Published on December 17th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans1
Organic Energy Bars
Originally created for endurance athletes, energy bars are now a mainstay of the American diet. Strategic marketing ads for energy bars portray them as a condensed version of a healthy meal, virtually bursting with nutrients. But the fact is many energy bar ingredients more closely resemble those of candy bars than real food.
How do you choose a nutrient-dense energy bar from the wide selection of varieties offered in today’s markets? Which options provide the best appetite quick fix you need, without furnishing extra fat and calories that you don’t need? Do you even need energy bars at all?
Truth in Advertising
Energy bar producers aren’t shy about making big claims for their products. Advertisements promise that consuming their product will increase alertness and sustain energy, help to maintain a healthy weight and optimize both mental and physical performance levels. Ads typically display attractive, successful and healthy people snacking on an energy bar as they smoothly negotiate their busy, on-the-go lives. And, these images seem to have a strong effect on American consumers. Though Americans seem more concerned than ever with eating healthier, many don’t have the time to prepare healthy foods and they go seeking a neatly packaged snack to sustain them through the day. For many consumers, a hectic life means that a balanced diet eludes them. Unfortunately, the advertising industry has, in many cases, convinced the public that energy bar products are the nutritional equivalent of a balanced meal.
The Skinny on Traditional Energy Bars
The truth is no nutrition bar is capable of replacing wholesome nutrient-dense food. And while eating an energy bar is certainly a better alternative to skipping a meal or having a high-fat dessert, the hype surrounding energy bars far outweighs their actual merits. No regulation currently exists to determine what the word “energy” on a food label should signify. The only criterion for a food item to be labeled “energy-producing” is that it must contain calories, so virtually anything with calories can be an energy food! Therefore, many so-called nutrition bars are loaded with artificial sweeteners, fillers, and coloring.
The only criterion for a food item to be labeled “energy-producing” is that it must contain calories, so virtually anything with calories can be an energy food!
In many energy bars, the fat content is equal to or higher than that of candy bars, and the fats are often derived from similar sources such as cocoa butter and palm kernel oil–a hydrogenated fat twice as saturated as lard. Also, it is questionable whether the soy and whey proteins that are added to make high-protein bars actually function as proteins after they undergo processing at high temperatures. Whey protein in particular is fragile and must be processed at low temperatures so that its qualities as a protein are not destroyed.
With high prices of energy bars in the marketplace, it is surprising that, aside from fats, the majority of the ingredients used to make a typical energy bar are actually waste products of other industrial food processes. Soy protein isolate and soy lecithin are by-products of the soy oil industry. Whey protein is a waste product of the dairy industry, and fruit and citrus fibers are the leftovers from fruit juice processing.
Most sweeteners used in energy bars are also the products of highly industrialized processes. And though energy bars may be fortified with the same vitamins and minerals contained in fruits and vegetables, their nutritional benefits don’t hold a candle to nutrients in whole, unprocessed food. Artificially added vitamins lack phytonutrients, naturally occurring compounds in edible plants credited with significantly reducing the risk of some cancers. Similarly, the fiber provided by an energy bar cannot compare with the benefits of eating an equal amount of carbohydrates from whole grain sources.
Recently, consumer demand for healthier and more sustainable products has brought nutrient-dense organic options onto the scene. Many of the organics leave flashy advertising schemes behind and let their product speak for itself. Makers like Clif Bar, Larabar, Think Organic, Raw Organic, Karma Bar, and Smart Monkey, produce no-sugar added organic snack bars with a nutrient base of raw fruits, nuts, and seeds (most contain dates as a main constituent). Many of these products are vegan and provide fiber, protein, and all-natural fats; leaving trans-fats out of the picture entirely. The organic energy bar industry also tailors many products to accommodate dietary restrictions, leaving out ingredients such as gluten, wheat, soy, and dairy. Organic choices come in a host of delectable flavors such as key lime pie, pistachio, cinnamon raisin, orange cranberry almond, and dark chocolate walnut. Even with organic options, keep in mind that no energy bar can = a meal replacement!
Clearly the energy bar is far from the perfect food. But when your hectic schedule is to blame for passing up breakfast, your best options include reaching for an organic packaged snack or a homemade pick-me-up. Internet Web sites such as Epicurious and Allrecipes are great resource for homemade recipes that allow you complete control of product quality and constituents. To minimize your consumption of ingredients that are not optimal for your health, always read the labels on any energy bar that you consider. Look for bars low in fat, with no palm oil. Also shy away from bars that list forms of sugar as the first or second ingredient. And last but not least, don’t let the snazzy packaging and marketing buzzwords on energy bars lure you into forgetting that a banana comes in a very convenient package too.
Article Contributors: Julie Reid