The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Navigating Nutrition Bars

Navigating Nutrition Bars

Dietitian Dialogues

June 28, 2009

Did you know that any given grocery store could offer over 200 different kinds of nutrition bars? How many times have you or your store guests stood in front of the selection and wondered “which one am I supposed to eat?” Unfortunately, choosing the right bar isn’t an open and shut case – and actually enjoying it can be more challenging than an Ocean’s Eleven heist. 

But after analyzing the bars and conducting a few taste tests, the jury is in. The dietitians at Market Street have made it simpler for your store guests to select a nutrition bar, whether it’s a protein, energy, weight loss, or natural snack bar. Here are a few suggestions your store guests can use to select the right bar for them:

•    First, remember “Food first, supplement second.” Rarely does a bar contain all the nutrients that real food does. Real food should be the first choice. Bars can fit into a balanced meal plan, but don’t rely on bars for more than one meal or snack/day.

•    Second, check out the ingredients and the food label. Many times a nutrition bar is just a glorified candy bar with tons of carbohydrates/sugars and saturated fat. Look for bars with the least amount of saturated fat and sugar. The first four ingredients tell us a lot. If sugars and oils are listed first, choose another bar. Particularly avoid bars with partially hydrogenated oils. 

•    Third, fill up with fiber and protein. If you are using the bar as a meal or to tide you over, choose one higher in fiber and protein. These ingredients take longer to digest and therefore keep you full longer. Bars with more fiber and protein often have a lower glycemic index. 

There are several categories of bars. Below are some points to consider:

•    Energy or Power Bars – These bars were originally intended to give athletes portable energy (calories). Not just for athletes anymore, these bars typically contain higher amounts of carbohydrates, as this is the body’s preferred fuel source during exercise. These contain about 200 to 250 calories. Examples: PowerBar, Snickers Marathon.

•    Protein Bars – Basically, these are energy bars with added protein (see our protein primer below). Originally they were used to help gain weight and build muscle in combination with a strength-training program. Watch the calories and saturated fat on these bars closely. Some of these can be nearly 400 calories. Choose bars with quality protein and fewer calories than the weight gainer bars. As a frame of reference, a bar with 28 grams of protein would have the same amount of protein as a 4 oz portion of chicken; a bar with 7 grams of protein is similar to a 1 oz stick of string cheese.

•    Diet or Weight-Loss Bars – These bars are intended to provide calorie and portion controlled nutrition. These are your typical Slim-Fat, Zone and South Beach bars. They contain about 200 to 300 calories. Use caution with bars that contain sugar alcohols (maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol, etc.) as they can cause GI upset for some. 

•    Natural Snack Bars – As organic/natural/local gains more recognition, a new category of bar is emerging. In our Living Well department you will find raw food bars, live food bars, and real food bars. These bars are basically fruit, nut and seeds. The calories range from 200 to 400 calories. Many of these will be high in total fat and sugar, but look closely to see if the fat is from nuts and seeds and the sugar is from fruit.

You can view the nutrition facts of common bars at a quick glance. The Market Street dietitians have created a document by which you can compare bar to bar. Download here. Now when you look at the lineup of bars, you can exonerate and prosecute with confidence.


Perplexing Protein: Protein in bars can come from different sources. Remember that whole grains contain small amounts of protein and nuts; seeds and nut butters will also contribute to protein. However, the majority of protein comes from whey, soy or rice protein. Using soy and rice based protein bars are a great way for vegan athletes to get adequate protein. Lacto-vegetarians can use whey protein, a milk based product. 

There are two types of whey protein: isolate and concentrate. The Whey Protein Institute states “Whey protein isolate is the most pure and concentrated form of whey protein available. It contains 90% or more protein and very little (if any) fat and lactose. Whey protein concentrate has anywhere between 29% and 89% protein depending upon the product. As the protein level in whey protein concentrate decreases the amounts of fat and/or lactose usually increase.”

Most bars use a mixture of soy and whey protein. Clif, Luna and Kashi bars are soy protein based. Jay Robb bars are whey protein.


*This information has not been evaluated by the FDA and is not intended to treat, cure or prevent disease. The opinions reflected in this article do not reflect those of the entire company. The author is in no way affiliated with any brand listed and does not endorse any specific product.

Alicia Brown, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is the Health and Wellness Marketing Manager for Market Street Supermarkets. She is responsible for educating team members, store guests and community groups on issues relating to nutrition, health, wellness and disease management. Alicia is also a key player in marketing nutrition programs to communities and establishing strategic partnerships with third parties such as medical professionals in the communities served by Market Street Supermarkets. 

As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at