The Five Hidden Evils in Nutrition Bars
Finding a truly healthy nutrition bar can be tough as I noted in my article, “Zing Bars Awarded Best Nutrition Bar 2008.”
I interviewed the makers of Zing Bars, nutritionists Michael Kaplan, ND, Minh-Hai Tran, MS, RD and Sandi Kaplan, MS, RD to help us better understand the following unhealthy red flag ingredients commonly found in our not so healthy “health bars.”
What are the 5 Most Harmful Ingredients Commonly Found in Nutrition Bars?
1. Trans fats are listed as “partially hydrogenated” oils in a packaged food’s ingredients list. Trans fats have been shown to increase total cholesterol and contribute to heart disease. They also spur inflammation, an over-activity of the immune system that has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
The good news is that as of January 1, 2006, trans fats are required by law to be enumerated in a food’s Nutrition Facts Panel. Despite ever increasing public awareness, however, trans fats still have a place on the FDA’s “GRAS” (generally regarded as safe) list so watch out for their continued use.
2. Fractionated Palm Kernel Oils are an increasingly popular ingredient in bars today. They are commonly used to help stiffen chocolate coatings that would otherwise not be solid a room temperature. This “fractionation” process dramatically raises the saturated fat content of the oil, and confers many of the same anti-melting shelf stability aspects of trans fats.
It appears that fractionated oils may be taking the place of trans fats in certain products, stepping in as public awareness about trans fats rises. While more research is needed to determine the extent of the health risks of fractionated oils, it’s clear that they confer a higher level of saturated fat and a poorer quality fat profile overall.
3. Sorbitol, Mannitol, & Maltitol are sweeteners known as sugar alcohols. Manufacturers of candies and many sports bars use sugar alcohols as a replacement for conventional sugar or high fructose corn syrup. These sugar alcohols taste sweet, but have less of an impact on blood sugar levels compared to traditional cane sugar. Unfortunately there are several myths and popular misconceptions surrounding sugar alcohols.
Myth 1: Sugar alcohols are calorie free. This is unfortunately false. The most commonly used sugar alcohols have between 50-75% of the calories per gram of table sugar.
Myth 2: Sugar Alcohols only slightly raise blood sugar. While it’s true that most sugar alcohols have a lower glycemic index (or effect on blood sugar) than traditional table sugar, the effect is hardly negligible.
Despite fewer calories per gram, Sugar alcohols can raise blood sugar anywhere from 50-100% of the amount expected from table sugar alone. This means that some sugar alcohols may contribute to blood sugar swings & crashes normally associated with “traditional” sugary snacks & treats.
Myth 3: Sugar alcohols have no side-effects. Untrue! Sugar alcohols are not fully digested and absorbed by the body, so some of the compounds remain in the gut and are allowed to pass to the colon; an area sugars are normally never allowed to enter.
These sugars can pull extra water into the colon via osmosis, leading to diarrhea and cramping. They can also be fermented by the bacteria that normally inhabit this area of the digestive tract, leading to increased flatulence. The “threshold” or amount required to produce this effect varies from person to person.
So, not all sugar alcohols are created equally.
4. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a high glycemic sweetener, equivalent to sucrose (table sugar) in the degree of sweetness and calories per gram. While the research is unclear about whether or not HFCS is more harmful to health than sucrose, it’s presence in a food usually suggests a disproportionate amount of refined carbohydrate compared to fiber, protein and fat.
While HFCS is technically “natural” according to the FDA’s guidelines, it is a heavily processed product requiring many energy intensive steps. This makes it a less than optimal choice from an ecological point of view. HFCS also propagates the use of non-organic corn. So while the debate rages on about its healthfulness for humans compared to table sugar, its negative impact on the environment is more evident.
5. Gluten sensitivity is an emerging problem among American & Europeans. Current research points out that 1% of the population have Celiac disease (a more symptomatic form of gluten sensitivity). However, evidence suggests that gluten sensitivity (with its more non-specific presentation) affects many more people. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, oats, and rye primarily and athletes with sensitive stomachs should consider avoiding gluten.
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