September 5, 2012


Welcome to What I Think Wednesdays – a series in which I review all sorts of things related to food, health, and nutrition. I don’t promise to post a new review every Wednesday, but when I do have an opinion of something to share, I’ll put it out there on a Wednesday.

Today marks the series debut. I’m starting simply, but over time I plan to include reviews of books, podcasts, documentaries, food products, and kitchen gadgets. Have something specific you’d like me to take a look at? Shoot me an email at

Now, on to what I think:

This week’s subject: LARA BARS

Lara Bars are a pleasant oasis hiding in the vast desert of bars loaded with hydrogenated oils (the fancy term for trans fats), soy protein, artificial sweeteners, and other chemically engineered ingredients mashed together and masquerading as health food. In my opinion, the single best thing Lara Bars have going for them is that you can absolutely pronounce, understand, and identify every ingredient in them. Every ingredient. No wacky surprises, nothing you’ve never heard of, and nothing you wouldn’t be able to identify if you saw it sitting by itself on a supermarket shelf. Hydrolyzed soy protein? Nope. Fractionated cottonseed oil? Nope. Pecans? Yep. Raisins? Yep. Seriously, reading the (very short) labels on a Lara Bar is like sucking in a huge, refreshing breath of fresh air after stepping outside from a hot, stuffy room.

That being said, they’re not an ideal snack for everyone. There are good things and not-so-good things about them. Let’s take a closer look:

They contain REAL FOOD
They’re delicious
They contain healthy fats
They’re convenient

They’re pricey
They’re sugar-heavy
Going through these points one by one…

The pluses:

  • They contain real food. If you click here and then click on any of the flavors, you’ll be able to see all the ingredients—things like cashews, dates, walnuts, coconut, cinnamon, cocoa powder, apples, cherries, almonds, and ginger. Nothing hiding behind deceptive labeling laws here.
  • These things are yummy. No doubt about it. I’ve tried most of them, and while they’ve all been good, some are outrageously good, and others are…well, meh. My personal favorites? Tropical fruit tart, coconut cream pie, ginger snap, apple pie, and peanut butter & jelly. (I would say cinnamon roll, but it looks like they discontinued that one. Boo!) I really (really) wanted to love blueberry muffin and carrot cake, but to be honest, I think they had a kind of chemically taste. They weren’t bad, but there are better ones. The chocolate/”jocalat” varieties are pretty darn good, too, and make a decent substitution when you’re craving something sweet and chocolatey but are trying to avoid traditional candy bars that contain things like PGPR, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial colors.
  • Healthy fats – ah yes, no soybean, cottonseed, corn, canola, or other modern oils that require ridiculous amounts of processing to be nice and clear and odorless in their pristine plastic bottles on the supermarket shelf. Just extra virgin coconut oil (one of the most sublime and health-promoting substances you could possibly ingest) and the naturally occurring fats in the nuts. Can I get a hallelujah?!
  • Convenience—they’re tiny and fit easily into a purse, briefcase, gym bag, or desk drawer. Keep a stash of ‘em at home and all you have to do is grab one and be on your way.

The minuses:

  • They’re pricey. This is probably the biggest drawback to this otherwise good choice. Depending on the flavor, they range from about 1.6 to 1.8 ounces. That is tiny, my friends. And they’re usually $1.29 each where I live (northern VA). Occasionally you can catch them on sale for 99 cents, but they usually run about $1.29. For the 1.6oz bars, that works out to $12.90 per pound. Almost thirteen dollars a pound! Yikes! (The 1.8oz flavors come out to $11.47/lb – still a fair chunk of change for such a small morsel of food.) I did some price checking at a few different stores and—no surprise—it’s more economical to buy nuts and dried fruit and either make your own Lara Bars or just eat them as they are: a handful of nuts and a little dried fruit.* (Scroll to the end for details on prices.)
  • Shoo-gah! Yes, it’s all “natural” sugar, but so what? Poisonous mushrooms are natural. That doesn’t make them less poisonous. Dried fruit isn’t bad for you, but your intake of it should be guided by your weight and health goals. For example, at 1.7 ounces, the cherry pie flavor packs 30g of carbohydrate. That’s a lot of carbs for such a tiny little bar. For that same 30g, you could eat over a pound of broccoli (almost nine and a half times as much by weight!), and the brocc would net you way more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and—believe it or not—protein! (It would also be fewer calories, but I hate talking calories. I’m just putting it out there for shock value that eating 12.5 times as much broccoli by weight would give you fewer calories than one Lara Bar. [It’s about 1.33 lbs of broccoli to reach 30g of carb, for anyone who wants to check my math.]) Same goes for sweet red peppers and a ton of other vegetables. Dried fruit is a very concentrated source of sugar. If you need a boost during a long bike ride, trail run, or day-long hike, you could do a lot worse than Lara Bars. But if you sit in front of a computer all day long and the most exercise you get is moving a mouse, you just don’t need ‘em. Want something sweet? Stick to whole pieces of fresh fruit.

The verdict:  THUMBS UPwith caveats. If you’re muscular, very active, and handle carbohydrates well, have at ‘em. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to lose body fat, wean yourself off sugar, and/or keep your blood glucose levels or hypoglycemic symptoms in check, these aren’t a great choice for you. Overall, though, I like to recognize when a company puts out a product that’s wholesome. And as for the price, well, they are a business. They’ve got to make a profit, and I respect that. And even if it is really simple and economical to make your own, let’s face it. Now and then, you will find yourself having to grab something. And it’s nice to know there’s something you can feel good about reaching for in a pinch.

*Regarding prices on nuts and dried fruits: All prices are per pound on Aug 29, 2012 in Springfield, VA:
Trader Joe’s:
Walnuts: $7.50     Almonds: $4.99     Cashews: $6.99     Tart cherries: $3.60
Organic raisins: $2.99     Brazil nuts: $6.99     Turkish figs: $5.58    Bing cherries: $6.98

Even at Whole Foods (which some call “Whole Paycheck”), the prices for bulk nuts and dried fruits are much lower than what they charge for Lara Bars:
 Walnuts: $9.99     Pecans: $7.99     Almonds: $4.99     Dates: $6.99
Pineapple: $5.98     Apricots: $4.99     Flame raisins: $3.39    Sour cherries: $3.99

Mom's Organic Market: *Denotes organic
Flame raisins*: $3.59     Dates*: $5.89     Tart cherries: $9.99     Pineapple: $4.59
Shredded coconut*: $3.99     Hazelnuts*: $10.99     Cashews: $9.79    Apricots*: $5.99

So you’d get more bang for your buck buying nuts and dried fruit separately and making your own bars or just eating them as is. Stock up when there’s a sale. Dried fruit lasts a long time—it’s already preserved! And nuts will keep for a while in the fridge or freezer without going rancid. Just keep them away from heat and light.

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