Nutrition bars are big business.
Sales totaled over $2.2 billion in 2016 and they only continue to rise as consumers become more health-conscious. One of the hottest names in the industry? RXBAR. The company was recently acquired by food giant Kellogg's for a cool $600 million. Part of why RXBARs are so appealing to consumers is their apparent transparency—each bar lists the main ingredients on the front of the wrapper along with the claim it contains "No B.S.":
But do RXBARs really deserve their reputation as a nutritious product? Or are they simply another case of slick marketing bamboozling customers? Let's start by looking at the nutrition facts for one Chocolate Sea Salt RXBAR, which is the company's best-selling variety:
- 210 calories, 9 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 240mg sodium, 24 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams dietary fiber, 13 grams total sugars, 12 grams protein, 10% DV Iron, 10% DV Potassium, 4% DV Calcium
While each variety has slightly different nutrition facts, none stray too far from these numbers. Right off the bat, there are two things I love about the nutrition of RXBARs—they're high in fiber and they're high in protein. While a high-fiber and high-protein content is a hallmark of many nutritious foods, they're especially advantageous in nutrition bars.
If sugar is the thing many Americans eat too much of, fiber could be the main thing they eat too little of. According to the National Institutes of Health, teens and adults should eat between 20 and 38 grams of fiber each day, and men need more fiber than women. But the average American eats only 10 to 15 grams of fiber daily. Fiber helps break down foods for easier digestion, maintains good bowel health, lowers cholesterol levels and helps you feel fuller longer. High-fiber diets have been linked to positive outcomes such as a reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease. In the short term, snacking on a bar high in fiber keeps you fuller for longer and helps you avoid crashing. In the long term, it reduces your risk of many major diseases and supports good bowel health.
Protein is a critical nutrient for humans and athletes, in particular. High-quality protein provides the amino acids muscles need to repair and rebuild, allowing you to recover from exercise and get stronger over time. The body can also use protein as a source of energy. The protein found in RXBARs largely comes from egg whites, which qualify as a "complete protein." Complete proteins are especially useful because they contain all nine essential amino acids, which are the amino acids we must get through food since our bodies cannot produce them. This makes them great for continued muscle building.
Nine grams of fat is a substantial amount (the fat content of an RXBAR fluctuates between 7 and 10 grams depending on variety), but much of it qualifies as "healthy" fat. That's largely because RXBARs make extensive use of ingredients like pecans, cashews, almonds and peanuts. Nuts (peanuts are technically legumes but have a nutritional profile similar to most nuts) are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats help reduce blood pressure and protect against heart disease. They can also help the body better absorb vitamins and more efficiently use protein. Polyunsaturated fats can reduce blood cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease and strokes. The best way to reap the benefits of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is to use them to replace saturated fats in your diet.
Each RXBAR contains between 1 and 2 grams of saturated fat—much less than you'd find in your typical candy bar. Eating too much saturated fat drastically increases your risk of high cholesterol, which in turn can have a negative impact on blood flow and oxygen transportation throughout the body. The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 6% of your daily calories come from saturated fat. For a 2,000-calories-a-day diet, that translates to a limit of 13 grams of saturated fat each day.
So we've got high amounts of fiber, protein and healthy fat. The only possible red flag apparent in the RXBAR's nutrition facts is the sugar content. Most RXBAR varieties contain around 13 grams of sugar, and one variety contains as much as 17 (Blueberry). That's about as much sugar as you'd find in five Starburst candies, which doesn't sound great. However, there are several reasons why the sugar found in RXBARs is considerably less harmful than the sugar you'd find in your average junk food.
For one, the company uses no added sugar in their products. This is a big plus, as we've previously outlined why added sugar is the most dangerous type of sugar. Instead, much of the sugar found in RXBARs comes from dates. Every variety includes two dates in the recipe. The company says they've found dates to be "the most nutritious, flavorful way to stick to (their) whole food promise." Dates are high in natural sugar, with one pitted deglet noor date containing 4.5 grams. They also contain significant amounts of potassium, vitamin B-6 and iron, but it's their high fiber content that really makes them a smart sweetener.
Fiber has an important impact on how the body processes sugar. "Fiber slows down digestion, resulting in the sugar being absorbed more slowly," says Brian St. Pierre, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. This gives your liver more time to metabolize the sugar, which keeps your blood sugar relatively stable. It also helps to prevent the rapid rises—and sudden crashes—associated with a sugar high. "You don't get that quick rise and fall of blood sugar levels," St. Pierre says.
Those surges in blood sugar force your pancreas to work harder—which can increase your risk for Type 2 diabetes. Dates are also high in tannins, an antioxidant which may possess potent cancer-fighting capabilities among other health benefits. However, it's still definitely possible to consume too much sugar via dried fruit. Eating two or more RXBARs a day, for example, could quickly veer into the realm of problematic.
Outside of egg whites, dates and nuts, RXBARs contain few additional ingredients. When you can recognize every ingredient in a product's recipe, that's almost always a good sign. While the company utilizes cocoa and cacao in all of their chocolate-based bars, these ingredients aren't actually high in sugar. Made from the seed of the cocoa tree, these substances are packed with antioxidants. The health-enhancing effects you've likely heard about certain types of dark chocolate, including how it may lower blood pressure, lower risk of cardiovascular disease and improve brain function, relate to these ingredients.
Overall, RXBARs do seem to live up to the hype. They're made using real, recognizable ingredients that we know have proven health benefits. Their high-fiber and high-protein content ensures they can help curb appetite and prevent major spikes in blood sugar. Their lack of added sugar is a huge advantage, but consumers do need to realize that natural sugar can also be plenty damaging if consumed in irresponsible amounts. The added spices and seasonings used in the bars only bring about additional health benefits in most cases—cinnamon, for example, is used in several RXBAR varieties and has a tremendous antioxidant content. They also contain no dairy, soy or gluten, making them perfect for people with who must follow certain dietary restrictions. You probably shouldn't make a habit of using RXBARs to replace actual meals that are high in produce, whole grains and lean meats, but they're a surprisingly smart snack.
Photo Credit: baibaz/iStock, Facebook.com/RXBAR