Some snack bars claim to be wholesome and nutritious, but they actually include cheap, conventional ingredients instead of organic ones that would qualify them for the U.S. Agriculture Department's certified organic label, according to the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit policy research group.
In a report — "Raising the Bar, Choosing Healthy Snack Bars versus Gimmicky Junk Food" — the group says a loophole in USDA regulations allows conventional ingredients extracted with the use of hexane, such as soy protein isolate, to be used in products labeled as "made with organic ingredients." The group calls hexane a neurotoxin and a highly polluting petrochemical compound.
The scorecard assessed a list of snack bars with 100% certified organic ingredients as "Top-Rated" or "Excellent," but rated certain CLIF Bar and Larabar products as "Good" or "Fair" because those brands offer products entirely made with organic ingredients and others that aren't. "This makes it difficult for consumers to choose products based on name brand alone because quality varies widely between products within the same prominent brands," The Cornucopia Institute said.
Snack bars are big business. According to a recent Nielsen study, individual bars had the strongest absolute dollar growth with an increase of $633 million from 2013 to 2016.
Driving much of this growth are snack products that make specific health claims, such as those labeled non-GMO, free from artificial colors and flavors, and containing no sugar or reduced sugar. In addition, the continued interest in portable and simple ingredient snacks has made some categories hyper-successful, particularly fruit and nut bars. KIND, in which confectionery giant Mars just announced it was taking a minority stake, is a leader in that space.
General Mills is a major player in the snack bar market, and it was the first major food manufacturer to sell granola bars in 1975 when it brought out its Nature Valley products. In 2008, the Minneapolis-based company bought Humm Foods of Denver, the maker of Larabar fruit and nut nutrition bars. The Cornucopia Institute rates four Nature Valley products as "Fair" because they aren't certified organic, while it rates three Larabar products as "Good" (also not certified organic) and one as "Top-Rated" because it is.
Food Dive reached out to General Mills for a response to the snack bar report, and company spokesperson Mike Siemienas said in an email: "General Mills offers many product options, including both organic and non-organic foods."
The Cornucopia Institute claims food makers are cashing in on today's snack bar trend and trying to keep their prices lower than their competitors by cutting corners on ingredients. Many snack, granola and energy bars are filled with corn sweeteners, artificial preservatives and other ingredients meant to inflate protein levels, it says.
Consumers may be reading labels more often these days, but they're also confused by a lot of what they see.
According to a recent study by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, some people can’t distinguish between the terms “organic” and “non-GMO” on food labels. At the same time, consumers will pay 35 cents more for a 12-pack of granola bars with the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label on its packaging. The “USDA Organic” label on the granola bars box didn’t hold as much weight, however; consumers would only pay 9 cents more for it, the study found.
To help consumers find healthier snack bars, The Cornucopia Institute made these seven recommendations in its report:
- Buy certified organic products.
- Support companies that exclusively manufacture and offer USDA certified organic products.
- Look for whole ingredients.
- Avoid protein isolates, especially those that are not labeled organic.
- Choose bars with lower levels of added sweeteners.
- Select bars without added flavors and colors.
- Pick bars without harmful synthetic and non-organic preservatives, emulsifiers, and gums.
It's clear that more education is needed to help consumers understand product label definitions and what they actually mean — particularly the various applications of the word "organic." And manufacturers looking to make their products stand out in the crowded snack bar field might consider modifying ingredients and recipes to make the kind of health claims to which consumers respond. While those steps may not satisfy everyone, they would go a long way toward clearing up the confusion.
With almost a quarter of all snacking now occurring during main meals — up from 21% five years ago — bars will remain popular with consumers. But as more uniform definitions are established and consumer demands increase, there could be additional pressure on food manufacturers to be more transparent and use better-for-you ingredients in their bars.