The New Candy Bar

by Charles Platkin, PhD

I was in a hotel recently, and I overheard two overweight women by a vending machine discussing whether or not it was “okay” to eat an “” (yes, right next to the Snickers, Milky Way, and chips was a Power Bar). They decided that it was fine because they had been walking all day, and “it’s healthy — so it really doesn’t count.”

Once only found at gyms, health , and sporting good stores, “energy bars” have made it into the mainstream. It seems you can’t walk into any grocery or convenience store across the country without seeing shelves filled with Clif Bars, Luna Bars, Power Bars, Balance Bars, Met-Rx, and others — all competing for our attention and making subliminal promises of “good health.”

The first question we need to ask ourselves is, why are we any of these bars? Are we all endurance athletes in a competition or training for a race? Even if that were the case, most experts say that there is no reason (other than pure convenience) to eat any of these bars, as it’s relatively easy to get the same carbohydrate or protein from food sources.

“Most are little different from a traditional candy bar. They are one response from the food industry for people who are eating on the run and who want to feel as if they are getting something nutritious, but this is not necessarily so,” says Dr. Barbara Rolls, Guthrie Chair in Nutrition at Pennsylvania State University.

I had one of our staff Registered Dietitians try to contact many of the companies that produce these bars to ask for any kind of research or studies that showed how and why these bars worked. Most didn’t respond at all. In fact, one manufacturer’s representative didn’t even know the bar’s purpose, only that it “tasted pretty good and she ate them instead of eating breakfast.” This is simply not a very good idea. “Energy bars should not be used for meal replacement because food contains numerous micronutrients and phytochemicals that have proven health benefits,” says Dr. Priscilla Clarkson, an exercise physiologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The bars can be classified into several categories:

  • High Carbohydrate Bars: Originally designed to aid long distance or high endurance athletes when they were “hitting a wall” and had depleted their energy reserves, these bars consist mostly of high fructose corn syrup and juice concentrate, with some added vitamins and minerals for good measure.
  • 40-30-30 Bars: These bars are supposed to sustain energy and can theoretically be used as a meal replacement. Again, there is no compelling evidence that any of these bars are helpful in sustaining energy.
  • High Protein Bars: One of the nutritionists for the Kashi GoLean bars mentioned that it is “common knowledge in the nutrition world that protein helps build muscle with exercise.” Sure, that’s true, but according to registered dietitians, Americans already exceed their daily protein requirements by 200 – 300% on average. That means this extra protein is probably unnecessary, even if you are trying to build muscle — not to mention that these bars are usually high in calories, which certainly doesn’t help you “go-lean.”

If you really have no alternative but to eat these bars, “look for bars with whole grains and fiber, moderate sugar and fat, and some protein,” advises Dr. Rolls. You should also take careful note of the caloric content of each bar, as they tend to vary widely. “For a between-meal snack, 100 calories is about right. But as a meal replacement, 200 to 250 is a very small meal which could leave you hungry and tempted to lose control later,” Dr. Rolls says.

For the record:
Snickers bar: 280 calories, 14 grams of fat (2.1 ounces)
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate: is 230 calories, 13 grams of fat (1.6 ounces)
Balance Outdoor Honey: 200 calories, 6 grams of fat (1.8 ounces)
SlimFast Bar: 220 calories, 5 grams of fat (1.9 ounces)
Atkins Diet Advantage Bar: 218 calories, 13 grams of fat (2.0 ounces)
MET-Rx Protein Plus Bar: 250 calories, 8 grams of fat (3.0 ounces)
TwinLab Protein Fuel: 330 calories, 5 grams of fat (2.9 ounces)
PowerBar Protein Plus: 290 calories, 5 grams of fat (2.8 ounces)
Kashi GoLean: 290 calories, 6 grams of fat (2.7 ounces)

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