Clif Bars …. Truly Healthy or a fad?

Dear Reader,

When I moved to Arizona over 13 years ago it rekindled my love of outdoor activities, specifically hiking and rock climbing. I fondly recall many group excursions which involved several hours of hiking out to remote and beautiful areas where we would stash our heavy backpacks, don tight fitting rubber shoes and climb the face of many mountains in order to fulfill the aching need to conquer yet another challenging route that was deemed impossible the month before.

As many of you have guessed, such a rigorous sport requires one to be in good health and shape,  further requiring optimal nutrition. In a desperate need to travel light on these excursions without sacrificing proper nutrition and sustained energy, a friend told me about these wonderful and convenient energy bars called “Clif Bars” that he always ate on such trips because they were not only convenient, priced well ($1/bar), high in protein and nutritious but because they also tasted good …much better tasting than the unsuccessful and leathery textured “Power Bars” that quickly lost their popularity within the athletic population due to inferior taste and a general lack of nutritional quality.

After doing little research and being drawn into meaningless marketing tactics like having the depiction of a rock climber leading a challenging route on every Clif Bar package that was sold in such reputable ‘outdoorsy’ and health conscious stores like REI and Trader Joe’s, I grew addicted to these, to put it bluntly, glorified candy bars. But who could blame me, when ‘Gary,’ the creator, founder and owner of Clif Bar & Company has his inspiring story printed on the sleeve of every Clif Bar package and I must admit, it is quite an inspiring one that deals with his recollection of trekking in Nepal where he decided that he “did not believe in reaching the top at any cost – in climbing or in business. Clif Bar’s journey resembles alpine climbing . We try to travel light and are committed to keeping our company, product, people, community and the planet healthy.” ~ Gary.

I must admit, this personal touch/message that is literally printed on every Clif Bar package is very heart-warming and it always made me feel as if I were part of an elite group of responsible athletes that support this grassroots operation and community, but just how healthy these bars were always took a back seat to the righteous feelings of doing the right thing by supporting such a genuinely responsible operation … until now.

According to websites like Fooducate(1) and NutritionAction(2), the Clif Bar was given the grade of a “C” being cited as “overrated” since it contained ~ 5 teaspoons of sugar per serving (1 bar = 68g) which is 1/5 of the amount of added sweeteners that the average person consumes in the US, thus adding an unnecessary extra 80 empty non-nutritious calories! These so-called ‘energy bars’ also contain very little amounts of fruit. Even my favorite Oatmeal Raisin Walnut variety listed ‘organic raisins’ as the 6th ingredient (out of 17)  after its main ingredient of organic brown rice syrup. As such, having such an extensive ingredient list, it is not surprising to find out how highly processed these supposedly ‘healthy’ energy bars are.

  1. Fooducate. Eat a bit better. Clif Bar, Oatmenal Raisin Walnut. Accessed 12/7/13.
  2. NutritionAction.5 overrated and underrated Foods. Accessed 12/7/13.

Although this product touts the fact that it contains 0% trans fat, 70% organic ingredients, provides sustained energy and is high in protein, it is felt that because it is so highly processed containing a very high sugar and soy content, it truly earns its “C overrated” grading. A closer look at each individual ingredient listed on every Clif Bar revealed that it contained:

1. Organic Brown Rice syrup: Used cleverly to replace the ill-reputed high fructose corn syrup, it is a sweetening alternative that has been found to contain high levels of arsenic. Although deemed “within safe limits,” an adult would need to eat 3 of these energy bars to exceed these healthy limits. I cannot speak for you the reader, but I have on numerous occasions consumed more than 3 of these in a day while hiking, climbing and camping.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

2. ClifPro (Soy Rice Crisps [Soy Protein Isolate, Rice Flour, Barley Malt Extract]: According to The Soyfoods Association of America, soy protein isolate “is a dry powder food ingredient that has been separated or isolated from the other components of the soybean, making it 90 to 95 percent protein and nearly carbohydrate and fat-free. Although this sounds appealing to have in an energy bar, this involves a high bit of processing and although Clif Bars state that it sources ingredients that are not genetically modified, it is doubtful that this statement is true with specific concern with its soy protein isolate which 95% of the time is created from highly processed GM soy.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

