Healthy energy bars: what to avoid, and what to look for

Wondering which energy and protein bars are a good choice, and which ones are just empty calories? Read this guide, and try our recipe to make your own


Energy bars and protein bars are perhaps one of most poorly marketed food items. Advertising leads us to believe that many common ingredients found in these all-in-one nutrition bars are actually not that bad for us — or worse, even good for us. The problem is that most of them contain synthetic derivatives from poor-quality sources.

Ingredients to avoid:
High-fructose corn syrup: Added as an inexpensive sweetener, it is worse than regular white sugar.

Soy isolate: It may sound natural and healthy, being a soy product, but it’s not something you could make yourself (warning sign!). It’s also processed at such high temperatures that it can change the structure of some of the protein.

Whey protein: The most popular protein out does have a high absorption rate in the body, it is also extremely allergenic. It doesn’t contain lactose, but because it is still a dairy product it can cause mild allergenic reactions such as inflammation and bloating.

Natural flavour: One would think that “natural flavour” equals healthy, but this ingredient is often MSG — the “flavour enhancer” that can have side effects like facial pressure, headaches, nausea and chest pains.

Fractioned palm oil: A cheap oil used for its high heat stability — it’s bleached, filtered, melted, degummed and refined before it’s ever added to a food product.

Maltodextrine (corn): A cheap, easily digestible, genetically modified sweetener.

Artificial sweeteners (malitol, sucralose): The problem with these low- or zero-cal products is that their sweetness tricks the body into thinking it is receiving some form of energy (sugar).  When it only receives a chemical sweetener, its craving for energy isn’t satisfied, and ends up craving more sugar.

What to look for in an energy bar:

  • Natural protein source (nuts, seeds, quinoa, brown rice protein, hemp protein)
  • Natural sweeteners (brown rice syrup, honey, maple syrup, stevia)
  • An understandable, short ingredient list
  • It doesn’t double as a candy bar (by containing 24 grams of sugar, which is the same amount found in chocolate bars)
  • Has as few processed ingredients as possible. When in doubt, just go for the nut and seed bar.

You can also make your own whole-food energy bars instead, with this recipe.

Energy granola bar

¼ cup raw sesame seeds
¼ cup coconut oil
1/3 cup honey
½ cup almond butter
½ cup rice syrup
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup puffed brown rice cereal
1 cup dried apricots and raisins
½ cup pumpkin seeds
½ cup sunflower seeds

1. Line a 13×9-inch pan with parchment paper.

2. Preheat oven to low setting (180-200F).

3. In medium saucepan, lightly toast sesame seeds over medium heat until they brown. Remove from heat.

4. Add oil, honey, almond butter and rice syrup. Stir until smooth.

5. In a large bowl, combine remainder of ingredients. Pour liquid mixture over top, and stir to combine. Do not over-mix.

6. Pack mixture into pan, pressing down firmly with back of warm, wet spatula or hands.

7. Place in preheated oven for 20 minutes.

8. Allow to cool and cut into bars with warm, wet knife. Store in fridge or freeze up to three months.

Marni Wasserman is a culinary nutritionist in Toronto whose philosophy is stemmed around whole foods. She is dedicated to providing balanced lifestyle choices through natural foods. Using passion and experience, she strives to educate individuals on how everyday eating can be simple and delicious.