We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on, or near) themselves.
This edition: The chocolate chip version of the CLIF bar, which is made from 17 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear online.
1) Organic Brown Rice Syrup: A sweetener derived from — you guessed right — brown rice, brown rice syrup contains no fructose, a kind of sugar associated with negative effects on liver function and metabolic health. That being the case, some might suggest that brown rice syrup is somewhat healthier than several other sweeteners. However, like most refined sugars, brown rice syrup is mostly sugar and almost no essential nutrients — one of these CLIF Bars contains 21 grams of sugar, which is a significant amount equivalent to about five teaspoons.
Studies also show that brown rice syrup contains incredibly high concentrations of the toxic chemical arsenic, especially compared to other common sweeteners. So at the end of the day, brown rice syrup, organic or otherwise, is more harmful than helpful.
2) Organic Rolled Oats: A lightly processed whole grain, rolled oats are highly nutritious, rich in a unique antioxidant called avenanthramides that has the capacity to lower blood pressure and abundant in a cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber called beta-glucan. Plus, they have the ability to lower blood sugar levels.
3) Soy Protein Isolate: Soy protein isolate is the result of soybean flakes that have been dehydrated and ground into a powder. The end product provides extra protein with a smattering of vitamins and minerals. In fact, it’s the main source of the nine grams of protein in this CLIF Bar.
4) Organic Cane Syrup: Created by simmering sugar cane juice until it forms a dark syrup that resembles molasses, cane syrup is similar in nutrition to table sugar — in other words, this stuff is pretty unhealthy.
5) Organic Roasted Soybeans: These provide some bulk, as well as extra protein, fiber and essential nutrients — namely, potassium, which promotes muscle health, and folic acid, which helps the body produce and maintain cells.
6) Rice Flour: Often used in baking, rice flour is high in protein and fiber.
7) Cane Sugar: As we learned in our recent ranking of sugars, cane sugar is one of the healthier options, since it boasts high amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, when cooked into cane syrup, like the one mentioned above, many of those benefits are burned away.
8) Unsweetened Chocolate: Frequently used in baked goods, unsweetened chocolate contains no added sugar, which would presumably be added in another form during the baking process. As a result, this chocolate might as well be lightly-processed cacao, and as one large study suggests, flavonoids (plant pigments) found in cacao might reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
9) Organic Soy Flour: Soy flour is an alternative to high-carb flours, like wheat flour. It boosts protein levels and adds moisture to baked goods.
10) Organic Oat Fiber: Oat fiber is made from grinding the hull of oats, which have been separated from the kernels. That means oat fiber is, for all intents and purposes, straight-up added fiber.
11) Organic High Oleic Sunflower Oil: High oleic sunflower oil, compared to regular sunflower oil, is particularly high in monounsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol, and therefore, reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. So this is basically the healthiest version of sunflower oil.
But of course, there’s a catch: Physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, previously told me that consuming too much vegetable oil (canola, sunflower or corn) — which is easy to do, considering she says roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils — has serious repercussions (e.g., fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines). While it’s nearly impossible to eliminate vegetable oil from your diet altogether — major contributors include processed foods, fried foods, frozen pizzas, cakes, cookies, margarines and coffee creamers — it’s best consumed in moderation.
12) Cocoa Butter: Used to make chocolate, cocoa butter is fat extracted from the cocoa bean.
13) Barley Malt Extract: Barley malt extract has several uses, ranging from providing some additional sweetness to promoting yeast activity in baked goods, which means oven temperatures can be lowered and bake times shortened.
14) Sea Salt: This enhances the flavor.
15) Natural Flavors: Natural flavors are flavors derived from an actual food source — for instance, cocoa flavoring taken from real cocoa.
16) Soy Lecithin: Soy lecithin is a component of fat found in, you guessed it, soy. It’s typically added to food products as an emulsifier, which means it helps the numerous ingredients found in these bars mix together. In some cases, soy lecithin can also help foods stay fresh while they sit on the shelves.
17) Organic Cinnamon: Added for flavor, cinnamon can reduce cholesterol and maintain the long-term integrity of your boner (no, seriously).
The worst thing about these bars is the added sugar — one bar contains only six grams less than a Snickers, which is just sad. On the flip side, CLIF Bars were included in the top three healthiest choices in my recent ranking of energy bars, since they have decent ingredients, including plenty of healthy oats and soy products — not to mention, a nice dash of protein.
So while you should always be mindful of your sugar consumption, especially when something as innocuous as an energy bar can boast almost as much as a candy bar, CLIF Bars are generally an okay option. That said, there are some better choices hidden among the convenient store shelves.
I’m looking at you Lärabar.