The Cornucopia Institute just released Raising the Bar, Choosing Healthy Snack Bars versus Gimmicky Junk Food a report exposing misleading marketing practices by large food industry firms that market candy-like snack and energy bars as wholesome and nutritious.

The report also exposes leading natural/organic brands that offer cheap, conventional ingredients such as protein isolates processed with the neurotoxin solvent hexane, instead of creating nutritive products that qualify for the USDA organic label.

"The highly profitable ($9 billion-dollar) snack bar industry is rife with gimmicky substitutes, such as protein isolates, instead of whole food ingredients,” says the report’s lead author Linley Dixon, PhD, Chief Scientist at Cornucopia.

The report details how snack bar quality varies widely among brands, even among those that market themselves as “made with” organic ingredients, a label with lower federal standards than the USDA organic.

Products that carry the USDA organic label must have a minimum of 95 percent of ingredients by weight certified organic. The label “made with” organic ingredients only requires a minimum of 70% certified organic ingredients by weight, opening the door to ingredients added to either reduce the manufacturing cost of the product or to enhance protein or fiber content for marketing purposes.

Non-organic, hexane-extracted soy lecithin, soy protein concentrate, or soy protein isolate are often used in the remaining 30% of non-organic ingredients in products carrying the “made with” label. These ingredients could contain GMO soybeans (i.e., Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready soybean varieties) that have been sprayed multiple times with the herbicide glyphosate. Conventional grains such as oats are frequently sprayed before harvest with glyphosate, which serves as a desiccant to accelerate dry down. This situation is especially concerning since glyphosate recently has come under intense scrutiny as a possible carcinogen.

“Hexane-extracted ingredients, like conventional soy protein isolate, are common in products that are labeled ‘made with’ organic ingredients. An intentional loophole in the USDA organic standards allows for the use of ingredients that are extracted using volatile solvents in ‘made with’ organic products (a process explicitly prohibited in products qualifying to display the USDA organic logo).”

The “Raising the Bar” report took Dr. Dixon and her team at Cornucopia almost a year to complete. It is a comparative analysis of products by all companies in the marketplace, based on publicly available information on their websites, product packaging and observations on retail shelves.

Linley Dixon Ph.D., Chief Scientist at The Cornucopia Institute

The report includes a scorecard and explains how, consumers receive a safer and higher quality product with USDA certified organic brands over conventional, mass-market brands that contain long lists of questionable gums and synthetic preservatives, flavors, and colors.

“There is so much competition for market share in the snack bar industry that many brands marketing themselves as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ still cut corners in ingredient sourcing to achieve a lower price point,” stated Goldie Caughlan, former National Organic Standards Board member and nutrition educator at a Seattle-based food cooperative. “That’s why it’s important to make sure the product has the USDA Organic seal and not just the ‘made with’ organic ingredients label.”

Low levels of hexane have been detected in common snack bar ingredients, including protein isolates. Since protein is a hot marketing draw, protein isolates are highly modified ingredients used to artificially inflate the protein content of snack bars, but they leave out the beneficial oils, fiber and vitamins found in more expensive, whole food ingredient options such as nuts and seeds.

The highest rated bars on The Cornucopia Institute’s scorecard are USDA certified organic brands. They use only organic fruits, nuts, and seeds without any added sugars, gums, flours, protein isolates, or preservatives.

The scorecard identifies some brands offering both high-rated and low-rated products, such as bestsellers Clif Bar and Lara Bar (the latter produced by General Mills). This makes it difficult for consumers to choose products based on name brand alone because quality varies widely between products within the same prominent brands. Cornucopia’s scorecard decodes these options for consumers.

“When a company uses the ‘made with’ organic ingredients claim, it’s likely that they have chosen to use one or more relatively inexpensive organic ingredients, such as organic oats, tapioca/rice syrup or flour,” said Cornucopia’s co-director and Senior Farm Policy Analyst Mark Kastel. “This enables them to legally use the word ‘organic’ on the front packaging, even though up to 30% of the contents are conventional.”

“Clif Bar, for example, claimed that their conventional protein isolates tested negative for hexane residues, but, when asked, they did not provide test results or release specifics on the sensitivity of the testing,” stated Dr. Dixon. “A negative test doesn’t mean there are no hexane residues if the type of test conducted had a high detection level. Detection limits for hexane should be 1 ppm, for example, not 10 ppm.”

Most bars sold in the US are made with conventional ingredients, followed by "made with" organic ingredients and finally fully certified organic products.

“The good news is that discriminating shoppers now have a new mobile-friendly web-based tool, released with the report, to help them weed through product labels and separate the best bars from greenwashed marketing hype,” stated Kastel.