The newest addition to the breakfast table lets you enjoy your favorite cereal without lifting a spoon, using a bowl or even pouring a drop of milk.
Breakfast bars made by Kellogg's, Post, General Mills, Quaker, Kraft and other companies offer a fast-food option to those eating on the run in the morning. Found just down the grocery aisle from their cereal cousins, many are fortified with enough vitamins to rival a multivitamin. To make up for the missing milk, some bars also contain plenty of calcium.
Compared with granola bars, cereal bars are generally sweeter, have less whole grain, less fiber and pack more added vitamins and minerals. Cereal bars are sometimes higher in calories, ranging from about 90 to 180 calories per bar. That likely won't sabotage your weight-loss efforts unless you eat a box of them all at once. And starting at about 50 cents per bar, they're affordable.
"I've been struck by their popularity, particularly among college students," said registered dietitian Ann Litt, author of "The College Guide to Healthy Nutrition" (Tulip Hill Press) and a nutritional consultant to the Washington Redskins. Litt sees the breakfast bars as successors to Pop Tarts and other convenience breakfast foods.
"The good news," she said, is that cereal bars "are portable and can be stored easily. . . . But she worries that they help fuel a trend of eating processed, packaged fare "that is not real food."
One big concern of nutritionists is that cereal bars often come packed with enough processed sugar to give a candy bar a run for its money. With a few notable exceptions (more on that later), they're also short on fiber and protein. Plus, a few come with an unwanted ingredient: trans fatty acids, an unhealthy type of fat.
So how do they taste?
"Too sweet" was the common complaint from a group of 17 newsroom staffers who volunteered for a Lean Plate Club taste test, conducted in the late afternoon when deadline stress often stokes appetites. The test was blind, although the multicolored Trix bars were easy to spot even without their wrappers. Each bar was cut into thirds or quarters to enable testers to sample the 11 brands tested.
Even so, many testers couldn't stomach trying all the samples. Most said they wouldn't eat any of the bars for breakfast. Many said they wouldn't buy them under any circumstances.
"Most of them are just so . . . Rice Krispies Treats," wrote one tester. Another noted that the bars wouldn't be appealing even as a snack or dessert. "I'd rather have the real thing," this tester wrote.
Even so, eating a cereal bar in the morning "is better than eating nothing at all," said registered dietitian Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Study after study shows the benefit of breakfast."
Here's a sampling of our taste test results:
* What We Tested All-Bran Honey Oat Bars, All-Bran Oatmeal Raisin Bars, Cinnamon Toast Crunch Milk 'n' Cereal Bars, Cocoa Puffs Milk 'n' Cereal Bars, Honey Bunches of Oats Cranberry Almond Low-Fat Cereal Bars, Honey Nut Cheerios Bars, Nutri-Grain Banana Muffin Bars, Raisin Bran Cereal Bars, Special K Vanilla Crisp Bars, South Beach Diet Chocolate High Protein Cereal Bars; Trix Milk 'n' Cereal Bars.
* Winners Special K Vanilla Crisp (90 calories per bar, no trans fat) was the winner for best taste and least calories. Many testers also gave high marks to Honey Bunches of Oats Cranberry Almond Cereal Bars and to the two All-Bran bars.
* Loser The South Beach Diet bars. "Dog food with chocolate," wrote one tester. "I'd rather eat Metamucil than this one," noted another, who gave the bar a minus one on a scale of one (yuck) to 10 (great).
* Skip the Bars With Unhealthy Trans Fat. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines advises that consumption of trans fat should be as low as possible. Many food companies are working to eliminate trans fat, but the General Mills bars (Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, Honey Nut Cheerios and Trix) each contain one gram of trans fat per bar. Individually, that's a small amount, but eat several bars and the numbers add up.
* Skimpy on Protein. If protein is your goal, get an energy bar, not a breakfast bar. The exception: the South Beach bar, which packed 10 grams of protein. (As one tester asked, "What's it got in it, meat?") Most other cereal bars provide one or two grams of protein.
* Nutritional Benefits. Besides being fortified with vitamins and minerals, the All Bran bars have five grams of fiber, which helps meet the 25-gram daily goal recommended for women (38 for men). Many of our testers also liked their taste.
* Plan on More Than One. The bars will help take the edge off your hunger, but they probably don't have enough calories to hold you until lunch. So either eat more than one bar or have a bar as part of breakfast that includes milk or a cup of low-fat yogurt and some fruit. Or even better, just have the real thing: a bowl of cereal with low-fat milk and fruit, which can match or exceed the nutritional value of a cereal bar.
* Share your tips or ask questions about nutrition and activity when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club online chat, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. today, on www.washingtonpost.com. Can't join live? E-mail email@example.com anytime. To learn more, and subscribe to our free e-newsletter, visit www.leanplateclub.com.