high in sugar. The problem with these bars is what they aren’t: a bowl of whole-grain cereal, low-fat milk, and fresh fruit.

   We gave Best Bites to Barbara’s Nature’s Choice Fat Free Cereal Bars because they’re made with whole-wheat flour. But no amount of fruit juice concentrate or paste in the box can match an apple like the one on the box. Whole wheat also earned Best Bites for Health Valley Bakes and Healthy Breakfast Bakes.

Diet Bars

Want to lose weight? You could have a healthy, low-calorie meal like a grilled chicken salad with low-cal dressing or (lightly) stir-fried vegetables or low-fat cottage cheese and fresh fruit for lunch. Or you could have high-fructose corn syrup, yogurt-flavored coating, partially defatted peanut flour, honey, high-maltose corn syrup, and the other ingredients in a Slim-Fast Meal On-The-Go Bar.

   The concept is simple: In place of one or two meals a day, you eat what amounts to a vitamin-fortified candy bar along with a glass of water. Since each two-ounce bar has only 220 calories (less than a meal, but no less than an ordinary candy bar), you’re supposed to lose weight.

   Other diet bars—like Nestlé Sweet Success, Jenny Craig, Zone Perfect, Pounds Off, and Atkins Diet Advantage—are also designed to pinch-hit for a meal or snack when you don’t have time for the real thing.

   No one has done research to show whether eating bars instead of meals can help dieters. On the one hand, they’re the ultimate in portion control, so they might make life easier for people who can’t stop eating.

   On the other hand, bars are calorie-dense. Most supply about 100 calories per ounce of food. At least in short-term studies (all we’ve got so far), foods with high calorie density make it tougher to lose weight because they don’t fill you up. And the obligatory glass of water that most labels instruct you to drink doesn’t solve the problem. When water is incorporated into a food (like soup), it makes you feel full. When you have a glass of water with a solid food, it doesn’t trip your satiety mechanism. Nor does it train you to eat healthy foods for the long run.

   What’s more, only a few diet bars met our Best Bite limit on saturated fat. It’s no surprise that Atkins Diet Advantage Bars failed. They’ve got ten to 13 grams of fat, three to eight of them saturated—awfully close to the highest-fat chocolate bars. (Atkins’s books push steak, cheese, butter, and other blood-vessel blockers.)

   But Zone Perfect bars—like all Slim-Fast and most Jenny Craig bars—also exceeded our cut-off of one gram of sat fat. Most had four grams, high considering Zone author Barry Sears’s advice to limit the artery-clogger.

   If you insist on a meal replacement bar, try Jenny Craig’s Oatmeal Raisin Bar. While most diet bars are like fortified chocolate bars, it’s more like a fortified granola bar, with no saturated fat, three grams of fiber, and more rolled oats than anything else.

The information for this article was compiled by Heather Jones.

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