If you are interested in your health and have read books on the subject, you probably know that candy bars are not good for you. Loaded with sugar and short on protein, they give the body a quick lift without providing any real nourishment. The lift soon gives way to a letdown and you feel hungrier than before. Many contain hydrogenated oils and a slew of artificial ingredients.
But candy bars are quick and convenient. They have a long shelf life and can be sold in vending machines. They taste good—actually they can be addictive—and can stave off hunger and cravings. So what does the health- conscious consumer do in this candy bar culture?
Energy bars to the rescue. They look and taste like candy bars, have the shelf life of candy bars, contain protein and fiber, are loaded with vitamins and minerals. They are convenient and they taste good. And, thanks to an incredible amount of advertising hype, they can be consumed without the guilt of the candy bar.
The original energy bars, such as the Power Bar and the Source Bar, were based on so-called natural sweeteners—high fructose corn syrup and juice concentrates—along with dried fruits and nuts, a combination that resulted in higher percentages of carbohydrates than the typical chocolate candy bar (which is rich in cocoa butter, a healthy natural fat.)
The real boost for the bar business came with the advent of cheap soy and whey proteins that could be added to make a “high-protein” bar. Barry Sears’ BioZone “Programmed Nutrition” bars were among the first of these, with several imitators following, including Balance Bars (“The Complete Nutritional Food Bar”) and ZonePerfect Bars (“All Natural Nutrition Bars”).
But there is nothing natural about the protein used in today’s energy bars. Soy protein comes with an initial burden of phytic acid, enzyme inhibitors and isoflavones. More toxins are formed during high-temperature chemical processing, including nitrates, lysinalanine and MSG. Soy protein must be processed at very high temperatures to reduce levels of phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, a process that over-denatures many of the proteins in soy, especially lysine, making them unavailable to the body.
Whey protein is inherently fragile and must be processed at low temperatures or its qualities as a protein are destroyed. That is why casein rather than whey protein is used in animal chow. When cheese, butter and cream were made on the farm, the whey and skim milk were given to the pigs and chickens. But today these products are made in factories far from the farms where they originated, so the industry has a “whey problem,” solved by drying the skim milk and whey at high temperatures and putting the powders into energy drinks, body building powders and high-protein bars.
Other major ingredients include high fructose corn syrup (or concentrated fruit juices, which are high in fructose), an ingredient that has been shown to be worse for test animals than sugar. Other ingredients include “natural” fiber from oats, apples, soy and citrus. Sometimes maltodextrin is given as the fiber source. “Natural flavors” and piles of synthetic vitamins are thrown in so the bars can be called “complete.”
On the plus side, the fat source in most energy bars is often palm, palm kernel or coconut oil. Barry Sears’ original BioZone bars contained partially hydrogenated soybean oil—until he met up with Mary Enig at an Oil Chem conference where she reminded him about the problems with trans fats and wondered how he could promote bars containing trans fats as nutritious.
Major Ingredients in Modern Energy Bars
Boulder Bar (“Provides sustained energy from naturally delicious real food”): Apple juice, figs, whole brown rice syrup, maltodextrin (complex carb), soy protein isolate, oat bran, oat flour, rice flour.
Source Bar (“Total Sports Nutrition”): Dried plums and dates, grape juice concentrate, wheat flour, whey protein concentrate, defatted peanut flour, honey, fruit juice concentrate, oats, raisins, pecans, soy flour, canola oil.
Power Bar (“Fuel for Optimum Performance”): High fructose corn syrup, grape and pear juice concentrate, oat bran, maltodextrin, milk protein, brown rice, sesame butter, barley malt, peanut butter.
Clif Bar (“Nutrition for Sustained Energy”): Brown rice syrup, rolled oats, soy nuggets (soy protein isolate, rice flour, malt extract), evaporated cane juice, roasted soy butter, chocolate chips, fig paste, cocoa, almonds, ClifCrunchTM (apple fiber, oat fiber, milled flaxseed, soy fiber, chicory extract, lemon fiber, psyllium).
BioZone Bars (“Programmed Nutrition”): Fructose syrup, soy protein isolate, honey, calcium caseinate, toasted soybeans, corn syrup, sugar, palm and palm kernel oils, peanut butter, cocoa powder, lactose, whey protein concentrate.
Balance Bars (“The Complete Nutritional Food Bar”): Protein blend (soy protein isolate, calcium caseinate, toasted soy beans, whey protein concentrate, whey), high fructose corn syrup, honey, fructose, almonds, high maltose corn syrup, canola oil, palm and palm kernel oils, sunflower oil.
Think! Interactive Bar (“Concentration, Calmness, Stamina”): Advanced protein blend (peanut protein, sodium caseinate, isolated soy protein, nonfat dry milk, lactoalbumin), peanut butter, fructose syrup, brown sugar, high concentrate soya flour, MCTs, molasses, yeast, milk chocolate.
