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What do you eat when you’re too busy to eat? The hectic pace of college life has most of us resorting to snacks pretty regularly. While candy bars are convenient and satisfy our cravings for sweets, health bars feel like a nutritional step up.
But are health bars really that much more nutritionally redeeming than candy bars? What’s the best way get a quick protein or carb hit?
We took our five favorite cravings: peanuts, caramel, coconut, fruit, and chocolate. Then we compared each of them in three forms: a candy bar, a health bar, and a homemade alternative (or in one case, a piece of fruit). See our side-by-side analysis and our expert’s recommendation. (Product prices vary by location and store.)
Kevin T. Watanabe, registered dietitian at Maryvale Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children Clinic, Arizona
protein: 4g, 8% of RDA
Luna Bar® peanut honey pretzel
protein: 9g, 18% of RDA
No-bake peanut butter protein bar
$0.40–$0.60 per serving
protein: 13g, 25% of RDA
Grab the recipe.
Which would you choose? See if the expert agrees
Homemade no-bake peanut butter protein bar“The no-bake peanut butter protein bar is the obvious winner here. Compared to the Snickers it has half the saturated fat, fewer calories, and costs half as much, so your heart, your waistline, and your wallet will thank you.
“For those on a run and with money to burn, the Luna bar is a good option. It has almost half the saturated fat of the Snickers and twice as much protein to keep you fuller longer.
“The Snickers is made with partially hydrogenated oil, which means it contains unhealthy trans fats that have been linked to a host of chronic diseases.” —KW
protein: 2g, 4% of RDA
Homemade almond coconut bars
$0.50–0.80 per serving
protein: 4.4g, 9% of RDA
Get the recipe.
Clif Bar® coconut chocolate chip
protein: 10g, 20% of RDA
See if the expert agrees! Which coconut snack is the healthiest?
Coconut Clif bar“Coconut would not be the ideal choice for a bar because of the high saturated fat content. But if you had to choose one, the coconut Clif bar is the healthiest option. It has less fat and more protein than the other two options, and nearly the same amount of calcium and fiber as the homemade version.
“Although many coconut products market the health benefits of medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs), these are just a fad. Unless you have a medical condition that requires higher amounts of MCTs, like a chyle leak, you really shouldn’t be trying to consume more MCTs. Unsaturated fats are the way to go.” —KW
fiber: 0g, 0% of RDA
Stretch Island Fruit Co.™ all-natural fruit strip autumn apple
fiber: 1g, 5% of RDA
An actual apple
fiber: 4g, 17.5% of RDA
How do you like them apples? See if the expert agrees
An Apple“The apple is by far the best choice, not only because of the higher fiber content, but because it also contains water that’s lacking from the Starburst and fruit strip.
“Why water? According to research, 15 percent of college students don’t get enough water. Water is needed for thermoregulation, digestion, and basically every basic function in the human body. Water from foods plays a larger role in total hydration levels for college students.” —KW
fiber: 1g, 4% of RDA
Homemade 5-ingredient granola bar
$0.90–$1.00 per serving
fiber: 6g, 12% of RDA
Grab the recipe.
PowerBar® Triple Threat™ chocolate caramel fusion
fiber: 3g, 12% of RDA
Care about caramel? See if the expert agrees
Homemade 5-ingredient granola barNote: Healthy caramel recipes hardly exist. Caramel is refined sugar. In our homemade option, we substituted dates. Dates are a natural sweetener, and a good source of fiber too.
“The homemade 5-ingredient granola bar is the best choice. While it falls in the middle in terms of price, it has significantly less saturated fat than the other two options, three times the protein, and four times the fiber to keep you satisfied longer.
“The PowerBar would be an acceptable option for those pressed for time, but because of the high saturated fat content it is not a snack that should be consumed regularly.” —KW
saturated fat: 8g, 40% of RDA
protein: 3g, 6% of RDA
Balance Bar® chocolate craze™
saturated fat: 4g, 20% of RDA
protein: 14g, 28% of RDA
Homemade chocolate GORP
$0.30–$0.50 per serving
saturated fat: 1g, 5% of RDA
protein: 3g, 6% of RDA
P.S.: GORP = good old fashion raisins & peanuts
Check out the recipe.
What’s your chocolate fix? See if the expert agrees
Chocolate GORP“The chocolate GORP is the cheapest and overall healthiest option here. The Balance bar is a good second option because it has less fat and sugar than the Hershey’s.
“GORP is a good snack if taken in moderation. A handful is a good estimated serving size that will provide lots of protein and healthful fats without an excess of calories.
“Nuts can be a good source of protein and healthful fat, but are calorically dense. Dried fruit are also calorically dense, but provides calories from carbohydrates (sugar) rather than protein and fat.
“The Balance is lower in total fat and more importantly, lower in saturated fat than the Hershey’s. A person on a 2000 calorie-per-day diet would get half of their daily allowance of saturated fat from the Hershey’s, showing how difficult it would be to fit that bar into a healthful diet on a regular basis.” —KW
Extra tid bits
How we calculated nutritional estimates
Nutritional estimates are based on one serving.
They were calculated using the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet by the US Food and Drug Administration: Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide
An expert debunks “health bar” myths
How meaningful are the added vitamins and minerals?
“Fortifications are commonly added to health/granola bars. They might make the bars seem like a good source of certain vitamins and minerals, but it’s always better to get nutrients from whole foods instead of add-ons.”
Is honey a healthier sweetener than sugar?
“Honey contains more nutrients (such as antioxidants) than corn syrup, but they’re similar in nutritional structure. Honey is also considered added sugar and causes our blood sugar to rise. Bottom-line: Use honey and sugar in moderation. The Institute of Medicine suggests that our intake of added sugar should be limited to less than 25 percent of total calories consumed.”
What’s so great about homemade snacks compared to health or candy bars?
Saturated fat: Lowest
Whole ingredients: Highest
How do health bars compare to candy bars?
Cost: Nearly twice as expensive
Saturated fat: Lower
Whole ingredients: Similar (low)
Get help or find out more
Basics about nutrition components and different food groups:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
College students’ guide to balanced, healthy eating:
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)