Most individuals are able to meet their nutrition needs with a balanced diet. However, the focus on athleticism and wellness along with the necessity of convenience has propelled nutrition or energy bars to be one of the fastest growing food categories in America. With hundreds of nutrition bars to choose from, promising everything from performance gains to optimal health, it’s no wonder that consumers are more confused than ever about which bar is right for them.
Nutrition bar basics. A nutrition or energy bar is a blend of simple and complex carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals. The size of each bar varies with brand and may contain anywhere from 100 to 300 calories. The primary source of protein usually comes from dairy, soy, or nuts. Fats may come from nuts, seeds, or coconut, but also less healthy sources such as hydrogenated fats and oils. Quality sources of carbohydrate in bars include fruit, oatmeal, rice, and other natural sugars (more on this later).
What type of bar do you need? To figure out which bar is best for you, it’s important to clarify what it is you’re hoping a nutrition bar will do for you.
Are you looking for an in-between meal snack? Choose a bar that provides around 150 to 200 calories and a balance of both protein (around 7 to 15 grams) and carbohydrate (15 to 30 grams). If your favorite bar is low in protein, consider adding a handful of almonds or glass of milk to promote satiety between meals.
For a post-workout recovery snack, look for a bar that provides around 20 grams of protein for repair and recovery of muscle tissue. Carbohydrate is also recommended for refueling glycogen stores with about 2 to 3 times as many grams of carbohydrates to protein, but will also depend on an individual’s overall energy and macronutrient needs.
When choosing a bar for fueling during exercise, easily digestible carbohydrates are needed to maintain energy and prevent fatigue. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of activity. However, the percentage of carbohydrate energy in the bar is also important depending on the duration of activity. For example, results from an Ohio State University study measuring the effect of two popular energy bars on blood glucose levels suggested that an energy bar with less protein and the majority of energy from carbohydrate (70% of calories) would be more beneficial for athletes involved in short-duration events who want a quick rise in blood glucose. Comparatively, a moderate amount of carbohydrate (40% of energy) was found more appropriate for athletes involved in longer duration events or for those individuals with diabetes.
What aspects of a bar are important to you? For example, do the ingredients need to be organic or free of certain allergens? Perhaps you are trying to avoid fructose or wheat-containing foods. For some individuals, such as a golfer or long-distance cyclist, it may be important that the bar is able to hold up in the heat.
“Food integrity” vs marketing claims. Marketers are well aware of trends and consumer demand for nutrition products that have attributes such as “no or reduced allergens”, “gluten free”, “low or no sugar”, “non-GMO”, and “all natural”. It is easy to make a nutrition label “look” a certain way, but what are you really consuming?
Check out the list of ingredients. Look for a short list of minimally processed ingredients. Some bars contain only a few items such as dried fruit, nuts, seeds, oatmeal, or rice, while other products can have over 30 ingredients. If you have trouble pronouncing an ingredient or don’t recognize what it is, then it may be worth finding another or making your own.
What is the source of sweetener? A little bit of added sugar isn’t the end of the world, but some bars are so loaded with refined sugars and syrups that you might as well be eating a candy bar. On the other hand, many believe that a high protein, low-carbohydrate product is healthier. Nutrition products that claim “low or no sugar” will likely have artificial sweeteners and/or sugar alcohols added that can have a laxative affect and contribute to gastrointestinal problems. A few examples of sugar alcohols include sorbitol, erythritol, mannitol, and glycerine. Glycerine or glycerol, for example, is a common ingredient added to protein bars that provides bulk and sweetness. Since it is not metabolized as sugar in the body, it is often not counted as part of the total carbohydrate calorie count (even though it contains slightly more calories than sugar) thus rendering the nutrition facts misleading.
Final point: There are many high quality nutrition bars to choose from, but as with any food, it’s always a good idea to consume in moderation. To achieve optimal nutrition, plan to include a variety of wholesome fruits, vegetables, nuts, dairy and healthy fats in your snack and meal planning.
Make your own…
Nuts and Oats Energy Bar
1 ½ cup roasted mixed nuts (I used lightly salted)
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
¼ cup ground or whole flax seed (or you could substitute sesame, sunflower or chia seeds)
2/3 cup light brown sugar
½ cup honey
4 tbsp. butter
½ tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups rice krispie cereal or puffed brown rice cereal
½ cup dark chocolate chips (or dried raisins, cranberries or cherries)
- Lightly chop mixed nuts. Combine nuts, oats and flax seed in large bowl.
- Line 9-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, extending the paper over the sides.
- In a saucepan, bring the sugar, honey, butter and salt to a boil over medium heat. Simmer until the sugar dissolves and a light brown caramel forms, about 5 minutes or until the “soft ball” stage, if you have a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.
- Pour the caramel over the nut and oat mixture. Stir in the rice cereal and chocolate chips or dried fruit until evenly coated.
- Pour the cereal mixture into the prepared baking dish and spread out into an even layer. Press down evenly and let the mixture stand until cool.
- Use the “handles” of the parchment paper to remove the cereal square from the pan and cut into about 12 equal size bars.
Storage tip: Once bars are cooled and cut, wrap individually in plastic and keep in refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.