With dozens of selections, and over one billion dollars in sales yearly, the nutrition bar business is booming. Consumers are inundated with messages and marketing schemes that seem to promise that "just one bite" will raise energy, build your muscles, help you lose weight or provide the nutritional panacea that will make your diet complete.
"Energy Bars" were originally designed for high performance athletes as a quick calorie or sugar boost to keep muscles fueled during high intensity or endurance workouts. Now, it seems that your soccer mom, desk worker or light to moderate exerciser uses these products as part of a daily dietary staple. There are two definitive statements when it comes to nutrition bars in general: 1) ignore the hype and the marketing claims - they're usually unfounded, and 2) well-rounded meals with nutritious foods are always better.
Operating on the principle of reality, however, the truth is that these bars continue to gain popularity and sales. So, if you're one of those people that appreciates the convenience and availability of these products, keep the following in mind when you make your choices:
- A cardinal rule when choosing any prepared commercial nutrition product is to check your ingredients list first! Keep in mind that ingredients must be listed in order of highest quantity to lowest quantity. A popular nutrition bar lists "high fructose corn syrup" as its first ingredient. That means this bar has more refined sugar than anything else - probably not the healthiest choice! Look for first ingredients that include things such as whole oats, whole wheat, and bran or soy protein.
- Look for nutrition bars that are high in fiber, at least four grams or more. Generally, the more fiber a product has, the more non-refined plant-based ingredients it contains. That means a lot more natural vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals to protect your body from disease and injury.
- Choose a bar that is as low in saturated fat as possible. Saturated fat is strongly linked to heart disease and other health problems. Some fats are healthy like the fats found in nuts - a major ingredient in many nutrition bars.
- When it comes to protein, look for high quality protein sources. Some of the better protein sources include soy, whey, egg and casein. Keep in mind that these are all food protein sources. Thus, there is nothing "optimal" about getting protein from a nutrition bar vice food.
- Hydrolyzed proteins (found on ingredients list) are poorer quality proteins and may not provide your body with what it needs for optimal repair - particularly if you are a bodybuilder or an athlete.
- If it sounds unhealthy, it probably is. That is, a "triple chocolate chip brownie dipped" bar is probably more like a candy bar than anything else. Again, choosing a bar with the healthiest ingredients is always your best bet - nuts, high quality proteins, whole grains, dried fruits and the like will serve your body and/or your workout much better.
- Nutrition bars aren't intended to be meal replacements. However, if you find that occasionally you prefer the convenience of a bar to preparing a meal, remember to:
- Look for at least 10 to 15 grams of protein per bar
- Look for a bar that provides at least 33 percent of the major vitamins and minerals your body needs.
- Remember that an "energy boosting" claim means nothing more than "calorie containing". Technically, all foods provide calories and calories are where we get our energy from. Many people assume that the term "energy bar" equates with "zest, vigor, revitalization", and that, unfortunately, is not the case.
- Beware of hype-filled claims like "proprietary blend of protein", "muscle enhancing factors" or "growth factors". Almost no nutrition bar company has paid for independent research to prove or support their claims. Again, the timeless adage applies: "If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is".