Breakfast Bars – Do they meet our needs?

The question is a good one. Are breakfast bars or protein bars a good idea as a meal replacement? Do they provide what we need in a meal or are they nutritionally insufficient?

I know of some who will down a granola bar with their morning coffee and feel satisfied they have had a nutritious breakfast. Hey, at least it isn’t a donut, right? I am sure we have all been there – pressed for time and hungry. Wanting something that is easy, quick and can be eaten on the run.

So, what should we choose when we don’t have the time or the opportunity for a full fledged meal. Do we have to sacrifice nutrition for convenience?

That was my question when I began this search and due to the fact I was immediately confronted by a vast number of ‘food bar’ choices I knew I had to pare down the selections.  These ranged from standard granola bars to meat bars and were anything from common ingredients to organic.  Since there were so many choices I made a selection from what I thought were good candidates and from what were popular choices.

Granola Bars

Nature Valley Granola BarThe first thing I wanted to do was look at the choice of a granola bar for breakfast. Many people choose this as a breakfast and find it quite tasty, but just what does it mean for us nutritionally and are some products better than others.

I started with the gold standard for typical granola bars: Nature Valley Granola Bar. This has been around quite a while and is what I think of when I hear the word granola bar. I compared it to a ‘healthier’ alternative: Kind Healthy Grains Granola Bar. For good measure included a comparison to Pure Organic Brownie Bar.   I also included information on a plain glazed donut, just to see how these three stack up against it.

What these choices have in common is that they are all suitable for vegans in that they have no animal products except for honey.

Here is a side by side comparison:

Nature Valley Granola Bar (42 gram bar) 190 cal per serving
Protein Carb. Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients
Per bar 4 29 12 6 2 160 Whole Grain, Oats, Sugar, Canola Oil, Yellow Corn Flour, Honey, Soy Flour, Brown Sugar Syrup, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Baking Soda, Natural Flavor.
Per gram 0.1 0.69 0.29 0.14 0.05 3.81
Kind Healthy Grains Granola Bar (35 gram bar) 150 cal per serving
Protein Carb. Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients
Per bar 2 23 8 5 2.5 70 Whole grain blend (oats, brown rice, millet, oat flour, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa), tapioca syrup, dried cane syrup, honey, canola oil, coconut, chocolate liquor, sugar, brown rice syrup, molasses, gum acacia, sea salt, vanilla extract, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, Vitamin E.
Per gram 0.06 0.66 0.23 0.14 0.07 2
Pure Organic Brownie Bar (48 gram bar) 190 cal per serving
Protein Carb. Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients
Per bar 6 26 18 8 4 5 Organic Dates, Organic Agave Nectar, Organic Brown Rice Protein, Organic Cashew Butter, Organic Almonds, Organic Walnuts, Organic Cocoa.
Per gram 0.13 0.54 0.38 0.17 0.08 0.1
Donut – Plain Glazed – 1 donut 3” diameter (60 grams) 239 cal
Protein Carb. Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients* varies based on brand*
Per donut 4 30 12 11 1 232 Enriched Unbleached Wheat Flour, Palm Oil, Water, Dextrose, Soybean Oil, Whey, Skim Milk, Yeast,  Salt, Leavening ,  Soy Lecithin,  Artificial Flavor, Eggs; Glaze: Sugar, Water, Maltodextrin,  Artificial Flavor.
Per gram 0.07 0.5 0.2 0.18 0.02 3.87

Pure Organic Fruit and Nut BarsFirst of all, it is important to note that the serving size of these items are not exactly the same.  The serving size is fairly close between the Nature Valley and the Pure Organic at 42 grams and 48 grams per serving.  The Kind bar is smaller at 35 grams per serving.  The donut is 60 grams per serving.   This can make comparison more difficult.  To be totally fair I calculated the nutrition based on one gram of each item to get a more accurate view.

In this evaluation it is necessary to decide what characteristics we value.  Aside from taste, the best comparison for these items is sugar versus fiber amounts.  Ideally we would want a bar that has low sugar and high fiber.  Since these items are not intended to offer much protein I didn’t want to put much emphasis no this characteristic since they are all low protein choices.

