Cereal bars: how to tell the wheat from the chaff

Our guide to these popular portable snacks

A ‘healthy’ snack bar isn’t always as good for you as it makes out — but all you need to know is on the label, if you know what to look for

Grains, fruit and nuts are good for you, right? So cram them all into a bar and you get a powerful snack that’s packed with wholesome fibre, carbohydrate, protein, essential oils and more, and you get a natural energy boost.


But sometimes the modern food industry doesn’t leave things as nature intended them. Here are a few tips on what to look out for…


A good mix of energy-giving carbohydrates can be found in oats, rice flakes and other cereals, dried fruit and honey — a good variety will give you a more steady energy release. 

On the label: Any mention of ‘sugar’ in the ingredients is just sucrose — the refined, less healthy stuff, which has been stripped of all its vitamins, minerals, proteins, enzymes and other body-friendly nutrients. Along with the fruit sugar fructose, it will give you instant energy, but needs to be backed up with the slower starchy sugars in the cereals for a sustained energy delivery. If there has to be straight sugar, raw cane sugar is best.

On the nutritional information table, look at the quantity in grams of carbohydrate per 100g serving — and then the ‘of which sugars’ quantity. The sugars figure should be much less than half of the total carb content.


There are good and bad fats, and then there are very bad fats. The worst are known as ‘trans fats’ which are a byproduct of hydrogenation — the process by which fats are saturated.

Saturated fats are the second worst fat but are often used in baking for their high melting point and longer shelf life. These raise your levels of bad cholesterol — trans fats raise it too but they also lower good cholesterol levels. High bad cholesterol levels increase your risk of a heart attack, so look for unsaturated fats, and the best of those are mono-unsaturated fats as found in nuts and olive oil.

There is energy in fat, but it is slow to digest and so not great for readily usable energy before or during a ride. If you see ‘vegetable fat’ in the ingredients list, step away from the bar, as that is a sign of trans fats. Most bars list vegetable oil but the source isn’t always obvious. Some sources such as palm oil are high in bad saturated fat, whereas olive oil or sunflower oil isn’t.

On the label: Again, in the ‘per 100g’ column of the nutritional information table, look at the amount of fat in grams. This is the percentage of your bar made up of fat and should be well under 20g/percent. Under that you’ll find a figure that will tell you the saturated fat content of your bar, which should be as low as possible.

Preservatives, colours and sweeteners

The manufacturer only adds these to make the bar last longer, look better or be cheaper to produce — none of which are really for your benefit.

Avoid anything with ‘benzoate’ in it — the preservative sodium benzoate breaks down to leave the carcinogen benzene. Sulphur dioxide keeps fruit ‘fresh’ but is a known pollutant. Avoid synthetic food colourings such as tartrazine, Sunset Yellow and Ponceau 4R too. The first is made from petroleum, while the other two are synthetic coal tars. No thanks.

On the label: Happily all preservatives, additives and colourants have to be listed as such in the ingredients, and by their common names. Most artificial sweeteners are treated like toxins in the body, putting strain on your kidneys or liver by adding to your toxic load. Many have been linked to cancer too. They include saccharin, aspartame, sucralose and neotame. Avoid them all!  


General rules

  • Generally speaking, the fewer the ingredients, plus the better and the more familiar they are to you, the healthier the bar.
  • Whole is wholesome. If you can see whole raisins, nuts and cereal flakes then the chances are they’re less processed, less degraded and better for you. The downside is that you’ll have to chew more and digest a bit longer, but if it tastes good what’s the problem?