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Thinking outside the bowl

Special to The Times

One of the newest additions to the breakfast table lets you indulge in your favorite cereal without lifting a spoon, using a bowl or 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 culinary cousins -- breakfast cereals -- many of the bars are fortified with enough vitamins to rival a multivitamin. To make up for the missing milk, some bars also contain almost as much calcium as a glass of milk.

At 90 to 180 calories each, cereal bars won’t sabotage your weight-loss efforts -- unless you eat a box of them. And at about 50 cents per bar, they won’t break your budget. But their amount of processed sugar could give some candy a run for its money. With a few notable exceptions (more on that below), they’re also short on fiber and protein. And a handful come with an unwanted ingredient: trans fatty acids, an unhealthy type of fat.

“The good news is that they’re portable and can be stored easily,” said registered dietitian Ann Litt of Bethesda, Md. “But I see this as a trend of portable, not real, food.”

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So how do cereal bars taste?

“Too sweet,” was the common complaint from a group of 17 volunteer testers. The test was blind, although the distinctive multicolored Trix bars were easy to spot even without their wrappers. Each bar was cut into thirds or quarters to let tasters sample the 11 brands tested.

Even so, many testers couldn’t stomach eating all the samples. Most said that they wouldn’t eat any of the bars in place of breakfast. Many said they wouldn’t buy them under any circumstances.

“Most of them are just so ... Rice Krispie treats,” wrote one tester. Another noted that the bars wouldn’t be appealing even as a snack or dessert.

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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 Assn. “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; 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 taste and calories. Many testers also gave high marks to Honey Bunches of Oats Cranberry Almond Cereal Bars and to the two All-Bran bars (Oatmeal Raisin and Honey Oat).

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* Losers: South Beach Diet Chocolate High Protein Cereal Bars.

* Skip the bars with trans fat. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines advises that trans fat should be as low as possible. Many food companies are working to eliminate trans fat and are using that fact as a marketing point. 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.

* No protein punch. If protein is your goal, get an energy bar. The exception is the South Beach bar, with 10 grams of protein. Most other cereal bars provide one or two grams of protein.

* Nutritional benefits. Besides fortification with essential vitamins and minerals, All-Bran bars pack up to five grams of fiber, which help to meet the 25 grams per day recommended for women, 38 for men. Many of our testers also liked their taste.

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* Make two a meal. The cereal bars tested ranged from 90 to 180 calories. That will take the edge off hunger, but it’s not enough to hold you until lunch. So eat more than one bar or have a bar as part of breakfast that includes a glass of milk, a cup of low-fat yogurt and fruit. Or have the real thing: a bowl of cereal with low-fat milk and fruit.


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