Are you looking for a healthy non-toxic snack bar? Mamavation evaluated the ingredients of the most popular snack bars to bring you the healthiest brands based on ingredients. You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like oat products without detectable levels of toxic glyphosate, cookware without PFAS “forever chemicals,” and the best plant-based dairy milk, now join us for the best healthy snack bars, granola bars, nutrition bars, energy bars, or protein bars in the grocery store.
Disclosure: This post was medically reviewed by Sondra Strand, RN, BSN, PHN. This post also contains affiliate links.
The Nutrition of a Snack Bar
Snack bars can be marketed as “granola bars,” “protein bars,” “energy bars,” “meal replacement bars,” “cereal bars,” or “nutrition bars,” but they are all very similar in the sense that they are nutritionally dense snacks in a bar form. Some of these bars contain long ingredient lists with lots of chemically sounding names while others have only 3-4 simple ingredients.
Maybe you are making your own homemade granola bars or looking for a store-bought “clean” version. Regardless, here are some of our favorite simple dairy-free ingredients that can make up the bulk of ingredients without added sugar:
- Chia seeds
- pumpkin seeds
- flax seeds
- sunflower seeds
- Egg whites
- Rolled oats (only organic or you’ll likely have high levels of glyphosate present)
- Hemp seeds
- Ground flax seed
Btw, if you are planning on making your own granola bars, take a look at our parchment paper investigation. We tested several brands for PFAS “forever chemicals” and are reporting back some good and bad news. We would also like to direct your attention to our favorite food processor and our safest cookware post.
USDA Organic is Far Better than “Made with Organic” Ingredients Or Non-GMO
There is a big difference between USDA Organic, products “made with organic ingredients” such as organic oats, and anything certified Non-GMO Verified. It’s important to understand these differences so you can spot all the marketing tricks on the ingredient panel.
- USDA Certified Organic Products: The organic seal means the product must have a minimum of 95% organic ingredients by weight. USDA organic ingredients are prohibited from using toxic synthetic pesticides, insecticides, or herbicides (like glyphosate) and cannot be processed by potentially harmful chemicals. The 5% of non-organic ingredients must be non-GMO, not produced with crops farmed with biosolids (aka sewage sludge, which is very likely to contain PFAS “forever chemicals”), or processed using solvent extraction, like hexane, which is made from petrochemicals. All products are third-party certified and government regulated.
- Products “Made with” Organic Ingredients: These products only need to contain 70% organic ingredients by weight and large loopholes exist concerning the remaining 30% of ingredients. These products can be produced using solvent extraction that is neurotoxic and petrochemical-based, like hexane. They can also contain high levels of pesticides based on what the remaining 30% of the product contains. Finally, there is doubt as to whether conventional ingredients are actually non-GMO based on a lack of auditing and regulation. It’s supposed to be non-GMO, but this is more of an honor system at the end of the day.
- Non-GMO Verified Project Certified Products: These products do not contain any genetically engineered ingredients or secondary genetically engineered ingredients from animals eating GMO feed. In other words, no dairy or meat from cows eating GMO feed. However, this certification does not prevent toxic synthetic pesticides from being used. Sadly, higher rates of glyphosate were consistently found in this latest consumer study.
When given a choice between the three, we recommend purchasing products that are USDA-certified organic. In terms of the “made with” category, there are loopholes you need to know about. The biggest loophole we have found is the potential for ingredients that are not supposed to find their way into that product to find their way into product. According to Cornucopia Institute, “The USDA organic regulations require all ingredients to be produced without GMOs–including the 30% of non-organic ingredients in “made with” organic ingredients products. However, this “excluded method” is difficult to enforce for the 5-30% of conventionally sourced ingredients in the “made with” organic ingredients products.”
Another reason to opt for USDA organic is that most of the time when brands swap out ingredients in the “made with” category, they are swapping out the more expensive ingredients like soybeans, cacao, fruit, and nuts. But these ingredients are produced with high levels of toxic agrichemicals, which can greatly increase the amount of pesticides you are exposed to. This is especially problematic when products are dried because the agrichemicals become concentrated. This is also the case with non-GMO products that are not USDA organic.
Whole Ingredients Are Preferable to Isolates, Thickeners & Gums
Many snack bars have added ingredients that are not very healthy at all. Here are some examples of ingredients you’ll find in cheaper snack bars.
