Are Healthy Granola Bars Really Healthy?

In August 1969, just under half a million people attended what would become one of the most legendary music festivals of all time: Woodstock. Unfortunately, Woodstock was a logistical nightmare. 

With massive food shortages and price gouging by vendors and attendees alike, the festival of love and peace teetered on the edge of catastrophe — until Wavy Gravy famously provided “breakfast in bed for 400,000” and introduced the festival goers (and much of the world) to granola: a healthy, environmentally friendly alternative to traditional meat-filled breakfasts.

While granola had been around since 1863, the Woodstock catastrophe certainly gave it a large boost in publicity. Updated versions hit supermarket shelves in 1972, and the cereal has maintained its popularity ever since. Most recently, it’s been transformed into the granola bar and marketed as a more portable version of the healthy classic. 

Supermarket shelves are filled with bright colors and packaging that screams, “I’m healthy!” But — are granola bars really as healthy as they’re cracked up to be? 

Let’s look at what so-called “healthy” granola bars really are, what benefits they offer, what their downsides might be, and if there are alternatives that we should consider instead.

What is Granola, Anyway?

Originally, granola was invented by Dr. James Caleb Jackson as a healthy breakfast for residents of his sanitarium. Then called granula, it was a simple meal of baked graham-flour cakes, which Jackson then crumbled and soaked in milk overnight (in order to make it edible). 

John Harvey Kellogg put his own twist on granula a few years later by combining oats, wheat flour, and cornmeal. The mixture took off and, after some legal debate, Kellogg changed the name to “granola”: thus the popular breakfast option was born. Over the years, the recipe has changed considerably — especially with its level of sugar.

Today, granola comes in virtually any form imaginable. Some are wheat-based puff cereal welded to other cereals with sugar (think Honey Bunches of Oats), and others are combinations of roasted oats and dried fruits or nuts. Almost all are marketed as “healthy.”

Granola bars are essentially a combination of toasted rolled oats and nuts, which are then pressed together into a bar with a sweetener like sugar or honey. Different versions of granola bars can contain ingredients like puffed rice, dried fruit, seeds, spices, or nut butters. They may even contain very sweet items like chocolate or syrup.

Granola bars’ versatility and convenience make them a favorite for folks on the go, and not without cause: if done correctly, granola bars can pack some serious health benefits. Unfortunately far too many so-called “healthy” granola bars are anything but.

Benefits of Healthy Granola Bars

Healthy granola bars are high in fiber, which can contribute to feelings of fullness. Studies have shown that foods high in fiber can also improve blood pressure. 

Healthy granola bars are also made primarily from oats, which are excellent sources of beta glucan. Beta glucan has been shown to help slow digestion, increase satiety, and suppress appetite. It can also bind with cholesterol-rich bile in the intestine and transport them safely and efficiently out of the body. In simpler terms, oat-filled granola bars are great for digestion.

Healthy granola bars are also full of several other helpful ingredients: nuts, which reduce inflammation; chia seeds, which reduce hypertension; and fruits, which contain a variety of antioxidant compounds.  

Not-so-Healthy Granola Bars

At their core, granola bars are healthy. Unfortunately, as with most food items, the health benefits of granola bars are often overshadowed by ingredients added to either improve taste or shelf life. 

Several unhealthy granola bars (marketed as “healthy”) contain significant amounts of added fat, sugars, or artificial ingredients and preservatives. Corn syrup is extremely common as a sugar substitute in granola bars — and it’s one of the worst sweeteners around.

Outstanding Foods: Are Healthy Granola Bars Really Healthy

Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Harvest granola bar, for example, contains up to 15 grams of sugar per serving. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting daily consumption of added sugar to just 12 teaspoons a day. That means that this granola bar contains 30% of the added sugar you should be consuming in just one day!

Alternatives to Granola Bars

Healthy granola bars may not always be the healthy option that they’re cracked up to be, but there are several options out there that provide the health benefits of granola without unhealthy (and unwanted) additives.

Oatmeal can also be a great substitute for healthy granola bars. Like granola, it can be combined with other ingredients and eaten as a cold cereal or as a warm, satisfying porridge. You can add real foods like fruits, seeds, and nut butters to gain all the benefits of cholesterol-fighting oats without added sugar and preservatives.

Granola has come a long way since it fed the Woodstock hippies, and unfortunately, it has become something that’s increasingly processed and artificial as time passes. Healthy granola bars do exist, but they can be hard to find among all the different limitations. 

You can, however, still find truly healthy granola bars to keep you satisfied and ready to rock and roll no matter the time of day. Just try to look for bars with under 10 grams of sugar (the less sugar, the better!), minimal preservatives, and whole ingredients.

At Outstanding Foods, we’re passionate about helping you find quality snacks that make your body as happy as your taste buds. Learn more about us, or check out our store to try our plant-based, protein-packed, and addictively delicious snacks.