We’re fortunate in this country to have so many different types of food available to us. And thousands of new food products are introduced to every year. The downside of that is that many of these new foods aren’t always so healthful — candy, gum, snack foods, and beverages account for most of the newbies that show up in the supermarket.
One food product that has really skyrocketed in popularity is the energy bar. Not that long ago, energy bars were seen mostly in health-food stores. Now they’re everywhere, including at your local drugstore. My neighborhood supermarket has shelf after shelf of these bars. As the name implies, energy bars were originally developed to “fuel” athletes, giving them both energy and endurance. Yet, they’ve turned into a convenient snack or even a quick meal on the go for many of us. Americans spend more than one billion dollars on these bars every year. And there are hundreds of these bars to choose from. But what’s in them? Are they really as nutritious as they’re hyped up to be?
Energy bars tend to fall into several different categories: high protein, moderate protein, high carbohydrate, meal replacement, weight loss, and even bars especially aimed at women. Names of bars that you may be familiar with include Balance, Clif, Luna, PowerBar, MET-Rx, Larabar, and Atkins Advantage. There are many more to choose from, as well. Some bars promote organic and all-natural ingredients.
The name and the packaging can be very deceiving, however. Some of these bars are not a whole lot different than a regular granola bar or even a candy bar that has been fortified with vitamins and minerals. If you check the ingredient list, you may be surprised to find that they contain various types of sugar (including high-fructose corn syrup) and saturated fat (from palm oil and partially hydrogenated oils). These are the same ingredients found in your average candy bar.
Energy bars aren’t necessarily any better for you than a candy bar or a granola bar in terms of blood glucose control. Other possible downsides of energy bars have to do with the type of protein they contain. The protein source in some products comes from gelatin or collagen and therefore may be missing some essential amino acids. Other bars are overloaded with vitamins and minerals (you’re very likely getting more than enough of these micronutrients from the other foods you eat). And you’ll come across bars that have other added ingredients, such as herbs, like guarana or ginseng, supposedly for even more energy!
How to Choose an Energy Bar
On the plus side, energy bars can be useful. They’re easy, they’re portion-controlled, and some of them really can fill you up when you don’t have time to grab a meal. But, as with any food product, choose wisely. Here’s what to look for:
- Watch the serving size. Some bars may provide more than one serving.
- For a snack, aim for less than 200 calories per bar.
- Look for a whole grain on the ingredient list.
- Choose a bar with at least 3 grams of fiber.
- Shy away from bars that contain more than 1 gram of saturated fat, and make sure there’s no trans fat in the bar, as well.
- Go easy on the sugar. You maybe can’t avoid it altogether, but sugar in any form shouldn’t be among the first couple of ingredients.
- Whey and casein are more “complete” proteins than collagen or gelatin, so if you’re choosing a bar for protein purposes, look for these protein sources on the ingredient list.
- Speaking of protein, steer clear of bars that contain more than 15 grams of protein. Some bars are overloaded. The MET-Rx ProteinPlus bar contains 30–32 grams, depending on the flavor (along with 310 calories)! You definitely don’t need this much in a bar.
- “Sugar-free” bars may sound appealing, but they may contain sugar alcohols, which, for some, can cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms (gas, bloating, diarrhea).
- Watch the carbohydrate content, too. If you’re eating an energy bar for a snack, choose one that provides between 15 and 30 grams of carbohydrate, depending on what your own carbohydrate goals are. Clif Bars have roughly 40 grams of carbohydrate per serving.
- Keep it simple: the fewer ingredients in the bar, the better. You don’t need all of your day’s nutrients crammed into one bar.
I’ll admit that I’ve occasionally grabbed an energy bar for a quick snack. They’re easy, they’re convenient, and as I said earlier, you can find them just about anywhere. And some do provide good nutrition. But unless you are training for the Tour de France or the Olympics, you likely won’t get much of a benefit from them. A 45-minute workout at the gym or a walk around the block is great, but you don’t need to “fuel up” with these bars. They won’t necessarily give you any more energy than, say, eating a piece of fruit with some peanut butter. If preventing low blood glucose is a concern, again, eating some fruit, yogurt, or crackers can do the job just as well.