How Much is Too Much?

Excess Vitamins and Minerals in Food Can Harm Kids’ Health

June 19, 2014

How Much is Too Much? : Snack Bars: Another Source of Added Nutrients

American children and adults alike enjoy snack bars, which are often advertised as “health” or “quick burst of energy” foods. Many parents put a snack bar in their child’s lunch box or sports bag for an afternoon nibble. Sports and outdoor enthusiasts often take along energy and nutrition bars for long trips and endurance challenges. Even office workers may have a snack bar close at hand for a late-night work crunch or a mid-morning snack.
EWG’s analysis revealed that snack and energy bars are a surprising source of added nutrients that can be excessive for children younger than 8, for pregnant women and for older adults, particularly post-menopausal women. Reviewing 1,025 snack and energy bars, EWG found 27 that contained 50 percent or more of the Adult Daily value of preformed vitamin A, zinc, and/or niacin in a single serving (Table 6). Among the most-fortified snack bars are well-known brands such as Balance Bars, Kind bars and Marathon bars. (See Table A2 in Appendix A for a full listing.)

Table 6: Fortification levels in a sample of 1,025 energy and snack bars*

Fortified nutrient

25-45% of the adult Daily Value

50% of the adult Daily Value

100% of the adult Daily Value

Preformed vitamin A**

71 products

17 products



71 products

2 products



73 products

5 products

8 products

*. The majority of snack and nutrition bars reviewed by EWG represent 2013 product formulations. EWG conducted a detailed review of package label information for 161 products identified in FoodEssentials’ database as having 25 percent or higher adult Daily Value for preformed vitamin A, zinc or niacin in a single serving. For these 161 products, the labels were gathered between Dec. 11, 2012 and March 6, 2014.  Overall, 143 labels were from 2013; 17 labels were from 2014; and 5 labels were from 2012.
** Includes only products with preformed vitamin A as retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate. Excludes products containing only vitamin A from natural sources or carotenoids such as beta-carotene.

Women who might be pregnant should not take high doses of vitamin A supplements and should be cautious with foods and personal care products that contain high amounts (BfR 2005; BfR 2014; Kloosterman 2007; Yourick 2008). Pregnant women need to be especially careful about their vitamin A intake, and snack bars that contain 50 percent of the Adult Daily Value for preformed vitamin A can be an unsuspected source. The nutritional needs of pregnant and lactating women are unique. Optimal nutrition is essential for growth and development of the fetus and the newborn, but ingesting preformed vitamin A in amounts above the Institute of Medicine’s Tolerable Upper Level can cause serious congenital birth defects such as malformations of the eye, skull, lungs and heart.
The Institute of Medicine set the Tolerable Upper Intake Levels for pregnancy at 3,000 μg of preformed vitamin A per day. Some fortified foods, including snack bars and cereals, have 50 percent of the vitamin A adult Daily Value, added in the form of preformed Vitamin A such as retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate. A single serving would provide 750 μg of preformed vitamin A. Four servings, a realistic diet scenario, would reach the IOM limit. Other little-known sources of exposure during pregnancy are cosmetics, personal care products and sunscreens, some of which contain significant amounts of vitamin A (BfR 2014; Yourick 2008). 
For women who take daily vitamin A-containing supplements and eat a diet that includes milk and meat products, consuming foods with large amounts of preformed vitamin A and using personal care products containing vitamin A can lead to routine intakes that might be risky. Women who take daily vitamin pills should monitor their consumption of foods fortified with vitamin A (Penniston 2003).