What are those grams of protein made of? Soy protein isolates are typically made from volatile solvent extraction with hexane, a petroleum-based neurotoxin. Snack bars use isolates (typically from soy and peas) to increase the amount of protein in a snack bar without the added carbohydrates. In fact, the amount of protein that can be added to a snack bar with protein isolates is higher than what can be added with whole food alone. So be very careful of marketing that focuses only on the protein content. When these ingredients are used, they do not give you the added healthy oils, vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are found naturally in whole foods.
In addition to them being potentially toxic with traces of hexane, historically they have been found to be laced with melamine if produced overseas in places like China. Melamine is highly toxic and is sometimes used to boost the protein content of isolates. In 2007, melamine spiked isolates found in baby formula killed six infants in China and injured many pets in the United States from laced pet food.
Thickeners, Emulsifiers, & Gums
Thickeners, emulsifiers, & gums are used to improve that “mouth-feel” you have when eating processed food. These ingredients are problematic for different reasons. Most of them can be contaminated with other problematic petroleum-based ingredients, are a known inflammatory agent, or can cause bloating and digestive discomfort.
Here are some examples of junky ingredients to avoid:
- Soy lecithin (also extracted using hexane)
- Sorbitan monostearate
- Xanthan gum
- Acacia gum
- Guar gum
Flavors Can Be a Nightmare
Flavors are used to improve the taste of processed foods. Artificial flavors are common in the snack bar aisle. You’ll find 2,500 chemically defined flavoring substances approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and when the word “flavor” is used any of them can be inside that bar. So the biggest takeaway with flavorings is to make sure they are disclosing 100% of those ingredients.
Natural vs. Chemical Flavoring
Is your snack bar strawberry flavored? There should be some strawberries in there. One example of a natural flavoring that isn’t going to hurt you, but may turn your stomach is “natural strawberry” which could be derived from tree bark OR castoreum, which is the anal secretions of the North American beaver’s castor sacs. Your typical “artificial strawberry” ingredient (even though it isn’t really strawberry at all) can be made up of up to 50 chemical ingredients. What are they? Who knows but it could include chemicals like the following:
- isopropyl benzoate
- 2-isopropyl-5-methyl cyclohexanol
- methyl benzyl propionate
Conversely, natural flavors found in USDA-certified organic foods are actually based on natural substances. The organic certification is held to stricter standards on what types of flavorings they can use. They are also prohibited from using any processing using synthetic, petroleum-based solvents. However, all bets are off with bars that are “made with organic ingredients” because those other ingredients could be processed with hexane or other petroleum-type substances.
- Dried fruit
- Fruit Concentrate
- L-malic acid (found in apple juice, rhubarb, and grapes)
Avoid these Flavors
- Artificial flavors
- “Natural flavors”
- DL-malic acid
Some Sweeteners are Better Than Others
Not all sweeteners act the same when they are inside your body. It’s not just about how many grams of sugar are in your nutrition bar, but what those grams consist of that really counts here. It’s also important to note that what else resides inside your post-workout bar may help reduce blood sugar level spikes. In other words, the more fiber that is present (and we will discuss which ones are best) the better the bar. Some bars are more like a candy bar than a meal replacement bar while others are full of natural sugar and cut that spike with other ingredients.
It’s impossible to find a bar without some type of sweetener because honestly, they would taste horrible, but here is some direction on what to look for.
Sweeteners that are better
- Natural fruits like dates
- Cane sugar
- Sorghum syrup
- Maple syrup
- Xylitol (also known as sugar alcohols)
- Monk fruit
- Coconut sugar
- Blackstrap molasses
Avoid these sweeteners
- Sucralose (known as brand name Splenda)
- Acesulfame potassium
- Saccarin (known as brand name Sweet-n-Low)
- aspartame (known for brand names Nutrisweet & Equal)
- “sugar” (very likely to be genetically modified beets if not stated “cane sugar” on label)
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) (studies found lots of mercury contamination)
- Fructose (could be HFCS at 90% fructose)
- Fructose syrup (could be HFCS at 90% fructose)
- Aguave (very hard on your liver)
- Brown rice syrup (could contain high amounts of arsenic)
Lots of nutritional bars market themselves as having plenty of fiber, but what are those grams of fiber really made of? Are they full of whole grains or wood pulp? The answer to that question may be the difference between indigestion and you feeling good that day. These fake fibers may give you indigestion.
