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The Shocking Truth About "Healthy" Energy Bars

Do you think low-fat pudding and sugary cereals are healthy? The FDA's regulations say they are. But they're finally taking another look at the guidelines for "healthy" food designations on packaging.

The FDA's definition of what makes a food healthy is based on factors including the amount of fat it has—"healthy" products need to have less than 3 grams of fat per serving. This means foods like avocado, salmon, nuts, and seeds are on the reject list. No wonder there's public confusion about what to eat.

Now that we know low-fat diets aren't necessarily healthy, these 20-year-old regulations need a second look. The current definition is based on old beliefs from the '80s and '90s that fat is bad for the heart and you should chow down on carbs instead. The decision to update the guidelines came from plenty of pushback from nutrition experts and the makers of affected snacks such as KIND bars. Last year, KIND was told to take the word "healthy" off their packaging because they didn't meet the fat guidelines. This week the FDA announced it is reversing its decision. KIND bars can use "healthy" on their packaging once again.

There are two areas you can look at to figure out if a bar is a healthy choice: the ingredient list and the Nutrition Facts table. There is often a trade-off for snack manufacturers. They can either choose super-clean ingredients like nuts and seeds (upping the calories and saturated fat) or make the Nutrition Facts look amazing by adding processed ingredients. The trick is finding the balance between the two. Here's your guide:

The Ingredient Label

Watch out for: Added sugars that seem healthy: Added sugars in disguise may sound wholesome, but if brown rice syrup or cane syrup show up early on the ingredients list, it's a sure sign it's more of a chocolate bar than an energy bar. Another common trick: sprinkling different types of sugar throughout the ingredient list. It doesn't matter if it's agave or fruit juice popping up every couple of words. If you're like most Americans, you need to reign in the added sugars pronto.

Artificial sweeteners: Xylitol, mannitol, and anything else ending in "ol" is a sugar alcohol that could leave you gassy. Sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose can increase cravings, throw off your blood sugar, and mess with your metabolism.

Hydrogenated fats: If the word "hydrogenated" shows up anywhere in the ingredient list, put that bar down! These are the worst types of fats for your heart and overall health.

Look for: Real food ingredients: Choose a bar that is made with nuts, seeds, fruit, and whole grains, not strange words straight out of a science fiction novel. Healthy food should be simple, not require a nutrition degree to figure it out.

Sweetened with fruit only: Your favorite energy bar should taste great thanks to dried apricots, cranberries, or cherries, not plenty of syrup or artificial sweeteners. Go for the fruit-based bars so you're getting some nutrients and not empty calories.

Prebiotics: Bars that contain inulin boast the added benefit of fueling the good bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics promote a healthy digestive system and can boost your immunity.

The Nutrition Facts Label

Watch out for: Calorie bombs: Some bars will look clean in the ingredient list but have more than 400 calories—that's more of a dessert than a snack for most women. Some contain two bars in a package but give you the nutrition information for one. Are you really going to wrap up the other bar for later or only eat half of a larger bar? Do yourself a favor and choose a single bar that fits within your calorie goals.

Carb overload: Look for a bar that has 30 grams of carbohydrates or less, unless you're an endurance athlete. Think about it this way: A slice of bread has about 15 grams of carbs. Would you really want to eat more than two slices of bread in one sitting? Tasty, yes. But advisable? Definitely not.

Look for: Calorie control: If you're watching your weight, your energy bar should have less than 200 calories. You're looking for a snack, not a meal replacement.

Protein: Pick a bar that has at least 7 grams of protein to help you stay satisfied longer.

Fiber: Your energy bar should have at least 2 grams of fiber. Fiber helps you stay full, stabilizes blood sugar, helps you manage your weight, and lowers your risk of some cancers.

Slow carbs: You want a bar with the right kind of carbs—the slow-release kind that will give you energy that lasts rather than a crash-and-burn situation. Bars such as Simply Protein have been tested and shown to be low on the glycemic index, helping prevent cravings and giving you the energy you need to get through your day.