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Granola bars: the good, the bad and the ugly

By Anne L. Desjardins

Many outdoors enthusiasts, students and busy office workers have turned to granola bars in their quest for a healthier option than the traditional bacon and eggs, croissant or egg mcMuffin for breakfast. Granola bars are also extremely popular in the paddling community as a quick snack since they are so light, apparently filling and easy to carry in a pfd's pocket. But it may not always be the ideal food to snack on, nutritionally speaking. Here's why and how to chose healthier versions.

Dr Charles H. Booras is a physician who specializes in diabetes and is a member of the Jacksonville Center for Clinical Research. He is also the Editor of the Jacksonville Medical Park Online. In one column he wrote recently about the best and worst health foods, granola bars came in fourth place among the top ten worst… Since so many people have turned to granola bars as a breakfast-on-the-go or as a snack because they believe it is much healthier than other options, such a conclusion must come as a surprise to many readers. Well, if you take a closer look at the label on the side of many boxes of cereal bars, you will find lots of sugar, and often a surprisingly high amount of fat, in some cases even the bad hydrogenated artery-clogging type. Things have dramatically improved on that front over the last 12 months because trans fat content and percentage must now be clearly identified on food labels, thanks to new regulations both in the US and Canada. As a result, many companies such as Quaker or Kellogg now claim that their granola bars are trans-fat free.

Too much fat
But simply eliminating hydrogenated fats isn't enough. Too much of anything, even so-called good fats, can be bad for you… Take Hershey's Sweet and Salty granola bars. True, they contain 0 grams of trans fat. But they still have a stunning 13 g of total fat and 260 calories in a tiny 51 g bar. That's a lot of calories for very few fibers and nutrients! As Dr Booras mentions, most of these bars are simply high-calorie cookies and many are no more nutritious than candy bars at a higher price! He refers to Nature Valley Granola Bars, which are nevertheless rated among the best on the market, with no trans fat; still they contain 120 calories including 54 calories from fat in one 23 g bar, which translates into 6 g of fat. That brings the fat ratio of those bars to 45 %, which is too much according to Dr Booras, considering the USDA food pyramid recommendations of no more than 25 % to 30 % of our daily caloric ratio coming from fat. Dr Booras also mentions that athletes should strive for 20 % fat or less. In my opinion, the good doctor forgets one important factor: the daily fat intake should be calculated on the total daily food consumption, which makes a huge difference, since many foods we eat don't contain any fat at all, such as fruit, vegetables or skim milk, and many don't have much, like whole grain-unprocessed cereals, for instance.

Too much sugar; low in fiber
One thing is certain: almost all commercial granola bars contain way too much sugar!

Another myth must be debunked: the filling fibers myth associated with cereal bars.
Well, unless homemade, most of them don't contain more than 1 to 2 g of fibers. Not a stellar fiber ratio, knowing that we are required to consume 25 to 30 g of fibers daily by the same USDA food pyramid and that a good percentage of those fibers should come from unprocessed whole grains. As a complete snack that's not rated as a meal replacement, most granola bars are neither a good source of proteins (1.1 g to 3 g). Proteins are important for recuperation and satiety. It would be easy to slightly boost the protein content to at least 5-10 grams by simply adding a bit of nuts or a small amount of soy protein or skim milk powder. Finally, all of these commercially-made cereal bars also contain additives for conservation purposes, plus artificial colors and flavors.

The perfect on-the-go snack
On the other hand, no one can deny the fact that granola bars sealed in foil pouches are very appealing and very practical. With minor adjustments to their fat, sugar and improvement to their protein ratio they could be easily turned into excellent post work out snacks, breakfasts or become part of a light meal for active people. I cannot think of any food that's more useful when I'm spending a day paddling. So why not work on these minor improvements to make granola bars more tasteful, filling and nutritious? It's easy: go for the real homemade thing! They are a breeze to prepare, there are tons of excellent recipes that can be easily modified to accommodate specific needs or tastes and you'll be well fed in no time…

Here are two of my favorite granola bars recipes. They will keep for weeks and can even be frozen. So why not make them in big batches?

Recipes

Peanut butter granola bars

  • 2 cups medium-cooking (10 min.) rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/4 cup liquid honey
  • 1/2 cup natural crunchy peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup organic canola oil
  • 1/2 cup dry cranberries
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 beaten egg
  • Large pinch of cinnamon
  • Large pinch of salt
Preparation
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Completely line a 9 x 9 x 2 baking pan with foil. Grease the foil. Set aside.

Mix together rolled oats, whole wheat pastry flour, cranberries, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine egg, honey, peanut butter, vanilla extract and mix well. Fold the liquid mixture into in the rolled oats mixture and mix just enough to combine all ingredients. Press the preparation in the pan. Cook for 30 to 35 minutes or until lightly brown. Let cool, remove from pan and cut into bars.


Protein-packed lemon granola bars
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 tsp wheat germ
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 2 tbsp soy protein powder
  • 6 tbsp unsalted sunflower seeds
  • Pinch of salt
  • 12 dry dates, cut into very small pieces
  • 12 dry apricots, cut into small pieces
  • 2 eggs, well beaten
  • Juice and zest of one lemon
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup organic canola oil
Preparation
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Completely line a 9 x 9 x 2 baking pan with foil. Grease the foil. Set aside.

Mix together whole wheat pastry flour, wheat germ, rolled oats, soy protein powder, sunflower seeds, salt and dry fruit. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine eggs, lemon juice and lemon zest, maple syrup, canola oil and mix well. Fold the liquid mixture into in the rolled oats mixture and mix just enough to combine all ingredients. Press the preparation in the pan. Cook for 30 to 35 minutes or until lightly brown. Let cool, remove from pan and cut into bars.



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 • Dry It, You'll Like It
 • Granola: My Way
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