- chicory root
Types of Preservatives Used & Which are Preferable
Most of the snack bars you see will have some type of preservative. You don’t need to freak out when you see them, just know which ones are better than others. Because USDA-certified foods do not allow harmful preservatives in their products, that’s the easiest shortcut for you to use.
Avoid these Preservatives
- butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
- sodium benzoate
- Ascorbic acid
- Lactic acid
- Citric acid
- tocopherols (Vitamin E)
- Rosemary oil
Mamavation’s Investigation on Snack Bars
Mamavation took Cornucopia Institute’s report Raising the Bar–Choosing Healthy Snack Bars Versus Gimmicky Junk Food and also looked to additional sources that tested these snack bars in a lab for pesticide residue and for truth in marketing from other partners who have databases of lab testing. Please note that some brands have products in different categories.
- Not Our Favorite Snack Bars: These snack bars either scored very low on Cornucopia’s report or they were tested for glyphosate and had detectable levels. The Cornucopia’s report based findings on the following being present: not USDA certified organic, no commitment to organic principles within the company, may not contain 100% whole ingredients, may contain artificial colors or flavors, may use artificial sweeteners, may use synthetic preservatives, may use thickeners or gums, may use ingredients processed with hexane, may contain hydrogenated oils, may contain protein isolates, and may contain “fake” fibers like cellulose wood pulp. We’ve also included brands that were tested in a lab and found to have inconsistent values of protein and calories. In other words, there’s a discrepancy between what is mentioned on the ingredient and nutritional panel and the reality of what is inside the bar.
- Better Snack Bars: Better snack bars are getting better but are not quite the best yet. This category finds itself in the middle. These brands are not organic, so it’s possible to find toxic synthetic pesticide residue like glyphosate, or any of the issues mentioned in the “not our favorite” category, but to a lesser degree. We’ve also included non-organic products that did not have detectable levels of glyphosate according to a consumer study by The Detox Project & products certified “glyphosate residue-free” by the Detox Product but are not organic.
- Best Snack Bars: The best snack bars are USDA certified organic, have a commitment to organic principles within the company, contain 100% whole ingredients, does not contain artificial colors or flavors, use natural sweeteners, do not use synthetic preservatives (but tocopherols, ascorbic acid, and malic acid are okay), do not use any thickeners or gums, do not contain hexane-extracted ingredients, do not contain hydrogenated oils, do not contain protein isolates, and do not contain “fake” fibers like cellulose.
Not Our Favorite Snack Bars
These snack bars either scored very low on Cornucopia’s report or they were tested for glyphosate and had detectable levels. The Cornucopia’s report based findings on the following being present: not USDA certified organic, no commitment to organic principles within the company, may not contain 100% whole ingredients, may contain artificial colors or flavors, may use artificial sweeteners, may use synthetic preservatives, may use thickeners or gums, may use ingredients processed with hexane, may contain hydrogenated oils, may contain protein isolates, and may contain “fake” fibers like cellulose wood pulp. We’ve also included brands that were tested in a lab and found to have inconsistent values of protein and calories. In other words, there’s a discrepancy between what is mentioned on the ingredient and nutritional panel and the reality of what is inside the bar.