The item with the lowest sugar per gram is (surprise) the donut, with the Kind Healthy Bar coming in second and the highest sugar was the Pure Organic.  The highest fiber per gram is found in the Pure Organic with the Kind bar a very close second.  Just to be thorough here is a rundown of other attributes:  Highest Carb = Nature Valley; Lowest Sodium = Pure Organic ; Highest Protein = Pure Organic; Lowest Fat = tie between Nature Valley and Kind.

Kind Healthy Grains Granola BarOverall, given the most important criteria was low sugar and high fiber, the Kind Healthy Grains Granola wins this debate.  However, it is worthy of note that none of these choices offer are that different from a donut from a nutritional standpoint.  Indeed, none of these choices would be appropriate for a meal and at best could only be used to increase carbohydrate amounts in a meal.

What we really need if we are going to have a healthy breakfast is a good source of protein.

High Protein Bars

The typical granola bar/donut fare that might appeal to us for taste does little to satisfy the nutritional needs for a meal. Ideally each of our meals should have sufficient protein, carbohydrate and fat. Although there is quite a lot of debate on the topic which I have written about before, one study pointed to the ideal amount of protein to be 30 grams per meal with 3 meals per day. There is even greater debate as to how much carbohydrate and fat would be ideal, but it would probably be reasonable to say that we would do well to keep this meal to 500 calories or less.

Aside from protein amount and calories we should also strive to have enough fiber. Some studies show that diets that contain between 25 – 40 grams of fiber are ideal. Another item of nutritional importance is keeping total sugar to 25 grams or less and total sodium to 1500 mg or less.

Give all these things to keep in mind, if we were going to have the very best meal we would want it to have these components in these amounts:

Protein – 30 grams

Fiber – 10 grams or more

Sugar – 8 grams or less

Sodium – 500 mg or less

Calories – 500 or less

Given these parameters I set out to find out if any breakfast bar or combination of breakfast bars would meet these nutritional goals.

High Protein Granola Bars

There are your regular granola bars that offer mainly carbohydrates with little protein, and then there are your higher protein granola bars such as the Nature Valley Protein Bar and the Cascadian Farm Protein Granola Bar. Once again since these bars are different sized I created a comparison of them listing amounts per gram.

Nature Valley Protein Bar (40 gram bar) 190 cal
Protein Carb Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients
Per bar 10 14 6 12 6 180 Roasted Peanuts, Almonds, Soy Protein Isolate, Chicory Root Extract, Sugar, Vegetable Oils, Roasted Sunflower Seeds, Toasted Coconut, Whey Protein Concentrate, Tapioca Syrup, High Maltose Corn Syrup, Fructose, Cocoa, Vegetable Glycerine, Rice Starch, Rice Maltodextrin, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Dextrose, Natural Flavor, Baking Soda.
Per gram 0.25 0.35 0.15 0.3 0.15 4.5
Cascadian Farm Protein Granola Bar (50 gram bar) 250 cal
Protein Carb Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients
Per bar 9 21 11 14 3 120 Organic Peanuts, Organic Peanut Butter, Organic Honey, Organic Pea Protein, Organic Tapioca Syrup, Organic Rice Flour, Organic Semisweet Chocolate Chips (organic sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, dextrose, vanilla), Organic Sunflower Oil, Sea Salt.
Per gram 0.18 0.42 0.22 0.28 0.06 2.4

Nature Valley Protein BarsFirst, the similarities: Both bars have peanuts as the main ingredient and both are suitable for vegans and vegetarians. One big difference is the form of protein. Nature Valley uses soy protein isolate and whey protein concentrate in addition to the protein from the peanuts and almonds. Cascadian Farm uses pea protein and rice flour in addition to the protein from the peanuts. This is important for those who need to avoid soy.Cascadian Farm Organic Chewy Granola BArs

In regards to the protein amount, Nature Valley comes out ahead with its smaller bar offering more protein, less sugar, and higher fiber. Cascadian Farm offers lower fat and lower sodium.

