Anyone who has gone to the grocery store or watched television has caught on to the new food craze: sports nutrition bars. Aisles of grocery stores are dedicated to the plethora of bars. But what exactly are nutrition bars? And what is the difference between nutrition bars, energy bars, and sports nutrition bars?

Nutrition bars do not have a standardized definition by the United States Food and Drug Administration nor by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In general, nutrition bars are made of cereals, puffed rice, and other grains. They may contain nuts and dried fruits. Nutrition bars are sweet and most people use them as a fast convenient snack or meal replacement. Energy bars are nutrition bars with added caffeine while sports nutrition bars generally have more protein compared to nutrition bars and may have added caffeine as well.

Nutrition bars are a controversial issue; some people love them and others do not. Racha Kobitary, a mother of two and computer engineer from Denver, Colorado says, “I do consume lots of protein bars! I usually look for low sugar, high protein, and less than 200 calories. For me it is a good on-the-go snack or grab-and-go breakfast that leaves me full and most of them taste good like a candy bar.” On the contrary Lauren Davis a graphic designer, marketer, and owner of Lauren Davis Creative from Rockford, Illinois argues “I only eat them if I am in a position (like traveling, or at a conference, or on the go) where I can’t eat real food. But I make sure to only eat ones with minimal ingredients and low sugar. Many of those protein and nutrition bars are full of sugar and weird ingredients that I wouldn’t eat on a normal basis so why would I choose to eat them in a bar?”

Andrew Weil, M.D. and integrative medicine expert, weighs in on the nutrition bar controversy on his website; he recommends people consume nutrition bars with caution because many bars contain high amounts of sugar with “sweetness that rivals that of many candy bars.” He also is concerned about the quality of the ingredients used to manufacture these bars as some new ingredients have not had enough research done on them to prove their safety or effectiveness. Dr. Weil concludes saying, “Food bars were invented to help endurance athletes, not desk jockeys, and couch potatoes. Use them to propel you through your own athletic endeavors.”

Although nutrition bars are not as beneficial and healthy as their name makes them sound, Tod Cooperman, M.D. and President of states nutrition bars can be enjoyed periodically and provide protein, fiber, and energy but he cautions consumers to be aware of the ingredients in the bars they choose. In October of 2013, tested 20 of the most popular nutrition bars in the United States to see if they were accurately labeled. Most of the bars passed the test with one bar containing 25% more fat and double the cholesterol than what was on the label and another bar had 30% more cholesterol. In general nutrition bars seem to be labeled accurately but it is the consumers’ responsibility to know what to look for and what to avoid.

Let’s start with what to avoid. Dr. Weil cautions consumers from buying nutrition bars with with sugar listed as one of the first ingredients because it will result in an unhealthy spike in blood glucose levels. Additionally, says nutrition bars with sugar alcohols listed as one of the main ingredients can cause “gas and bloating” therefore it is best to stay away from bars with such ingredients.

Look for real ingredients when selecting nutrition bars. Read the ingredients; are they names of foods you recognize or does it sound more like a science experiment than a food? Sophia Ramdass, a math teacher from Poplar Grove, IL said she likes to choose bars that have zero trans fats and are low in sugar, with ingredients she can pronounce and knows what they are. Dr. Weil advises picking nutrition bars with no added sugars that get their sweetness, protein, and flavor from dried fruits and nuts.

Finding healthy, delicious, nutritious bars is not as hard as one may think, as IFANCA certifies a wide range of KIND nutrition bars. Ms. Ramdass likes to feed her kids foods with ingredients that are healthy, known, and with no chemicals. Her family loves KIND bars for this reason. She says they are filling, delicious, and great for when she or the kids need a fast snack. Hend Alhinnawi, co-founder and CEO of Humanitarian Tracker from Washington D.C. likes ‘No Cow Bars’ because “they are good with low sugar and carbs.” Entrepreneurs have caught on that customers are looking for convenient foods with real ingredients. Zobaida Falah is one of those entrepreneurs. She is the founder of Cure Bar and makes nutrition bars with all real ingredients while giving back to her community because ‘for every bar sold, a bar is given to a person in need.’

Nutrition bars are convenient for on-the-go snacks and with proper care can also be nutritious and delicious. Follow these tips for getting the most from your calories and your money:

✓ Read the ingredients

✓ Beware of the sugar content

✓ Avoid sugar alcohols

✓ Choose pronounceable ingredients

✓ Look for nuts and dried fruits

✓ Look for halal certified products

Remember nutrition bars are good for the occasional snack but the bulk of your calories should come from real foods and proper meals.

Sarene Alsharif, MPH, LDN, is a licensed dietitian nutritionist. Her passion is health promotion and disease prevention with a wholistic approach focusing on functional and whole foods.