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A guide to finding the best gluten-free bars, plus a favorite

October 16, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • There are many bars for sale that have no gluten.
There are many bars for sale that have no gluten. (Mary MacVean / Los Angeles…)

We’ve been checking out the many energy and snack bars on the market, and it seems there are plenty of choices for people who need or want to avoid gluten.

Some of them announce it on the front of the label; others require closer reading of the nutrition information. For people who don’t eat gluten by choice, there are lots of bars that don’t include wheat, rye or barley as an ingredient but warn the bars are made in facilities that might house those products. That’s important information for people with celiac disease -- even a small bit of gluten can make them sick.

Everyone finds themselves in places when they need something to eat, and sometimes bars are the best choice. And some taste good enough not to be a fallback option. I’m generally not a bar-buyer. If I think I will need a snack, I’m likely to carry some walnuts or almonds in a bag with raisins, plus an apple or a banana. Or a piece of cheese.

That might be why I'm partial to Kind bars, a brand that generally has nuts and a few other ingredients you can see through the package, like chocolate or fruit. Kit’s Organic bars from Clif have just a few ingredients too. The fruity berry almond version, for instance, has dates, almonds, barberries, bilberries and salt.

But there are endlessly more varieties of bars, and we tasted what seemed like a lot of bars, but it was just a small sample of the possibilities. We’ve also got a recipe, if you want to make your own snack, from Mollie Katzen, whose newest cookbook, “The Heart of the Plate,” is out this fall.

Some of them, such as the Vega One Chocolate almond bar, look like candy bars. But it has 6 grams of fiber and 15 grams of protein in 250 calories. Zego looks a bit like a flattened Tootsie Roll. The Balance Bar in dark chocolate coconut looks like a treat too, a chocolate cookie with caramel candy topping. It has 180 calories, with 4 grams of fiber and 13 grams of protein. I liked the chocolate coconut less.

None of the bars we tried tasted like candy, though some were quite sweet, and as the makers of Advanced Athletics bars note in their literature, “If you’re looking for a bar to taste like a snickers and actually be healthy for you, then you might as well be looking for a pot of gold next to a leprechaun at the end of a rainbow.”

Their bars are very chewy, and not very sweet, as the company says, “fuel.”  The chocolate one has no gluten, soy, grains, peanuts or corn. It does have 200 calories (21 grams of protein) made from whey protein, almonds, cocao nibs and other things. Of course, it depends on what you are looking for: The Nature’s Path organic chocolate chip bar has no gluten but boasts 13 grams of whole grains.

Zing, a Seattle brand created, as the label says, by nutritionists, has a tasty chocolate peanut butter bar, with 13 grams of protein in 210 calories. Peanuts, agave syrup and chocolate are the first three ingredients -- maybe that’s why.

Chocolate is a popular flavor in gluten-free bars. SquareOne has a chocolate almond and a cocoa crunch with no gluten, dairy, soy or high fructose corn syrup. The talk-show host Elisabeth Hasselbeck has a line of protein bars called Nogii, and the chocolate mint has a fresh flavor. Both look like square candies.

Some, like Pamela's Gluten-Free Oat Blueberry Lemon bar, look like old-fashioned granola bars. This one tastes like it too, with plenty of oats, as well as blueberries, almonds and coconut. It's got a real-food flavor too. 

If you like that seedy taste, Health Warrior’s Chia Bars in a variety of flavors are a good option to stave off hunger at just 100 calories. Chia, of course, is a health food darling, and the apple cinnamon bar has 1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, along with 3 grams of protein. Its relative, the Ancient Grains bar from Pure Organics, has quinoa, amaranth, flax and hemp -- along with fruit and nuts -- in a subtly flavored 160-calorie bar.

Read the labels. Some bars have dozens of ingredients, some have just a handful. And depending on the ingredients, the expiration dates are not always as far out as you might expect.

A problem with gluten-free substitutes for foods that usually contain gluten is just that -- it's a substitute, and sometimes that means an off taste, too sweet or chalky, for examples.

The labels will also tell you other things that might matter to you -- for good and ill. Watch for various kinds of sugars, which could add up to more than you care to eat. 

And Balance, for instance, has Rainforest Alliance certification. Larabar's Alt bars are not just gluten-free, but also free of dairy and GMO ingredients, and are vegan and kosher.

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