- Atkins Endulge Treats Caramel Nut Chew Bar
- Bakery on Main, 4.4.8 Oats & Honey
- Betty Lou’s, Nuts About Energy Balls Almond Butter
- Betty Lou’s, Blueberry PB&J
- Brookside, Dark Chocolate Fruit & Nut
- Clif Bar, Builders Vanilla Almond
- Dehlbar, Vegan Tumeric Cherry
- Fiber One, Soft-Baked Birthday Cake
- Gatorade Whey Protein Bars
- Goodness Knows Snack Squares, Cranberry & Almonds
- Kashi, Chewy Dark Mocha Almond
- Kashi, Grain-Free Peanut Butter
- Kashi, Soft-Baked, Mixed Berry
- Kashi, Layered Dark Chocolate Coconut
- Kashi GO, Crunchy Peanuts & Peanut Butter
- Life Choice, Peanut Butter Protein Extreme
- Nature’s Bakery, Original Fig
- Nature’s Bakery, Oatmeal Crumble Strawberry
- Nature’s Valley, Crunchy Oats ‘n Honey
- Nature’s Valley, Fruit & Nut Trail Mix
- Nature’s Valley, Protein Blueberry Nut
- Nature Valley Chewy Granola Bars Protein Variety Pack — 20 parts per billion (ppb) glyphosate via consumer study
- NuGo, Slim Crunchy Peanut Butter
- NuGo, Vanilla Yogurt
- Nutri-Grain, Soft-Baked Strawberry
- Primal Kitchen, Protein, Peanut Butter
- Primal Kitchen, Collagen Fuel, Dark Chocolate Almond
- R.E.D.D., Salted Caramel
- Special K, Chewy Nut Cranberry Almond
- think!, Vegan High Protein, Chocolate Mint
- Think! High Protein Bars — 14 parts per billion (ppb) glyphosate via consumer study
- Quest, Blueberry Muffin
- Zing, Dark Chocolate Mint
- Zone Perfect Protein Bars
Better Snack Bars
Better snack bars are getting better but are not quite the best yet. This category finds itself in the middle. These brands are not organic, so it’s possible to find toxic synthetic pesticide residue like glyphosate, or any of the issues mentioned in the “not our favorite” category, but to a lesser degree. We’ve also included non-organic products that did not have detectable levels of glyphosate according to a consumer study by the Detox Project & products certified “glyphosate residue-free” by the Detox Product but are not organic.
- Annie’s, Protein Cookie Dough
- Beautiful Day, Bourbon Pecan
- Bobo’s Original Oat Bar — non-detect glyphosate from consumer study
- Bobo’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Oat Bar — non-detect glyphosate from consumer study
- Bobo’s, Chocolate Almond Butter Stuff’d Oat
- Bulletproof, Collagen Protein, Vanilla Shortbread
- Clif Bar, Whey Protein Salted Caramel Cashew
- Clif Whey Protein-Gluten Free Snack Bars Variety Pack — non-detect glyphosate via consumer study
- Clif Bar, Chocolate Chip
- Clif Kid, Nut Butter Peanut Butter
- Clif Kid, Zbar Filled Chocolate Peanut Butter
- Clif Kid, Zbar Iced Oatmeal Cookie
- Dr. Mercola, Pure Power Mitomix Blueberry Pecan
- Evo Hemp, Brownie Chip Hemp
- GFB Bites, Coconut Cashew Crunch
- Init, Mixed Nuts and Sweet Berries
- Julian Bakery, Instaketones, Orange Burst
- Julian Bakery, PaleoThin, Sunflower Butter
- Kind Health Snack Bar Blueberry Vanilla Cashew — non-detect glyphosate via consumer study
- Kind Healthy Snack Bar Caramel Almonds & Sea Salt — non-detect glyphosate via consumer study
- Larabar, Protein Lemon Blueberry Muffin
- Larabar Fruit & Nut Bar Lemon Gluten-Free Vegan — non-detect glyphosate via study
- Larabar Gluten Free Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip — non-detect glyphosate via study
- Luna Bar, Protein Chocolate Salted Caramel
- Luna Bar, LemonZest Equality
- Manitoba Harvest Hemp Yeah Protein Bar Dark Chocolate Sea Salt
- Manitoba Harvest Hemp Yeah Protein Bar Coconut Cashew Dark Chocolate
- Oatmega Protein Bars Chocolate Brownie — non-detect glyphosate via consumer study
- Onnit Protein Bar Vanilla Almond — non-detect glyphosate via consumer study
- Orgain, Kids-O-Bar Peanut Butter
- Orgain, Protein Chocolate Brownie
- Munk Pack Keto Nut & Seed Bars
- Nature’s Bakery, Brownie Double Chocolate
- Nature’s Path, EnviroKidz Crispy Peanut Butter Rice
- No Cow Protein Bars Peanut Butter Lovers Pack — non-detect glyphosate via consumer study
- NuGo, Organic Double Dark Chocolate
- Primal Kitchen Macadamia Sea Salt Collagen Protein Bars — non-detect glyphosate via consumer study
- Pure Protein Bars High Protein — non-detect glyphosate via consumer study
- Rachel Paul’s, Happy Bars, Oatmeal Raisin
- Raw Rev, Glo Creamy Peanut Butter, and Sea Salt
- RXBar, Layers Chocolate Almond
- RXBar, Kids Double Chocolate
- RXBar, Vanilla Almond
- Thunderbird, Chocolate Almond Butter Sea Salt
- Vega Protein Snack Bar Chocolate Peanut Butter — non-detect glyphosate via consumer study
Best Snack Bars
The best snack bars are USDA certified organic, have a commitment to organic principles within the company, contain 100% whole ingredients, does not contain artificial colors or flavors, use natural sweeteners, do not use synthetic preservatives (but tocopherols, ascorbic acid, and malic acid are okay), do not use any thickeners or gyms, do not contain hexane-extracted ingredients, do not contain hydrogenated oils, do not contain protein isolates, and do not contain “fake” fibers like cellulose. Some additional snack bars in this group have not been found to contain glyphosate or other types of pesticides at detectable levels based on other consumer studies.