Neither of these bars will provide enough protein for the meal if we consumed just a single bar. We could meet our protein needs if we ate three of the Nature Valley bars which would also give us 18 grams of fiber, but that would also mean that we consumed 18 grams of sugar 540 mg of sodium and 570 calories which is not in line with our nutritional goals.

Other High Protein Bars

Tanka BarRecently there has been an influx of several different types of high protein food bars that use various animal protein ingredients for their protein. The Tanka Bar comes in several varieties of meat blended with cranberries to make a meal bar version of meat jerky. Epic is another type of meat meal bar. RXBar is a protein bar using egg whitesEpic All Natural Bison Bar as its primary protein source. Simply protein is a whey protein bar.

RXBar Protein BarHere again the size of the bars are quite different from each other and would lead to a faulty conclusion unless we take a look at the nutrition per gram.

For a better comparison I chose to look at the buffalo version of the Tanka and Epic bars.

Tanka Bar (28 g bar) 70 cal
Protein Carb Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients
Per bar 7 7 6 1.5 1 260 Buffalo, Dried Cranberries (cranberries, sugar), Sea Salt, Encapsulated Lactic Acid, Celery Juice, Black Pepper, spices, garlic, onion powder, red pepper.
Per gram 0.25 0.25 0.21 0.05 0.04 9.29
Epic Bison Bar (43 g bar) 200 cal
Protein Carb Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients
Per bar 11 10 8 12 1 210 Bison, Uncured Bacon (no nitrates/nitrites – pork, water brown sugar, salt, vinegar, celery powder, sea salt), Dried Cranberries (cranberries, apple juice concentrate), Lactic Acid, Celery Powder, Sea Salt.
Per gram 0.26 0.23 0.19 0.28 0.02 4.88
RXBar Protein Bar (52 g bar) 210 cal
Protein Carb Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients
Per bar 12 22 14 8 4 110 Dates, Egg Whites, Figs, Almonds, Unsweetened Coconut, 100% Chocolate, Natural Coconut Flavor.
Per gram 0.23 0.42 0.27 0.15 0.08 2.12
Simply Protein Whey Bar (40 g bar) 150 cal
Protein Carb Sugar Fat Fiber Sodium Ingredients
Per bar 15 16 3 4 5 25 Whey protein crisp (whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, tapioca starch, calcium carbonate, sunflower lecithin), inulin, glycerin, brown rice syrup, cocoa mass, roasted split peas, sunflower oil, pectin, natural flavor, xanthan gum.
Per gram 0.38 0.4 0.08 0.1 0.13 0.63

Simply Protein Whey BarsIn regards to protein amounts there is a clear winner with the Simply Protein Whey bar and the other three practically tied for second place. The Simple Protein Whey bar also offers the lowest sodium, highest fiber and lowest sugar per gram. The Tanka bar has the lowest fat per gram but also the highest sodium per gram of the four.

Yet, here again a single Simple Protein Whey bar will not meet our protein needs unless we eat two bars. With two of these bars we would have 30 grams of protein, 6 grams of sugar, 10 grams of fiber and only 50 grams of sodium. The total calories for two of these bars comes to 300 with 32 grams of carbohydrate and 8 grams of fat total.

Best Breakfast Bar Choice

I must admit that I was ready to be skeptical that any breakfast bar or protein bar could meet the rather rigorous goals I set for our nutritional ideal. At the onset of this study I figured there would need to be a combination of protein bar and granola bar to meet the fiber needs. I also was skeptical that any combination of bars would keep the sugar content low enough.

What I have found is that one item, the Simply Protein Whey Bar meets all the nutritional needs and has no negatives in regards to ingredients. Indeed the ingredient list is relatively simple and avoids the use of artificial sweeteners. I have not yet tried this bar, so I cannot comment on the taste but I presume it will taste no better or worse than the whey protein powder drinks I regularly consume. My next plan is to order some of these bars for a taste test. I will update my finding in this regard as soon as I can.

So the answer to the question is : Yes, a breakfast bar can meet our nutritional needs, as long as it is two of the Simply Whey Protein bars.

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