Dr. Soy (“The smart choice for delicious nutrition as a snack or meal replacement bar”): Soy Blend (soy protein isolate and soy nuggets), malitol syrup, brown rice syrup, sugar, fractionated palm kernel oil, nonfat dry milk, yogurt powder, honey.
Atkins Advantage (“The Original Low-Carb Lifestyle”): Protein blend (soy protein isolate, hydrolyzed collagen, whey protein isolate, calcium/sodium caseinate), glycerine, polydextrose (fiber), cocoa butter, cocoa powder, water, natural coconut oil, soy nuggets (soy protein, rice flour, malt, salt), cellulose, olive oil, sucralose.
With the exception of the fats, most of the ingredients used in energy bars are waste products—soy protein isolate and whey protein are the waste products of the soy oil and cheese industries respectively. Apple and lemon fiber, used to create a crunchy effect, are also waste products, made from the pulp left over from squeezing the fruits for their juice. Soy lecithin, another common ingredient, is also a waste product of the soy oil industry. And most of the sweeteners are made by highly industrialized processes. In short, most of the ingredients in energy bars are anything but natural
Typical of the hype used to promote candy bars made from waste products is that used to huckster Balance Bars. Slick advertising copy shows attractive, intelligent-looking people (children with dogs, doctors in white coats, men with brief cases) above the following text: “The Balance nutritional food bar is a great tasting, long-lasting energy source which has helped change the way health-conscious consumers look at nutrition. Made with all natural ingredients, Balance bars combine nutrients in a 40-30-30 ratio of carbohydrates, protein and dietary fat. This clinically proven combination encourages the body to access fat as fuel, helping to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Balance bars taste great as they work, delivering the essential nutrients today’s healthy consumers ask for.”
According to Dick Lamb, president of Balance Bars, his product is the “only nutrition bar clinically proven to improve athletic performance.” The “clinical trials” to which he refers compared two four-week dietary programs of real food, one at 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat and one at 60 percent carbs, 20 percent protein and a mere 20 percent fat. The group on the “balance formula” ran faster during the last 5 km in a race and raised their HDL by 14 points. Because Balance bars have the same macronutrient ratios as the “winning” diet, Lamb makes the claim that they are “clinically proven.” Says Lamb: “Balancing your dietary protein, carbohydrate and fat can have a profound effect on your athletic performance and general energy levels. By better accessing body fat, you can reduce excess body fat easily and without hunger, improve your energy levels for training, improve concentration; and dramatically improve your recovery rates.” Elsewhere in the literature, Balance bars are called the “ideal snack for diabetic children.”
While many of the modern energy bars emphasize athletic performance, others are said to promote optimal mental performance. The Think! Nutrition Bar claims that it will bestow “concentration, calmness, stamina.” “For best results,” says the label, “Eat a Think! Nutrition bar and 16 ounces fresh water 30 minutes before using your brain.”
A new angle on energy bar hype is used for bars formulated for women. The wrapper for the CLIF Luna Chocolate Pecan Pie Whole Nutrition Bar for Women contains the following paean: “We believe that what we put into our bodies matters; food feeds our souls, lifts our spirits, nourishes and sustains us. That’s why we created LUNA, the blissfully good, whole nutrition bar for women. In just 180 calories, LUNA meets many of the specific nutritional requirements women need everyday to maintain active life-styles. Join us in healthy, joyous living!”
Real Food Energy Bars
The energy bar phenomenon capitalizes on a real human need—that of a convenient, nutrient-dense, concentrated travel food that keeps well, satisfies and tastes good. Such commodities indeed exist. One is called cheese, a fermented, high-calorie storage food that keeps well on journeys, is rich in nutrients and high enough in fat to be truly satisfying. Another is hard cured sausage, a fermented food that keeps well, tastes delicious and provides high quality fat and protein.
Pemmican, used by native Americans, was the perfect energy bar. Made from dried lean meat and rendered fat packed into rawhide bags, it was highly concentrated and kept for years. One and one-half pounds could sustain a grown man doing heavy work all day. This was no 40-30-30 bar—eighty percent of calories in pemmican comes from fat and almost none from carbohydrates, except on the occasion when dried berries were added.
Pozol, a product of southern Mexico, is another candidate. Cooked corn meal is wrapped in banana leaves and allowed to ferment for two weeks. The outside becomes encased in a nutritious green mold. Pozol is said to be an almost perfect food, long-lasting and sustaining. This is a high-carbohydrate food that conforms to USDA guidelines—but not to modern tastes.
Soaked and dehydrated “crispy” nuts make a good snack that Westerners can enjoy. They can be kept in your car or office. Most do not need refrigeration. A combination of nuts with cheese and hard sausage makes a complete meal.
A satisfying bar made of ground nuts, coconut or palm oil, butter oil and low-temperature dried animal protein would be relatively complete and satisfy the requirements for a nutritious travel food. But real food ingredients are not cheap; on the contrary, they are expensive and militate against the kind of profit margins the food industry requires. Like cheese and cured sausage, any nutritious energy bar must be produced locally by artisans, on a small scale—and without the hype.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2002.