Who doesn’t love a good snack bar? And what’s even better, there’s a huge variety available to us consumers today. But not all are created equal, despite the (health) claims they might have. Not only is there a wealth of health information circulating at the moment, but big companies are also leveraging certain key words and phrasing in their marketing. Words like ‘natural’, ‘protein’, ‘gluten-free‘ and ‘vegan’ are being misunderstood to mean that the food is automatically healthy. And all of this is doing us consumers no favours. Being an educated consumer that makes good personal food choices is hard work. What are some sneaky ingredients hiding in your snack bars? Hopefully this post helps a bit!
5 Sneaky Ingredients Hiding in Your Snack Bars
We’re zoning in on snack bars for a few reasons. For one, they’re a quick win snack you can grab on the go. They help us save time on meal prep and are a very convenient way to get a little bit of extra energy, fibre, protein and more. It’s also a lucrative market; many of us grab various snack bars daily while rushing from A to B. But do you stop and take notice of what’s in the bar? Here’s just five to take note of.
This one is really hard, if not impossible to escape. And it’s a double-edged sword – because any carbohydrate will break down into glucose in the body and it is actually a great energy source. The poison is in the type and dose. Sugars can be man made or natural and come from various sources. Manufacturers have some key challenges that can overshadow the ‘health’ of the product and at some point, money becomes a factor. Sugar is not only added for taste but it’s also usually a cheap ingredient. Now, what makes it more complicated is the fact that there are interesting ways to dilute how much sugar is really present on a food label. There’s over 50 different names for sugar so by using 3-4 sources, a company can mask the amount. They do this by:
- Giving it hard to recognise names that a consumer might not spot
- Using multiple sources so that they don’t have to list it as the first ingredient (remember, ingredients appear in order of most to least present in the product itself).
Some things to watch:
Try to avoid over-consuming products that contain more than 30g total carbs per serving (unless you’re doing intense exercise).Check the total carbs and the ‘of which sugars’. When the numbers are very similar, most of the carbs are coming from sugar. Finally, skim the label and see how many sugars you can recognise and where they appear on the product. One more thing to note: think about who the product is being made for. For example, there’s a selection of bars in the ‘health aisle’ that are made for hiking/rock climbing and other outdoor sports with the goal to be an easy to reach for quick energy hit for the very active person. You can check out more about understanding sugar cravings in this post.
An ingredient becoming more and more popular, especially in protein bars. Inulin is soluble plant fibre, most commonly found in chicory. Fibre is found in our diet, especially in fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and provides great benefits for the health of our digestive system. Inulin is a soluble fibre that absorbs water so helps you to feel fuller. It can also improve digestion by acting as a prebiotic. But this is something to watch for too. A prebiotic, inulin ferments and provides food for bacteria. So some people don’t react very well to eating this in high amounts (e.g. bloating, gas).
This is one of the most spotted ingredients on a label. While these components do originate from natural sources, they are tweaked in a lab which means heat, extraction, distillation etc. The main reason to avoid is because as a group of components, they are tricky to decipher.
You can find a full list of other funny ingredients like emulsifiers, flavour enhancers, preservatives and more on the FDA overview of food ingredients.
This ingredient is primarily used as an emulsifier and a very popular food label list item. For one, it’s almost always present in chocolate, even dark. Emulsifiers make oil and water mix together. Lecithin is a catch all term and is most often derived from sunflower kernels, soy, rapeseed, milk and egg yolks. The specific composition will vary depending on manufacturer but there’s a few things to note with this one.
Soy lecithin is composed of choline, fatty acids, glycerol, glycolipids, phospholipids, phosphoric acid and triglycerides. With soy lecithin, if you’re allergic to soy, soy lecithin might trigger that reaction, depending on the protein content. Your best bet in this case is to keep clear. While there have been studies showing some potential health benefits to soy lecithin such as lowered cholesterol, better immunity and cognitive function, the actual process of extracting lecithin involved chemicals and is derived from GMO soy. That said, soy lecithin is actually a by-product of soy, so the final product doesn’t actually contain very much soy at all. You can learn more about it in this article addressing why soy lecithin is in everything.
In short: it’s hard to avoid, and do if you can. And be careful is you have soy sensitivities.
Sugar alcohols are another common ingredient found in snack bars. Some popular ones include maltitol, xylitol, erythritol, glycerol and sorbitol. These have fewer calories but still deliver a sweet taste so a lot of companies are using these ingredients as a way to market their product as healthy, sugar-free or low-calorie. Some of these alternatives are man-made and can also cause some very unwanted side effects, however, include bloating and gas. Some studies are also linking artificial sweeteners and weight gain, blaming the sweetness as confusing to the reward centres in the brain causing overeating.
Let’s sum up…
But let’s put it all in perspective; our bodies are exposed to hundreds of chemicals every day in our air, water, household products, and food products. These ingredients will contribute only a very small amount to the total load, but they are also in your control to some extent. The above list includes some of the ingredients to be aware of on food label. Where possible, try to reduce and/or avoid these altogether. Unless you have a severe sensitivity, consuming these in small amounts isn’t something to get too worried about.