- 18 Rabbits Jr., Cherry, Dark Chocolate, and Almond
- 18 Rabbits Jr., Mango Strawberry
- Annie’s Chewy Chocolate Chip
- Bearded Brothers, Awesome Almond Butter Chocolate
- Bearded Brothers, Yo! Bar Chocolate Brownie
- Betty Lou’s, Angel Crisp Milk Chocolate
- Betty Lou’s, Just Great Stuff Cacao & Acai
- Bumble Bar, Amazing Almond
- Cascadian Farm, Honey Roasted Nut
- Cascadian Farm, Wild Blueberry Soft Baked Squares
- Dr. Mercola, Pure Power Protein with Peanut Butter & Chocolate
- Dr. Mercola, Organic Cocoa Cassava with Coconut & Chia Seeds
- Dr. Schultz’s Superfood Bars
- Garden of Life Fit, Sea Salt Caramel
- GoMacro, Sunflower Butter & Chocolate
- Health Warrior, Pumpkin Seed, Honey Sea Salt
- Made Good, Apple Cinnamon
- Nature’s Path, Love Crunch Dark Chocolate Macaroon
- Nature’s Path, Sunrise Dark Chocolate Chip
- Nutiva O’Coconut Classic
- Orgain, Simple Protein Blueberry Almond
- Organic Food Bar, Active Greens
- Organic Food Bar, Original Protein
- Perfect Bar, Peanut Butter
- Perfect Bar, Dark Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter
- Phyter, Apple Cinnamon
- Raw Crunch, Blueberry Lemon
- Rebel Kitchen: Rebel Kitchen Organic Chocolate Coconut Bytes, Rebel Kitchen Organic Caramel Coconut Bytes. (*This product is certified glyphosate-residue free by the Detox Project)
- Rise Pea Protein Bar, Lemon Cashew
- Rise Whey Protein Bar, Almond Honey
- Simple Mills Almond Flour Bars
- Simple Squares, Coconut
- Skout, Kids Blueberry Blast
- Skout, Peanut Butter
- Tosi Superbites: Almond SuperBites, Cashew SuperBites, Blueberry Almond SuperBites, Blueberry Cashew SuperBites, Cashew Coconut SuperBites, Almond Dragonfruit SuperBites, Peanut SuperBites, Peanut Dark Chocolate SuperBites. (*The Detox Project certifies this brand “glyphosate residue-free” from sending them to the lab and the results came back with no detectable levels of glyphosate.)
- Truvani Only Bar (*Mamavation sent this bar off to an EPA certified lab and found no indications of PFAS “forever chemicals” in 2022)
- Universal Bakery, Organic Paleo Bars
- Whole Earth and Sea, Vegan Greens
- Zego, Seed & Fruit Lemon Ginger
Better snack bars are getting better but are not quite the best yet.
Absolutely phenomenal article! Everyone should know about this.
We are eating foods full of chemicals when we think we are feeding our family healthy food 😢
Thus article is far too long with too much info. Most like myself are looking for a list of a healthy snacks from a reputable source not a long winded article.
I’ve never been so shocked and excited by food at the same time. These bars are so divine… I’m standing there in shock with excitement. I think I called all my friends and texted everyone this post. Thank you so much for what you are doing!
Primal kitchen keeps coming up again and again on some of these studies just goes to show it’s not always cut and dried. Thank you Leah for all that you do