Monday, December 12, 2016

Granola Bars as Health Food

Some people actually think granola bars are healthy.  In any case Americans spent around $1.4 billion on them last year and that is expected to increase according to the experts, due to the fact that “nutritional and cereal/granola bars present an efficient platform for packaged food engineers to respond to the very latest in food concerns of healthy-eating consumers [and] rapid growth in the number of Americans actively engaged in fitness and weight management programs.”

Another source states:  “Granola bars are becoming quite popular these days as a healthy, on-the-go snack.”

Well, we stopped at the grocery store a few days ago on the way home from yoga class and had a case of the munchies – a very poor time to go grocery shopping.  In an end display were boxes of granola bars with dark chocolate, a favorite at our house.  We yielded to temptation and bought a box.  When we got home to sample them, my wife commented that she liked it "better than other candy bars."  How could she say such a thing?  Wasn’t a granola bar much better for you than candy? 

It said on the package “Natural and Artificial Flavors” so it hit the natural requirement.  It said it contained whole grains, although I wasn’t sure what this really meant in terms of health.  They are often sold in the breakfast aisle, not the dessert or candy aisle.  How could it not be better for you?

This called for some investigation, which was made simple by government labeling requirements available to anyone.  With no candy in the house, I instead compared ingredients to Oreo Double Stuff cookies.

One serving of Oreos, 2 cookies (29g), contains 140 calories, with 60 calories from fat.  One of the bars we bought contains 140 calories with 45 from fat.  The Oreos have 7g of fat, 13g of sugar and 90mg of sodium.  The bar has 5g of fat, 13g of sugar and 70mg of sodium.  The bar seems slightly better, but vitamins, minerals and protein slightly favor the Oreos.

What about those whole grains that are so proudly displayed on the front of the box.  Another Internet lookup told me:  “Fiber is one big reason to eat whole grains. Adults need about 25 to 35 grams of fiber daily, and whole grains contain two types – soluble and insoluble – which are both beneficial to your health.”  So comparing fiber, I found the same 1g for each.  (By the way, the store brand of a similar cookie is slightly less expensive and slightly healthier – if healthier is even a consideration when buying cookies.)

My research led me to the conclusion that, despite the prevailing health mythology, eating that particular granola bar was about the equivalent of eating a couple of Oreo cookies.  The only other difference is that the Oreos have approximately 15 servings per container and the granola bars have 5 or 6.  The price difference comes out to about 40 cents per serving.  That may not seem like much, but Americans overall could have saved $930 million last year by buying cookies instead of granola bars with little, if any, effect on their health.

Just to make sure this dark chocolate bar was not some kind of anomaly, I googled granola bar health and found another bit of research on the sugar content and other problems that are often overlooked.  One conclusion:  “The presence of these ingredients makes it less healthy than you might think it is. Eating a serving of Nature Valley Oats 'n Honey granola bar is the same as eating a bowl of Fruit Loops. Similarly, the Sweet and Salty Nut bars are rich in fructose corn syrup and contain plenty of maltose corn syrup as well.”

That’s why it makes sense to do a little questioning and a little research.  Using critical thinking instead of following the crowd or the common popular beliefs leads to some different, sometimes surprising, conclusions.  A granola bar is a good substitute for a couple of cookies, if cost is not a factor, but it’s as good a substitute for breakfast as a two Oreos.  And most of the information needed to find this out is written on the package.

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