Can you remember a time before granola bars? Neither can we. But the humble and simple bar made of oats and other ingredients like dried fruit and nuts has evolved into something pretty spectacular. You can make your own version or choose one of the hundreds of kinds that can be found on store shelves today. But are these handheld snack bars actually healthy? Let's take a closer look.
Pictured Recipe: Coconut-Chocolate Chip Granola Bars
What are granola bars?
Granola is a type of breakfast cereal that gained popularity beginning in the 1960s. Its growth in the convenience food sector may have been thanks largely to its perceived nutritional properties. Health fanatics loved its sweet crunch and nourishing ingredient list, but found it was hard to pack for outdoor adventures like hiking and camping. People started making their own granola bars, and General Mills found a way to turn their Nature Valley granola into the first commercially packaged portable granola bar. And it worked. In fact, it worked so well that the granola bar industry is still thriving. Food companies continue to launch new bars and revamp their formulas to create delicious bars they think consumers will love.
Granola bar nutrition
Here is the nutrition breakdown for one standard (1-ounce) granola bar:
3 g protein
6 g fat
18 g carbohydrate
2 g fiber
17 mg calcium
94 mg potassium
<1 mg iron
<1 mg vitamin C
What's in a granola bar?
Traditional granola bars contain simple ingredients, typically oats, followed by some kind of sweetener and then perhaps dried fruit and nuts. As time has gone on, the recipes and technologies used for creating bars have multiplied. Ingredients can now include seeds, nut powders, probiotics and prebiotics, spices, herbs, chocolate and more. Some bars have no oats at all, and others contain egg whites. In other words, the granola is sometimes missing, creating a new category of bars often referred to as "protein bars." While it can be a challenge to find a true granola bar, they do still exist. The best way to find one is by reading the label and the ingredient list—they'll include the word "granola" and list oats as one of the first ingredients.
How to choose a healthy granola bar
Take a look at the nutrition information. Specifically, the added sugars. "Many granola bars on the market contain too many added sugars," says author Malina Malkani, M.S., RDN, CDN. That's why she recommends finding bars that are sweetened naturally with fruit. This not only reduces the added sugar, she says, but if you're selecting a bar for your child, it can help them learn to appreciate other flavors too. It can also help increase the fiber content in the bar. Remember, this is a snack, not a dessert, so look for a bar with limited added sugars.
Most granola bars are snacks, and snacks should be filling enough to help keep you feeling satisfied until your next meal. A great way to boost the satiety of a snack is by making sure it's a good source of fiber. That's why Malkani recommends selecting a bar that has at least 2 to 3 grams of fiber. And Carlie Saint-Laurent Beaucejour, M.S., RD, LDN, suggests using your granola bar as an easy way to help meet your daily 25 to 35 grams of fibber as recommended by the USDA's 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
While most Americans don't have trouble meeting their daily protein needs, making sure your granola bar has a few grams can help ensure your snack is more satisfying. Look for bars with whole-food sources of protein such as nuts, nut butter, seeds or seed butter.
The primary ingredient in most granola bars is oats. Oats are a whole grain, which means they haven't been processed to remove any nutritive parts. This maximizes the nutrition of your bar and helps up the fiber and protein content. So be sure to check for the word "whole" in front of any grain on the ingredient list to ensure you're getting the best nutrition possible.
Both Malkani and Saint-Laurent Beaucejour recommend checking the ingredient list of the granola bars you choose. The ingredients are listed by weight, so the foods toward the beginning of the list are usually the most prevalent in the recipe. Make sure the first few are whole grains, nuts, seeds or fruit. Malkani also recommends looking for a bar with a short list of ingredients that are recognizable, whole foods.
How to enjoy granola bars
Want to try making your own? Try our Cranberry-Almond Granola Bars or our versatile Chewy Granola Bars made with actual granola! And homemade isn't your jam, use the recommendations above to find a bar that fits your needs.
The bottom line
Granola bars can be a healthy food, but you have to dig deeper than surface level to uncover one that is the best fit for you. Look at the nutrition information to determine if your bar keeps added sugars in check and contains fiber and protein. Check the ingredient list to ensure it includes whole grains and whole-food protein sources like nuts or seeds. Finally, as Saint-Laurent Beaucejour recommends, make sure it's something you enjoy!