3. Organic Roasted Soybeans: Although they are an excellent source of protein, iron, fiber, folic acid, many vitamins and generally considered a heart-healthy snack, when roasted in oil and salted, this ingredient becomes higher in fat, sodium and carcinogens that may negate their original healthful benefits.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

4. Organic Soy Flour: Again, highly processed but high in protein, fiber and soy isoflavones adding a nutty flavor to anything it is added to. When soy is processed into a flour, it loses many of its healthful properties.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

Source: Brown A. Understanding Food Principles and Preparation, 4th Ed. Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; 2011

5. Organic Rolled Oats: Eating oats help lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and may help reduce the risk of heart disease by helping lower ones blood pressure. Oats can also help you feel fuller longer, which helps control your weight. Oats may help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, since their soluble fiber helps control blood sugar. Oats are also high in beta-glucans, a kind of starch that stimulates the immune system. Oats are higher in protein and healthy fats, and lower in carbohydrates than most other whole grains. They contain more soluble fiber than any other grain. All this sounds perfect but when mixed with 5 teaspoons of sugar containing 21 g of sugar/bar, it is highly unlikely that this ingredient contained in this energy bar is going to address diabetes with any conviction.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

6. Organic raisins: One of the sweetest of all fruits since they are essentially dried grapes and contain calcium, but as previously mentioned are hardly represented fairly in these bars since it is the 6th ingredient listed. Many fruit ingredients are also usually treated in some form of preservative to prevent premature spoiling. Since the expiry date on the package indicated that this energy bar that was purchased on 12/3/13 is ‘good’ till 6/8/14, it most likely contains several preservatives and harmful ingredients like MSG, Aspartame and bugs that are all considered “natural flavors” and “natural colors.” Since the term ‘natural flavors’ was listed as an ingredient, this Clif Bar is starting to sound less and less healthy and appetizing.

Learn more: 12/7/13.
7. Organic Evaporated Cane Juice: Whether it is organic or not, it is still sugar containing no nutritional value and unnecessary and excessive considering the fact that the first ingredient listed was organic brown rice syrup. Is an additional sweetener really needed?

8. Walnuts: High in omega 3 fatty acids and considered a superfood in terms of the amount of nutrition it provides but since it is so low on the ingredient list, it is doubtful how much of this food is actually in this energy bar.

Source: Hoffmann D. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press. 2003.

9. ClifCrunch (Organic Oat Fiber, Inulin [Chicory Extract]: According to WebMD, inulin is a starchy substance found in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, including wheat, onions, bananas, leeks, artichokes, and asparagus. Inulin is used to lower high blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides and is also used for weight loss, constipation, and as a food additive to improve taste. I think the last part of the last sentence speaks volumes.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

10. Organic Milled Flaxseed: Although flaxseeds are known for their high omega 3 fatty acid content, once they are milled they quickly lose their potency in providing this rich source of anti-inflammation and anti-oxidation.

Source: Brown A. Understanding Food Principles and Preparation, 4th Ed. Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; 2011

11.Organic Oat Bran: Oat bran is very low in cholesterol and sodium and is a good source of protein and iron, and also high in dietary fiber, thiamin, manganese, magnesium and selenium. but again, since this ingredient is listed as one of the last ingredients contained within this energy bar, it is highly unlikely that it contains enough of this ingredient to make a healthful difference.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

12. Organic Soy Butter: According to the Vegetarian Journal, soy butter is considered a healthier alternative to regular butter since it contains protein, unsaturated fats and calcium. That said, with the inclusion of so many other soy ingredients (soy rice crisp, soy isolate, soy flour, roasted soy nuts, and its oil) contained within this particular energy bar, it is felt that adding soy butter is overkill, especially when derived from roasted soybeans.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

13. Molasses Powder: Yet a third sweetening agent that is high on the glycemic index and considered highly inflammatory, molasses powder is very low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. Although it is also a good source of Vitamin B6 and Potassium, and a very good source of Magnesium and Manganese, this ingredient provides very little nutritive value to this energy bar since is is predominantly sugar.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

14. “Natural Flavors”: According to Natural News, several preservatives and harmful ingredients like MSG, Aspartame and bugs are all considered “natural flavors” and “natural colors.” Therefore, this energy bar is suspect of containing any and/or all of the aforementioned ingredients.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

15. Ground Cinnamon: Known for its effectiveness in addressing diabetic conditions with its vital role in balancing blood sugar levels, cinnamon can be a very important spice to add into any food, but again, it may be doubtful if enough cinnamon exists in these bars to be considered therapeutic. Not to overlook the fact that 3 different sweeteners are added to this energy bar with brown rice syrup being the first and most influential ingredient, and therefore, would negate any therapeutic benefit that the small amount of cinnamon would provide.

