Don't put a lot of stock in the term "meal replacement bars." Experts say the so-called health bars really ought to be treated as a last-resort option.
"There is no true meal replacement," said Amy Autuori, a registered dietitian at Sodexho, a food- services contractor at Memorial Hospital. "The best option is always to sit down and try to have a simple meal. Whole foods are better than bars. If you have to do it when you're on the go, you can [get by], but try to limit yourself to one bar a day."
While these bars are touted for their portability, there are other, better options for a meal on the go.
"These bars and shakes are great because they're portable," Autuori said, "but there are food products that are portable as well: low-fat cheese and crackers, peanut butter on bread, a piece of fruit. ... You can also supplement with a high-fiber snack like vegetable juice."
Shaina Davis Gross, a registered dietitian at Sodexho at Erlanger Health Systems, said sometimes she'll have a spoonful of peanut butter when she needs a quick protein fix on the go.
Whole foods with complex carbohydrates are preferable to energy bars, particularly because the bars rarely satisfy your appetite, experts say.
Tiffany Godsey, a registered dietitian at Parkridge Medical Center, said in an email interview the bars should be considered as a quick snack in a pinch, not as a meal replacement.
If you must choose a bar of some sort, look to the label.
"You should look to have 30 percent or less of your daily caloric intake from fat with less than 10 percent of that being from saturated fats," Godsey said.
Trans fats, which raise low-density lipid, or "bad" cholesterol, should be avoided.
The recommended daily fiber intake for adults is 25-30 grams per day. However, too much fiber at once can cause stomach upset. Look for 3-5 grams of fiber per serving, said Autuori, as some of the higher-fiber bars contain indigestible fibers from chicory root, and can cause gastrointestinal distress.
Pay attention as well to sodium sugar, protein and calories. Bars that have more than 200 calories or are probably excessive. Look for 10 to 15 grams of protein per serving and try to find bars that have about 30 percent of daily recommended vitamins and minerals. We need no more than 2300 milligrams of sodium in our diet per day," said Godsey.
The key to determining the acceptability of an energy bar is what's in it. The ingredients reveal a lot about the quality of a product. And in most cases, less is definitely more. Gross emphasized the importance of avoiding bars with a lot of added ingredients that are hard to pronounce or sound like chemical additives.
The first ingredient, Autouri said, is the most prevalent one. Avoid bars that have some sort of syrup as the first ingredient as "those are basically going to be sugar bars."
And don't be fooled by the word "organic." It's great for apples or other fruits that involve the skin being eaten, but organic corn syrup is still sugar.
Speaking of sugar, "be careful of the (bars) that sound like dessert," Autouri said. "You wouldn't substitute your lunch with a piece of cake."
So anything called peanut butter chocolate crunch or cookie dough dream should be dismissed.
Pro-Bar Sweet & Savory Maple Pecan
• The Good: Contains 10 grams of protein per serving.
• The Bad: Contains 390 calories and 23 grams of fat per serving.
Luna Blueberry Bliss
• The Good: Contains fewer than 200 (180) calories and 5 grams of fat. Godsey, of Parkridge, deemed this one her choice.
• The Bad: Contains a lot of ingredients that are not easily identifiable (what are oat syrup solids?).
Kind Plus Almond, Walnut, Macademia + Protein
• The Good: Contains a lot of nuts, which are high in healthy fats.
• The Bad: This bar is basically nuts held together with syrup, Autouri, of Memorial, said. Why not just eat a handful of nuts?
Clif Bar Oatmeal Raisin Walnut
• The Good: Contains 10 grams of protein and five grams each of fat and fiber.
• The Bad: The first ingredient is brown rice syrup, contains chicory root extract.
Rise Breakfast Bar Perfect Pumpkin
• The Good: All ingredients are whole food ingredients.
• The Bad: Contains 10 grams of fat.
Larabar Key Lime Pie
• The Good: Contains only five ingredients, all of which are identifiable as actual food. Has no added sugar.
• The Bad: Contains 10 grams of fat and 220 calories per serving.