Energy Bars: High-Tech Snacks by Sharon Howard, R.D.
Candy bars, granola bars, diet bars, cereal bars, sports bars, supplement bars -- what is this all about? Are we trying to find a “healthful” candy bar? If a high-calorie bar that is full of saturated fat also offers extra protein, vitamins, fiber or herbal ingredients, can we justify our indulgence?
Energy bars have become a reality of American life. In our fast-paced world, a sports bar is something a parent can give a teen-ager for a fast, nutritious and satisfying snack after school and before soccer practice. Mom may grab a diet bar to avoid digging into the kids’ after-school treats. A cereal bar may serve as the traveling diabetic’s mid-afternoon and evening snack when a glass of milk and half a sandwich isn’t available.
There are many situations in which the convenience of an energy bar is better than the alternative. In fact, if you have too much time pass between meals, you may get so hungry that you overeat at the next meal. An energy bar can help you control hunger.
Energy Bar Breakdown
The first energy bars were meant to be high-carbohydrate snacks for athletes who needed quick energy sources before or after a workout. Then, with research indicating that protein consumed 30 minutes after a workout restores protein to muscles more readily, bars with more protein came out -- and weightlifters began using them. These bars have now become snacks and meal replacements for athletes and nonathletes alike.
Some of the bars, such as Genisoy and Luna contain soy protein and are marketed toward women. The bars created for athletes, such as Power Bar-Protein Plus, usually provide more calories and protein. The diet bars, such as Slim-Fast and Jenny Craig, are smaller and therefore have fewer calories and less fat. There are two bars, Glucerna and Choice, available for diabetics, and the Benecol bar helps to lower cholesterol with plant sterols.
Since athletes need more calories, the larger, higher calorie bars are appropriate. If you are watching your weight, the smaller, balanced bars are reasonable snacks. Diet-bar makers suggest you have a 200-calorie bar and a glass of water for a meal, but this can hardly hold you for four or five hours.
What’s on the Inside Counts
Protein content differs quite a bit between bars. To give you a perspective on protein content, 1 ounce of chicken has 7 grams of protein. So, many of the regular bars have about the same amount of protein as one slice of turkey in a sandwich. Protein makes you digest food more slowly, so you may not get hungry again for a while.
The fat content in energy bars varies greatly, as well. When comparing the chocolate versions of many bars, saturated fat almost always accounts for more than 50 percent of the fat calories. The saturated fat comes from the palm kernel oil, cocoa butter and hydrogenated oils, which are all atherogenic, or may contribute to heart disease. In this sense, these chocolate energy bars are comparable to candy bars.
Bars high in fiber, such as Clif bars and Power Bar-Harvest, are better choices because you will feel fuller longer and have a better chewing experience. Some bars contain oatmeal, brown rice or whole grains.
The carbohydrates usually make up about 50 percent to 60 percent of the calories, as recommended. The source of carbohydrates varies widely -- from high fructose corn syrup to brown rice syrup or fruit pastes to plain old sugar. The real issue is the glycemic index of the bar. This is the effect it has on blood sugar. In some cases, such as athletes before a race, a quick rise in blood sugar is preferred; therefore bars with higher sugar and carbohydrate content are good choices. But those wanting sustained satiety may do better choosing bars with higher fat and protein content.
Some bars are fortified with extra calcium or vitamins for a specific benefit and marketing edge. Thirty percent of your recommended daily value of calcium is plenty at one time, since large doses of calcium at one time will not be adequately absorbed. Some bars do indicate on the label that they are produced in facilities that use nuts and peanuts, for those who are concerned about allergies.
You should select your energy bar wisely, and have a distinct purpose in mind. Energy bars are not really meal replacements -- you won’t feel satisfied for hours and could probably still eat a meal. But as healthful snacks, energy bars are good choices. Check the calories of the bar, and be sure it won’t blow your calorie or fat budget for the day. Check the price tag, too -- the cost may blow your food budget! Maybe carrying an apple or banana (less than 100 calories and very inexpensive) isn’t so bad.