Snack bars may fit busy lifestyles, but easy may not mean healthful

Mary MacVean / Los Angeles Times /


Sell your oven. Empty your cupboards. There’s no need for a mixer or food processor. Keep the fridge for drinks, and maybe the blender. Eating has never been easier.

The trick? Bars, bars and more bars.

Vegan, chocolate, gluten-free, low-glycemic, raw, sugar-free, nutty, crunchy, gooey, for kids, for weightlifters, familiar old granola bars. Packed with protein, fiber, super-fruits — even some with sugar and fat. Bars for pregnant women, and the YaffBar that’s for you and your mutt to share. Lärabar’s Alt gets its protein from peas; another company harvests crickets for protein.

About a fifth of Americans will eat a bar today, says Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst for the NPD Group. (The only bigger change in our eating habits over the last decade? The explosion of yogurts.) The market research firm Packaged Facts said in an April 2012 report that the bar business approached $5.7 billion in 2011 and is still growing.

“They’re their own food group,” says Terry Walters, a cookbook author and natural foods advocate.

What’s more, bars are wrapped in the cachet of something that’s good for you — and many of them are fine nutritionally, even though most bars have opaque packaging so it can be hard to judge.

And energy bars sound pretty healthful, right? But the truth is that that just means they have calories. So before you load up for the weekend, read the label. Easy doesn’t necessarily mean healthful.

Bar makers are slicing the market to attract very specific customers: dieters on Medifast; the socially responsible with This Bar Saves Lives (which donates to abate hunger); or athletes with Builder’s Max bar, which has 30 grams of protein, made by the 20-year-old company Clif.

Many consumers are looking for protein sources that are cheaper than meat, so that’s one draw, but bars are not necessarily cheap; they can top $5.

Shane Emmett, chief executive of Health Warrior, which makes Chia Bars, gets that. The former college swimmer now has a baby, runs and even does push-ups in his office.

“I wish I could make a giant pot of kale for lunch every day, but I’m too busy,” he says. “Americans genuinely aspire to be healthier, genuinely aspire to push back against the modern Western diet, but they are not going to sacrifice taste and convenience.”

Many people are, however, willing to sacrifice a meal by substituting a bar.

“By their nature you make certain compromises from a nutrition standpoint,” says David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. But sometimes “that’s your best choice. If there’s nothing but fast food around, it could be a good thing to have.”