Source: Hoffmann D. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press. 2003.

16. Sea Salt: According to the Mayo Clinic sea salt is much healthier than table salt since it requires less processing and more trace minerals since it is derived from the evaporation of seawater that yields a more flavorful product. That said, being the second last ingredient listed, it is doubtful that these energy bars contain enough sea salt to provide a reasonable amount of minerals.

Read more at: Accessed 12/7/13.

17. Vitamins & Minerals: Dicalcium Phosphate, Magnesium Oxide, Ascorbic Acid (Vit. C), Tocopheryl Acetate (Vit. E), Ferric Orthophosphate (Iron), Beta Carotene (Vit. A), Zinc Citrate, Phytonadione (Vit. K1), Biotin, Niacinamide (Vit. B3), Calcium Pantothenate (Vit. B5), Potassium Iodide, Manganese Gluconate, Copper Gluconate, Sodium Selenite, Thiamin (Vit. B1), Chromium Chloride, Cyanocobalamin (Vit. B12), Sodium Molybdate, Folic Acid (Vit. B9), Riboflavin (Vit. B2), Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vit. B6).

Since all of these vitamins and minerals are artificially added to this energy bar, the question remains regarding its ability to be properly assimilated in the body since the proper enzymes are not present for proper uptake to occur. For example, many of these bars are fortified with the same vitamin and minerals found in fruits and vegetables, but they don’t contain the necessary phytochemicals, bioflavonoids, natural fiber and balance of vitamins and minerals found in these foods, so their comparative health benefits are not the same and considered substandard.

Read more at: Nutrition: Energy Bars. Accessed 12/7/13.

In light of all of the above information provided, although ‘Clif Bars’ have a very clear and clever marketing scheme by putting a name (‘Gary’) and adding an inspiring story onto each of their energy bars that lures the consumer into a false sense of community loyalty for the love of outdoor sporting activities, it is felt that the product itself falls short of its claims as a healthy high protein energy bar that provides sustained energy by using quality non GMO ingredients.  Due to its high sugar and soy content, including the high amount of processing involved to create this product, it is felt that it is not a healthy or sensible meal  replacement and therefore deserves its ‘C’ rating and ‘overrated’ impression.

That said, a much superior product like the Larabar, specifically its ‘Apple Pie’ variation would be a much more sensible choice in terms of picking an energy bar when its necessity is called for. Containing only 6 ingredients: dates, almonds, apples, walnuts, raisins and cinnamon, with no added sugar, high source of fiber and gluten free, these have become my ‘go-to’ food bars when I go on any extended hiking, climbing and camping trips. Since ‘Lara’, the creator of Larabar, believes that “a sound mind, body and spirit are derived from food in its simplest, most natural state”, my eagerness to feel a sense of communal support for the foods I eat are once again restored. “Made from 100% real food, Larabar is a magical harmony of fruits, nuts and spices that will lift your vitality and provide energy with every bite. Simple. Pure.Delicious.” Exactly how I would like to feel when I eat food.

And with that happy note, I bid you all a good night knowing that there truly exists healthy food choices if you are willing to do the research.

In Health,

The Little Bohemian

Jeanette Rosario

One Response to “Clif Bars …. Truly Healthy or a fad?”

  1. Brad says:

    Just wanted to say thank you for spending the time to put this all together. This summer I went a long way to getting healthy, counting calories and nutrition etc. I managed to get myself off blood pressure medication and steadily drop weight and body fat. I’m a teacher and off for the summer and had the time to prepare my food. Going back to work I decided clif bars would be my solution to the loss of food prep time. I would eat one or two a day in place of other calories. I kept exercising, maintained the right amount of calories and sodium and balances my carbs, proteins and fat. However, within one week I am having trouble keeping my blood pressure down, headaches returned and I have had at least one incidence of alarming high blood pressure. The only significant change in my diet…clif bars. So again thanks for the information – I’m going to cut them out and see if it helps me get back to where I was just about 9 days ago.

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