Take a jaunt to any convenience store and you’ll find an assortment of energy bars more diverse than the Pokémon card collection I had back in fifth grade. There are the basic granola-based bars, the chocolate-drizzled candy bars posing as somewhat healthy energy bars, and of course, the hardcore, X-treme, triple-threat protein volcanic eruption bars. The challenge is, which to grab?
To help you make the best decision, I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help me rank a bunch of popular energy bars by how healthy they are — from pretty damn healthy to candy bar in disguise.
First, though, I want to mention that Hunnes has a preference for plant-based bars. “Plant-based and vegan are my first choices for bars, because they have the healthiest ingredients and tend to have fewer additives,” she says. While this is often true, however, it isn’t always true, and as we make our way through this ranking, I’m going to point out a few cases where the environmental impact of the energy bar played a role where Hunnes placed it on our list.
Now here’s what she came up with…
1) LÄRABAR (Apple Pie): This is the healthiest energy bar on the list, according to Hunnes, who mentions that it might be particularly helpful for carb-loading, like before running a marathon. The reason this bar wins first place is simple: It boasts only six ingredients — dates, almonds, apples, walnuts, raisins and cinnamon — all of which are healthy on their own. Dates are high in fiber; almonds can help lower blood sugar levels; walnuts sport omega-3 fatty acids that prevent heart disease; raisins keep your bones strong; and cinnamon can reduce cholesterol and maintain the long-term integrity of your boner (no, seriously).
2) KIND Snack Bar (Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt): “This has easily recognizable ingredients,” Hunnes says (namely almonds, peanuts, unsweetened chocolate, cocoa butter and sea salt). “The fats come from healthy sources [nuts], and it’s low in sugar.” On the negative side, though, Hunnes says the presence of palm kernel oil is unfortunate, since the sourcing of this ingredient is terrible for the environment, and it can be high in saturated fats, which may contribute to heart disease.
3) CLIF Bar (Crunchy Peanut Butter): We see a spike in added sugar here, with this energy bar containing 19 grams, a considerable amount. The American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 36 grams and women consume no more than 25 grams a day. On the plus side, Hunnes says this bar “still has a pretty decent ingredient profile, with a little extra protein.” (It boasts 11 grams of protein, to be exact.)
4) Nature Valley Fruit & Nut Bar (Trail Mix): “This has a lot of calories and carbs for what it is,” Hunnes says (140 calories and 25 grams of carbohydrates). “It also has quite a few processed ingredients.” The big bad one that stands out to me is corn syrup, which is basically just liquid sugar. So while this energy bar might not be the worst choice, Hunnes suggests skipping the processed ingredients and buying actual trail mix instead.
5) LUNA Bar (LemonZest): Hunnes points out that this one has more calories (190) than the Nature Valley bar and less protein (eight grams) than the CLIF bar. Again, she mentions that it also has plenty of processed ingredients, including an assortment of sugary syrups, and the ever-odious palm kernel oil.
6) PowerBar (Vanilla Crisp): “This has a lot of carbs and a ton of processed sugar products, as well as other processed ingredients,” Hunnes says (it contains a whopping 46 grams of carbohydrates and 26 grams of sugar due to the presence of sugary syrup). “It probably won’t leave you feeling very satisfied.” That’s because it’s basically just a sugar bomb.
7) RXBar (Blueberry): This is one of those unique entries I mentioned earlier, and I’ll let Hunnes explain why. “I appreciate the simplicity of this bar in that it has very few ingredients and no added sugar,” Hunnes explains (the ingredients are dates, dried egg whites, almonds, cashews, blueberries and natural flavors). “If I were ranking the products strictly in order of quality, I’d probably put this one right after the apple pie LÄRABAR. However, since it contains eggs, I wanted to separate it: They’re only egg whites, which aren’t as unhealthy as eggs with the yolks, but they’re still terrible for the environment.” In other words, this is actually a pretty damn healthy choice, but for the eco-friendly, like Hunnes, this bar lands toward the end of our list solely because it’s not plant-based.
8) Rise Bar (Almond Honey): Much like the RXBar, this is another energy bar that would likely land near the top if not for Hunnes considering the environmental impact of its creation. “I love that it only has three ingredients,” she says (almonds, honey, and the cause for her concern, whey protein isolate, which is a concentrated version of the protein-packed leftovers of cheese production). “I just wish this company could have found a plant-based alternative for their protein source due to the ‘lives’ of dairy cows.”
On the plus side, honey is one of the healthiest sweeteners out there, since it has natural antibacterial and antiviral properties and is packed with health-enhancing nutrients and antioxidants. So you can see how this energy bar could be a super healthy snack, even though Hunnes has some ethical reservations.
9) Power Crunch Bar (Triple Chocolate): Hunnes says this is only mildly better than the forthcoming energy bar, since it has a ton of processed ingredients, including various types of whey proteins and palm oil. “I’d almost recommend eating a chocolate bar instead,” she says.
10) Gatorade Fuel Bar (Chocolate Chip): “This also has processed ingredients, but even more so,” Hunnes says, adding that the addition of nonfat milk, which contains potentially tumor-growing casein (animal protein), is a big no-no in her book. “I prefer people stay away from dairy products, and there are many other better choices out there for bars.” This energy bar is also high in sugar, boasting 19 grams, and once again, palm oil.
So there you have it, folks: Your guide to gas station energy bars. Now if only I could find those damn Pokémon cards…