Kind bar conundrum: What do experts look for in snack bars?

/ Source: TODAY
By Bill Briggs

The charge that Kind bars aren't as healthy as the company claims instantly confused consumers. Aren't those bars packed with whole grains, nuts and seeds? And aren't those ingredients all good for us?

Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Kind, saying that labels on certain products don't meet federal requirements for use of the nutrient content claim of “healthy”.

Four bars were named in the FDA letter:

  • Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot
  • Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Coconut
  • Kind Plus Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein
  • Kind Plus Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants

The company defended its products and said "labeling adjustments are being made."

Kind snacks have long been considered a more nutritious alternative to other granola bars or candy bars because some Kind products contain less sugar than competing brands. But do those four bars those listed by the FDA qualify as health food impostors?

Part of the confusion comes from what we perceive as "better" or "healthier" ingredients. For example, you may think honey is a natural, healthier alternative to white table sugar, or sucrose. While agave, honey, and brown sugar all sound like healthier options to sucrose, they are all seen by the body as the same fuel. All can quickly raise blood sugar. So the fewer the grams, the better.

What should you look for on the labels of snack bars?

First, let's dispatch with one huge caveat.

The types of bars best suited for children, athletes, seniors or active adults do differ and should uniquely match the nutrition needs and goals of those specific eaters, experts agree.

"The sticking point for me is that if I were to recommend a snack bar for an individual, I would have to know (their) age, sex, level of activity, current BMI, (and) what their overall diet looks like on a daily basis," said Joanne Lupton, a professor in the department of nutrition and food science at Texas A&M University.

"Are they overweight? I would suggest no snacks, unless they were nutritional enough to substitute for empty calories in their diet and thus decreased their daily caloric intake," Lupton wrote in an email to TODAY.

"Are they active teenage boys in the U.S. who are not overweight, and are eating a balanced diet? I'd say 'whatever you want,' " Lupton wrote, noting, however, those boys still should track their overall calorie intake.

But for the vast number of active adults, a "good bar" should fill-in the nutritional gaps left by our daily diets, said Roger Clemens, adjunct professor of pharmaceutical sciences and associate director of the regulatory science program at the USC School of Pharmacy.

He's talking about what he and other members of the 2010 advisory committee on U.S. dietary guidelines dubbed "nutrients of concern."

Because many of us eat fewer vegetables, fruits, whole grains, milk products or seafood than recommended, our consumption of some nutrients are low enough to be a worry for experts, like Clemens, who monitor that sort of thing.

That list of missing nutrients, according to the 2010 committee:

  • Potassium
  • Dietary fiber
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D
  • As well as iron, folate and vitamin B12 for certain population groups.

So those are among the ingredients Clemens would want to read on the label of a snack bar.

What else?

In a word, nuts

Almonds and walnuts have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular issues, Clemens said. And he would look for omega-3 fatty acids — also found almonds and walnuts.

Eat like an Adventist: 8 foods for a longer, healthier life

According to the National Institutes of Health, omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for muscle activity, blood clotting, digestion, fertility, and cell division and growth.

Check the label for whole grains

Especially oats, which contain beta-glucan, shown to have cholesterol-lowering effects, says Clemens.

"Oatmeal and oat-containing products are typically low in sodium and high in soluble fiber, which is all good for the gut," Clemens said.

Complete proteins

The bar should contain "complete proteins" to provide a feeling a fullness. To better accomplish that goal, Clemens said he'd prefer to see not proteins from plant sources but from dairy sources such as casein and whey.


Finally, the ideal snack bar would pack an adequate supply of iodine.

"As we reduce sodium in the United States, I would look for a bar that contains iodine," Clemens said. "None of the bars, except for meal-replacement bars, contain iodine. And we know iodine is important for brain function and general metabolism."

A little sweet

Of course, many of us want our treats to be tasty. "Look for the total amount of sugar, not the type of sweetener — they're all equivalent to the body. Aim for up to 8 grams per bar," said Madelyn Fernstrom, TODAY health and nutrition editor.

"The important point is NOT to look for a certain sweetener like honey and agave," Fernstrom said. "It's the the total amount of sugar that counts."

200 calories or less

"As for calories, under 200," Fernstrom added. "And if you're watching your weight, aim for 100 to 150 calories."