Nutrition (energy) bars have come a long way from the days when their manufacturers only catered to weight lifters. Today’s energy bars come in wide variety of ingredients, sizes, textures, and prices. Not all energy bars are the same and like all food, you should choose wisely when deciding which bar to grab to satisfy your hunger or sustain your energy through the workday or workout.
Whether they are called energy bars, snack bars, health bars, or sport bars, these compact foods can boost enough content comparable to an average meal, though that doesn’t mean the meal is actually healthy. Nothing can compare to actually eating whole foods, though some of the whole food type bars come close, and they’re convenient. The vast majority of bars can be divided into four categories – high protein bars, carbohydrate bars, 40-30-30 bars, and natural food/whole-food bars.
Protein bars are those that are comprised primarily of protein, usually over 20 grams and over 30% of their content. Protein bars are most always very low in fat, and have some amount of carbohydrate for taste. The protein in these bars is typically in the form of milk – calcium caseinate or whey (often hydrolyzed), or egg whites or soy protein. It should be noted that the calcium caseinate and whey in these bars contains MSG, though it will not be listed; same case with the soy too. The carbohydrate in these bars is typically very sugary to aid in the taste and is often high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, or some other form or refined sugar. The fat content is usually butter (cocoa), fractioned palm oil (a poor quality saturated fat), or at worse, some form of partially hydrogenated oil. These bars may be convenient to those who need protein supplementation, but careful attention should be paid to the often very unhealthy ingredients. Unfortunately, most of the high protein bars on the market contain MSG, hydrogenated oils, refined sugars and/or artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose (Splenda), and sometimes herbal stimulants. More information regarding MSG, aspartame, Splenda, and hydrogenated fats can be found at my other site, drgangemi.com.
Carbohydrate bars are those that contain around 70% or more of their calories from a carbohydrate source, typically high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, sugar, dextrose, barley malt, or brown rice syrup, just to name some. Therefore, these bars are very high glycemic index foods and will tend to disrupt blood sugar levels especially in non-exercising individuals who have some degree of carbohydrate intolerance or insulin resistance. The protein and fat content of theses bars is typically very low, containing many of the same sources as those ingredients in the protein bars. Carbohydrate bars may useful during prolonged exercise such as a marathon or long bicycle race, but it really depends on how fit one is and what they are burning for fuel – in other words, the more fit and aerobic one is during exercise, the less they will rely on carbohydrates for fuel. Eating a high carb bar for a snack during the work day may put you to sleep by mid-afternoon.
40-30-30 bars have become some of the most popular bars over the past several years. These bars contain approximately 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 30% fat content, give or take. They tend to be most beneficial to consumers because they most resemble a meal, rather than a supplement or “snack”. Their ratio is agreeable to the ever-increasing number of persons with some form of insulin resistance, as the bars are slowly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream due to the increased fat content as well as protein. As with the others, attention should be paid to the ingredients, as not all 40-30-30 bars are alike. One may have its carbohydrate content coming from high fructose corn syrup, (high glycemic, high in refined sugars), while another one may contain brown rice syrup or honey. One bar may have partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a fat that should always be avoided, while a more healthier bar could contain olive or sunflower oil, or natural nuts and seeds, or peanut or almond butter. Pay attention to that protein source – if you see the words isolates, hydrolyzed, soy, or casein(ate) then you’re eating some MSG – which will NOT be disclosed on the product label.
Natural food bars tend to be the best if they actually have healthy ingredients. By that I mean they are not loaded with natural sugar or natural sugar alcohols such as erythritol (as found in the product Truvia), xylitol, sorbitol, or maltitol – high levels of these natural sugars are not healthy and still will create an insulin response in the body, even though they are calorie-free. Look for bars that contain whole organic fruits and nuts, and have organic brown rice syrup or honey to bind them together. Stay away from agave – it’s the natural health food craze that is mostly fructose and really no better for you than high fructose corn syrup.
Currently I am using MacroBars as a good nutrition/snack bar. Some of their flavors still have agave in them (and I’ve been told as of late 2010 that they’re trying to replace that), so right now stay away from those flavors. But the Peanut Protein and the Peanut Butter Choco Chip are very tasty and have 13-15g of protein and the Granola with Coconut is very good too. If you can find another company that also makes a bar with a good amount of high quality MSG-free protein in it and natural ingredients – I’d love to hear about it!
So, as with any food, pay careful attention to what type of energy bar you are eating. Some bars out there are worse than most candy bars. Read all the ingredients, not just the amount of protein, carbohydrates, fat, calories, or fiber. I almost never read that part of the label, or I read it last. Always go right to the actual ingredients list first. Better yet, make your own bar or trail mix – it’s cheaper and you’ll know what you’re eating. Dr. Phil Maffetone has a lot of great recipes including one for his Phil’s Bar on his website here, look under the Members section.