Lärabar Nut & Seed Crunchy Bar Dark Chocolate Almond
Lärabar Nut & Seed Crunchy Bar Dark Chocolate Almond
Photo: Lucas Zarebinski

Energy bar labels are covered in claims from “gluten free” to “non GMO.” We counted 31 different types of assertions on the labels of  the bars we looked at in our recent tests that had to do with health, eating styles (such as vegan or macrobiotic), or sustainability—with the number of claims on some bars approaching a dozen.

The name of a bar can convey a health message, too. For example, This Bar Saves Lives may sound like it will save your life, but the name refers to the company’s pledge to donate “food aid to a child in need” with every purchase. RxBar makes you think of a prescription, but there’s nothing medicinal about it. And weight loss will obviously be on your mind when you grab a ThinkThin bar, but there are plenty of bars that have a similar nutrition profile and ingredients.

Here, we lay out what you need to know about the most common types of claims you see on energy bars.

These or similar claims are typically used when a product contains a limited number of—and mostly whole-food—ingredients. But these words don’t have a universal definition, nor should you conclude that they’re free of processed ingredients. For example, though the label on Kind Plus Cranberry Almond + Antioxidants with Macadamia Nuts Bar says “ingredients you can see & pronounce,” it has some processed ingredients, such as chicory-root fiber, glucose syrup, and soy lecithin.

The food doesn’t have gluten-containing ingredients such as wheat, rye, or barley (gluten is a family of proteins found in those foods), but that matters only if you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. Otherwise, avoiding it hasn’t been shown to help with digestion, weight loss, or any other health improvement.

High Protein
If a product says “high in” or an “excellent source of” a nutrient, it must—per Food and Drug Administration food-labeling rules—supply at least 20 percent of the daily value for the nutrient. “Good source of” means 10 to 19 percent. The Daily Value for protein is 50 grams. However, the protein can come from natural sources or processed ones (such as soy protein isolate); check the ingredients list.

More on Healthy Snacks

Less Sugar
A food with this claim must contain at least 25 percent less sugar than the brand’s regular product or a competitor’s product. Trouble is, 25 percent less may still be relatively high in added sugars. No added sugar means what it says, but the product can still contain naturally occurring sugars, for example, from fruit.

Low Glycemic
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly and how high a food containing carbohydrates will raise blood sugar levels; low and slow is better. But many factors affect GI, and the claim is not regulated by the FDA. It’s possible for a manufacturer to alter the GI of a food by upping the fat content or by using added fiber or protein sources.

Bars that have flaxseed, chia seeds, or walnuts have a type of omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Though it's a healthy fat, there’s not enough evidence to say that eating foods with ALA is as good as getting your omega-3s from fish.

A third of the bars in our test were certified organic by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). This means that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are certified organic. They can’t be grown with harmful chemical pesticides, and there are rules about the ingredients that can be used and the way they’re processed. For example, artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives or genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) aren’t allowed. And organic ingredients can’t be processed with hexane, a solvent used to extract oil from crops (such as soy or corn) and to make soy protein isolate. Hexane is an air pollutant and can damage the brain and nervous system. Still, organic doesn’t de facto make the bar healthy; organic products can contain a lot of sugars and processed ingredients, such as added protein or fiber.

Made With Organic
This means that 70 percent of the ingredients are certified organic. If used, the individual ingredients must be specified, such as “made with organic oats and raisins” (the manufacturer can choose up to three to feature). The other 30 percent of ingredients can’t be artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, or GMO, but the product can contain ingredients grown with synthetic pesticides or processed with hexane.

Non-GMO Project Verified
The standards required for the use of this seal include testing to verify that the ingredients are non-GMO. (Organics can’t contain GMOs.)

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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