Granola Bars – Not For Breakfast Anymore

Remember in the 70s when the humble granola bar resembled a stick of particle board and tasted about the same? We found them in our lunchboxes because they were supposed to be a healthy treat that wouldn’t rot our teeth. Then in the 80s, someone came up with the idea to make those granola bars chewy. With the addition of corn syrup to both sweeten and hold the cereal bits together, the hard nasty granola bar was a thing of the past and the cuts on the roofs of our mouths from the sharp granola corners healed up quite nicely.

Somehow, in the past twenty years when I wasn’t paying attention, the once lauded granola bar went from a healthy nutritious snack to well… candy. First came the chocolate chips, then the chocolate coating, then peanut butter, and finally caramel and even frosting. The scary part is, there are people out there buying these things for their kids (or themselves) believing them to be a reasonable treat, or even a good replacement for a meal.

My husband, who will hereafter be known as the Granola Bar Guinea Pig (or GBGP for short), was one of those folks who would grab a granola bar as he was walking out the door to catch his bus in the morning. Along with a travel mug of coffee, that was usually his breakfast, eaten on the subway on his way to work. No amount of whining, pleading, cajoling or demanding on my part would convince him that the junk he was eating for breakfast wasn’t healthy. He’d point to the “Whole Grains” claim on the package, roll his eyes at me for being such a crazy organic-loving crunchy-granola (heh!) hippie and run for the bus.

Recently, I took my GBGP to the local supermarket and set him free in the granola bar aisle. Including products such as oatmeal and cereal bars (but not PopTarts), we counted over 50 different items that were either granola bars or some version thereof – keep in mind that I’m in Canada, so you folks in the US probably have about double that number of options. We brought home 7 different boxes, purposely avoiding any that included chocolate, caramel or anything resembling candy – and there’s actually one with candy-coated chocolate bits – selecting products that were marketed in some way to be healthy and nutritious. Here’s what we found:

Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars – Oats and Honey
Nutritional claim: Made with 100% whole grain.
First three ingredients: Whole grain rolled oats, sugar, high monounsaturated canola oil.
Stats: 220 calories, 9g fat, 3g fibre.
Tastes: not as bad as remembered from childhood, somewhat greasy.
GBGP assessment: “Natural, no fake flavours. Feels like you’re eating something healthy.”
Pluses – wheat free, although includes a “may contain” warning due to processing facilities, reasonably-sized ingredients list with few chemical additives.
Minuses – high in calories and fat, includes something called “golden syrup”; aka corn syrup.

Nature Valley Trail Mix Chewy Granola Bars – Fruit and Nut
Nutritional claim: Made with 100% whole grain, naturally flavoured.
First three ingredients: Corn syrup, whole grain rolled oats, crisp rice.
Stats: 150 calories, 4g fat, 2g fibre.
Tastes: overly sweet, weirdly chemically
GBGP assessment: “Lots of nuts and fruits, looks healthy, sweet but not cloyingly sweet.”
Pluses – wheat free, although includes a “may contain” warning due to processing facilities.
Minuses – large ingredient list that includes a variety of preservatives, plus an and/or oil list which usually means “whatever is cheapest”.

Kellogg’s Two Scoops Raisin Bran Bars
Nutritional claim: Source of fibre, low fat, 7 essential nutrients, trans-fat free.
First three ingredients: Kellogg’s cereal (includes wheat, sugar/glucose, salt, etc.), vitamins, minerals.
Stats: 110 calories, 1.5g fat, 2g fibre.
Tastes: like raisin bran, but too sweet.
GBGP assessment: “Tastes like raisin bran, but in a bar! A little sweet.”
Pluses – good fibre to calorie ratio, added vitamins and minerals, no trans-fats.
Minuses – Sorbitol??? Yuk!

