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Nutrition Bars & Cookies Review (For Energy, Fiber, Protein, Meal Replacement, and Whole Foods)
Initial Posting: 8/27/19
Sections: Jump to a section by clicking on its name.
What are they? Nutrition bars and cookies are distinguished from candy bars and regular cookies by their higher content of protein — about 10 to 20 grams -- and/or fiber — about 9 to 12 grams. Even "energy bars" which pack 20+ grams of sugar for a quick boost, typically include a good amount of protein (See Background).
Do they help? Extra protein (typically about 30 grams to 50 grams per day) can help athletes build muscle and older people prevent or reverse age-related loss of muscle and strength when used in conjunction with resistance-type exercise. The easiest way to get this much protein is from a protein powder added to a drink, but protein bars and cookies offer added convenience, although it's hard to pack 20 grams or more of protein into a bar and have it taste good. Nutrition bars can also be a convenient way to get a range of nutrients (protein, fats, carbs, vitamins, and minerals) when you're on-the-go and don't have time for a meal.
What did CL find? Our laboratory tests showed that each nutrition bar or cookie contained its listed amount of protein and those that claimed to be gluten-free, were. But several products failed to live up to claims regarding carbohydrates (too much), fats and cholesterol (too much), or fiber (too little). See What CL Found).
Tips! Just by looking at a label, you may be able to spot a problem if you add up the calories and the total doesn't closely match what's on the label. Also, watch out for bars claiming to get their fiber from "tapioca starch" (as it is mostly starch with little, if any, fiber) as well as those listing "Net Carbs" — which is not an FDA-defined term. Also, be aware that low-calorie bars typically achieve this with sugar alcohols and other sugar substitutes that can cause gas, and individuals with lactose intolerance may want to avoid certain milk-based proteins. Other ingredients that you may not expect are caffeine and added vitamins and minerals, and be aware of allergens, such as nuts, and saturated ("bad") fats from some milk proteins.
Nutrition Bars and Cookies with CL Founder, Dr. Tod Cooperman
Nutrition bars go by many names including "protein bars," "energy bars," and "meal-replacement bars." Nutrition bars are generally much larger by weight than snack bars (such as granola bars) or candy bars (such as chocolate bars) and have a much higher protein content -- generally 10 grams to 30 grams of protein in a nutrition bar versus little or no protein in a snack bar or candy bar. Some "fiber" or "whole food" bars may also contain little protein, as it is not their focus. (See ConsumerTips™ for daily nutritional requirements).
Quality Concerns and What CL Tested For:
A concern with bar products is whether they contain what is stated on their labels. In 2001, testing by ConsumerLab.com (CL) found most bars to be mislabeled, with many containing undeclared carbohydrates. At around the same time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent warning letters to several manufacturers who failed to include certain ingredients (e.g., glycerol) in the carbohydrate counts stated on their products. When CL tested bars again in 2005, the majority met their nutrient claims. In 2008, all of the bars tested met their claims. In 2013, just two bars failed — for having more cholesterol and/or saturated fat than claimed.
Some labeling discrepancies can be spotted by calculating the expected calories in a product (based on the protein, fat and carbohydrate contents on the label — while deducting for lower-calorie carbohydrates such as fiber and sugar alcohols) and seeing if the total matches the declared calories (see ConsumerTips™). However, most problems, and the magnitude of such problems, can be determined only with laboratory testing.
Neither the FDA, nor any other federal or state agency, routinely tests nutrition bars for quality prior to sale. ConsumerLab.com, as part of its mission to independently evaluate products that affect health, wellness, and nutrition, purchased nutrition bars (including cookie-shaped bars) sold in the U.S. and tested their nutrient claims (see How Products were Selected). The products were analyzed to determine their total calories, total carbohydrates, total dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble) in products claiming at least 5 grams per serving, total sugars, sugar alcohols, total protein, total fat (including a breakout of saturated and trans fat), sodium and cholesterol. Products claiming to be gluten free were tested for gluten. Results were evaluated to determine if the products' nutrient claims were accurate (see Testing Methods and Passing Score).