Behind Bars for the Holidays?

This is a guest blog post by Carol Harvey, Director of food/nutrition labeling and product development at Palate Works.

Nothing beats bars for simple convenience when it comes to quick calories on the go. But there’s nothing simple about evaluating them. With the explosion of products in this category, there has been an escalating assortment of ingredients, descriptions and claims to match.

While taste and variety have been improving, the nutrition benefits often are striped in illicit overstatement (including via the media – ever eager to parrot press release talking points whether true or not), although they’re generally evolving in the right direction.

ProBar recently sent us a mob of their brands: Halo, Fruition, and the ProBar original Whole Food Meal Bar. Each represents a different size/calorie category, starting with the Halo – the runt at 37 g (120-150 calories) – up to the burly Meal Bar at 85 g with 360-380 calories.

The Halo is described as “The Sinfully Healthy Snack” on the package. It is vegan (as apparently all ProBars are), and the web site calls it “low in sugar”. It may not be as sweet as a candy bar, but with 30% of calories coming from sugar (multiple sugars and syrups pack the ingredients list, and add up to 9+ grams per bar), it’s as sugar-rich as a cookie. Also, “low in sugar” is not an FDA approved claim (i.e., there is no such thing in food labeling), and if it were, this bar wouldn’t qualify.

As for “healthy,” that’s another regulated claim, and the Halo doesn’t qualify for that either (it has too much fat and not enough fiber or vitamins/minerals). Sodium is fairly high in one of them (230 mg on package, 250 mg on web site). Slightly better than a candy bar, but the lower calorie content is more a factor of the small size of the bar. Note: The nutrition data on the web site don’t match what’s on the packages.

The Fruition bar comes in various fruit flavors and is labeled “The Superfood Snack,” “Full Serving of Fruit” and “Omega-3 Rich Chia Seeds.”  “Superfood” is apparently in reference to being “packed with natural antioxidants provided directly from the various fruits and chia seeds…” (per the web site).

There are at least a couple problems here:  1) the only (or at least predominant) whole fruit in the bars is dried date – a popular source of sugar and some fiber for many “2.0 bars,” but little or no antioxidants, same for other dried fruits used;  2) the chia seeds are whole (neither soaked, ground nor sprouted), so they will pass through your system and provide 0 nutrition other than fiber… i.e., no antioxidants or omega-3. And if there were significant amounts of omega-3 or antioxidants, this would need to show on the Nutrition Facts label to substantiate such claims. It doesn’t.

But the bar does taste good and even qualifies for use of  “healthy” due to being “low fat” (= higher in sugar from all the dates, etc.) and good fiber content… not antioxidants – oops, they put the wrong claims on the wrong bar.

On to the main course – the Original Collection meal bar. This ProBar is 85 g, which is really two servings, but shows as one in the Nutrition Facts (stating either one or two servings in this instance is permitted). Just be aware when comparing bars that the percentage of calories from sugar, protein, etc. is comparable to smaller bars, not higher. The nice thing about this bar is that the protein and fiber come from whole food ingredients (nuts, grains, etc.) rather than processed protein and fiber isolates. Unfortunately, again, the seeds (hemp, flax, etc.) are whole, and therefore not digestible, so there go all the omega-3 claims. (These are used whole for shelf stability – less risk of rancidity – but the significant nutrition disadvantages are being conveniently ignored.) Otherwise, the bar contains decent ingredients, and is not too sweet.

Speaking of sugar… “evaporated cane juice” is a term FDA has warned manufacturers not to use:  “Sweeteners derived from sugar cane syrup should not be declared on food labels as ‘evaporated cane juice’ because that term falsely suggests that the sweeteners are juice” (HHS Docket No. FDA–2009–D–0430). It is sugar and has no nutritional benefits over any other kind of cane sugar. Many bars trying to fool people into thinking there is no “added sugar” use the term, including ProBar.

One more note about the Meal Bar … at least three of the flavors contain chocolate chips, but the front of the wrapper doesn’t mention them for some reason. Strange, since not everyone likes or wants chocolate (some people are allergic). You need to wade through the lengthy ingredients list to find them in the middle, described as “chocolate liquor (cocoa, cocoa butter),” which is simply unsweetened dark chocolate… a good ingredient, so why hide it. It’s obvious the Art’s Original contains chocolate chips… when seen unwrapped. But there’s no mention or image of chocolate on the package front…

Still, we’re assuming this gang of bars was not designed for a life of delinquency. With a few labeling/marketing tweaks to get claims into compliance, and less optimistic shelf life dates (at 6 months to go, ours were already showing their age, especially the less-than-angelic Halo), they could break out and show their true, albeit more humble, benefits to society.

Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at palatemail [AT] yahoo [DOT] com.

  • mkj

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention, so often we have to not only read a label but interpret it as well. Twice you mentioned that their chia nutrition is misleading. Am I missing something about chia seed absorption? Most of the articles I’ve read say that chia is unlike other seeds in that the body does absorb all the nutrients, even when not soaked. Ex.:

    • carol

      There is no lack of anecdotal claims about the digestibility and benefits of chia seed. However, there is a lack of studies in scientific journals about anything to do with chia. I only found one (from Mexico) and it discusses protein digestibility (in vitro… no in vivo studies have been done that I am aware of), which it found to be worse than low except in ground seeds (flour), which was characterized as better, but only “low.” This low digestibility is presumably due to the gel that forms when the whole seeds are acted upon by liquid (e.g., in digestive system) and reduces or prevents enzymatic action from accessing and absorbing the protein (and most likely other nutrients). However, this soluble fiber-type gel is the very reason chia seeds are good for some things — including slowing down digestion of carbs/sugars, etc., which should be a benefit for insulin response and satiety (feeling full longer on less food). The study also notes that the natives who consumed chia seeds in Mexico and what is now the US Southwest did not eat the seeds plain/whole, but ground them into a flour and then soaked and sweetened them.

  • Gregory

    In your humble opinion, what is the best overall bar(s) nutritionally speaking as well as flavor?

  • James cooper

    Of course there is no evidence that antioxidants have any benefits either.