Compliments (Store Brand) Apple Berry Chewy Granola Bars
Nutritional claim: none.
First three ingredients: granola cereal, glucose, crisp rice.
Stats: 100 calories, 2g fat, 2g fibre.
Tastes: sweet, chewy, fruit is discernable.
GBGP assessment: “Okay, no real ‘fake’ flavour. Real dried cranberries, but overall, kind of boring.”
Pluses – no corn syrup in any form, replaced with molasses which adds flavour, decent calorie to fat to fibre ratio.
Minuses – Again with the sorbitol.

Quaker Chewy Yogurt Strawberry Granola Bars
Nutritional claim: A source of calcium.
First three ingredients: Granola, yogurt coating (contains partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil), glucose.
Stats: 150 calories, 5g fat, 1g fibre.
Tastes: sickly and fake.
GBGP assessment: “Leaves a coating in your mouth. The pink specks are scary – are these supposed to be strawberries? It tastes like that cheap strawberry ice cream made with the fake flavourings, and it’s got a nasty aftertaste.”
Pluses – I’m still trying to find one.
Minuses – comparatively high in calories, huge ingredient list, much of which is processed, almost all oils included are hydrogenated to some degree, sorbitol again, misleading claim in terms of calcium – only 6% of RDA.

Sunny Crunch Low Fat Chewy Energy Bars – Ginseng & Blueberry
Nutritional claim: less than 3g of fat per bar.
First three ingredients: granola cereal, glucose, glucose/fructose.
Stats: 110 calories, 1.5g fat, 1g fibre.
Tastes: too sweet.
GBGP assessment: “Kind of hard. Blueberries taste fake. There’s a chemically blueberry flavour.”
Pluses – low fat.
Minuses – lots of sugar, including the evil sorbitol again, found in the “health food” aisle, making it seem like a healthier alternative to the other bars, which it is not.

Quaker Oatmeal to Go – Cinnamon Roll
Nutritional claim: made with 100% whole grain oats, source of dietary fibre.
First three ingredients: instant Quaker oatmeal (which has 10 ingredients including hydrogenated oil), glucose, brown sugar.
Stats: 200 calories, 6g fat, 2g fibre.
Tastes: like an actual cinnamon roll.
GBGP assessment: “Very tasty, very sweet. More like a dessert than a cereal bar.”
Pluses – taste; despite the inclusion of sorbitol, this is actually the most flavourful of the bunch and fulfills my need for frosting.
Minuses – very high in fat and calories, lots of hydrogenated oils, high in sugar, uses sorbitol as a sweetener.

The Granola Bar Guinea Pig chose the Nature Valley chewy bar as his favourite overall with the Raisin Bran bar coming in a close second. His least favourite was the Quaker Strawberry Yogurt bar.

Our combined assessment…

Best: definitely the Kellogg’s Raisin Bran bar in terms of overall taste and fat/calories/fibre. I have a hate-on for sorbitol (it causes an allergic reaction in me, although the quantities here are probably quite small), and it’s an unnecessary ingredient when there are three or four other sweeteners already included.

Worst: A tie between the two Quaker bars – while I love the flavour of the cinnamon roll Oatmeal to Go bars, both bars were very high in fat, loaded with trans-fats, and had huge ingredients lists of additives and preservatives. The strawberry yogurt bar was entirely unpleasant. And while the crunchy Nature Valley bar of ye olden days brings back memories, the 9 (!!!) grams of fat per two bar packet definitely puts it out of the running in terms of healthy, even if it does have the smallest and most natural list of ingredients.

The other important thing we determined was that a single granola or cereal/breakfast bar really can’t be considered a meal replacement. There is not enough of anything in just one to make it a reasonable alternative to a complete breakfast. The healthier versions, or better yet, a homemade version with no additives at all, could work as a morning or afternoon snack, along with a piece of fruit, to fill a grumbly stomach until a real meal comes along, but each time I tried to eat just a single bar and a coffee, I was starving and lightheaded an hour later.

Thankfully for me, being forced to eat seven boxes of granola bars has turned my Granola Bar Guinea Pig of a husband off the things completely, and with a little re-arranging of schedules to free up some time in the morning, we now sit down to a cooked breakfast almost every day, which is definitely a healthier option than any of the products we taste-tested.