Energy Bars or Junk Food?

By Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N.

If you have cruised the grocery store aisle lately for something fast and convenient to eat, you have undoubtedly seen an increase in the number of nutrition/energy bars on the shelves.  The energy bar industry is a multimillion-dollar booming business.  You can find these bars at the grocery store, the pharmacy, the health food store, discount stores, your fitness center and even at the gasoline station.  We are moving in a fast paced world and all want a quick-pick-me-up snack so we can keep our energy levels up. The energy bar, once used exclusively by the elite athlete, is now being marketed to seniors, weekend warriors, teens, weight watchers and a multitude of other markets not yet even thought of.

Nutrient Composition

Energy bars contain simple and complex carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals in varying amounts.  (See Bar Wars below for the specifics).  They generally fall into three basic categories: high protein, high carbohydrate and a balance of nutrients (40-30-30).

Energy bars range from 120 calories to 515 calories per bar. The larger the bar, the more calories and nutrients it contains. During long, strenuous exercise, eating or drinking about 100 – 300 calories per hour, depending on your sex and body size, to keep your energy levels up is recommended.  So, munching on one of the bars may help improve your performance.

The bars typically range from 2 – 55 grams of carbohydrate per bar.  The carbohydrate source is from complex carbohydrates like rice, oats, and a starch called maltodextrin.  The simple carbohydrate source is generally from high fructose corn syrup, dried fruit or brown-rice syrup.  If you are using this bar for quick energy or energy maintenance during exercise, than you need about 30 – 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of exercise.

Since the recent high protein, low carbohydrate diet rage, more energy bars are on the market that contain higher protein and less carbohydrate like the Advantage Bar or the MetRx bar.  The protein source typically comes from milk or soy protein.  Bars contain about 2 – 33 grams of protein. Use these type bars as a meal replacement rather than a pre-exercise snack or a munchy during exercise.  Bars which contain more than 10 grams of protein may slow digestion down which in turn slows the amount of carbohydrate that will reach your exercising muscles.

Added fat in the energy bar helps to make the bar taste better.  Energy bars contain <1 to 15 grams of fat.  Energy bars that contain more than 5 grams of fat may not be the best to eat right before an aerobic workout such as running, swimming or step aerobics.

Some of the bars contain fiber.  While 25 – 35 grams of fiber per day has been recommended for good health, eating a high fiber bar (more than 5 grams of fiber) would not be a good idea before a hard work-out.

A number of bars like the Balance Bars are supplemented with herbs such as gingko biloba and ginseng while others contain antioxidants or soy. However, these bars contain minimal amounts of the herbs so they may not be as effective as taking the herb alone.  The Re Create bars are supplemented with 5 grams of creatine.

Bars range in price from $.59 to $3.16 per bar.  The higher the protein content in the bar, the higher the price. For example, the MetRx bar costs about $2.99 whereas the PowerBar is about $1.59.

Depending on the reason you are using the bar and when you are eating the bar should determine what type of bar you should choose.  For example, you might want to choose a bar that contains more carbohydrate and less fat if you are going to eat it right before you run 5 miles.  However, if you eating the energy bar on the way to class to keep your energy levels up because you didn’t have time to grab a sandwich, any bar that tastes good would fit the bill.   For meal replacement, choose a bar that has more calories with a balance of nutrients.  Whether you’re working out or on your way to class eating your bar, be sure to drink 12 – 16 ounces of fluid with the bar.  If you are eating a bar during exercise to keep your energy levels up, you may want to take a bite at a time over the exercise bout rather than devour the whole bar.  Make sure to re-wrap the bar carefully to prevent possible contamination.

Energy bars come in many flavors. Most brands come in a variety of flavors: chocolate, chocolate chip, peanut butter, fruit flavors like cherry, apple, raspberry, cookies and cream.  Some of these sound like they are candy.  So how do they stack to a candy bar?  Most energy bars contain a complex carbohydrate (and more nutrients) whereas the candy bar contains only simple sugar.  Candy bars are usually higher in fat and contain empty calories with very few nutrients except calories and fat.  In most cases, energy bars are designed to contain more protein and nutrients than the candy bar.

Bar Wars

Foods                                                          Amount            Calories  Pro       Fat       CHO

Advantage                                            2.11 oz                   240         22           10           2

Alena Energy Bar                                1.4 oz                     140         3             2             28

Amino Fuel Bar                                   2.75 oz                   285         15           3             50

Anabolic Weight Gain                        4.51 oz                   515         21           14           76

Balance                                                    1.76 oz                   200         14           6              22

Bio Protein                                              2.85 oz                   290         21           5              40

Burn It                                                       2.9 oz                     230         26           3.5          16

Carnation Breakfast Bar                      2.0 oz                     200         6              11           20

Clif Bar                                                        2.4 oz                     250         4              2             52

Cross Trainer                                         2.25 oz                   236         11           2             46

Diet Bar                                                     2.54 oz                   180         15           <1           44

Edge Bar                                                    2.5 oz                     250         10           2             50

Energize                                                      1.5  oz                    144         4              0             32

Energy Bar                                                1.4 oz                     190         6              7             27

Essentials                                                  1.9 oz                     180         10           4              28

Exceed Sport Bar                                   2.9 oz                     280         12           2              53

Fig Bar                                                        2 oz                        100         1              2              20

finHalsa                                                     1.7 oz                     170         11           2              28

GQ Alpha 1Nutri-Bar                            1.5 oz                     160         2              2              23

GeniSoy Bar                                             2.2 oz                     220         14           3.5          34

Granola Bar                                               2 oz                        120       2                5              17

Grabber                                                       1.6 oz                     153         <1           <1           36

Hard Body Energy Bar                         2.6 oz                     300         7              10           46

High Energy Opti                                      2.3 oz                     230         11           2              40

Hot Stuff Bar                                               2.5 oz                     270         15           2              46

Kudos Bar                                                     0.98 oz                   120         2             5              18

Icopro High Protein                                  2.4 oz                     250         13           2              45

Ironman                                                          2 oz                        230         16           7              25

Meal on the Go                                              3 oz                        290         7             9              51

MetRx                                                            3.6 oz                     320         26           2.5          52

MetRx Source One                                     2.2 oz                     190         15           3              30

No Fade Energy Boost                              2 oz                        220         8              4             38

NutriGrain Cereal Bar                              1.3 oz                     150       2                 5             25

151 Bar                                                           2.3 oz                     210         10           4.5          29

Perfect Protein Bar                                    1.7 oz                     200         12           8             21

Pro Amino Sports                                     2.75 oz                   290         18           5             40

Pro Sports Bar                                            2.25 oz                   240         15           <1           40

Pop Tart (w/fruit)                                       1.8 oz                     210        2               6              37

PowerBar                                                       2.3 oz                     230         10           2.5          45

PowerBar Harvest                                     2.3 oz                     240         7              4.5          45

PowerBar Protein Plus                            2.8 oz                     290         24           5              38

Pure Protein                                                2.7 oz                     270         32           4              13

Re Create                                                      2.5 oz                     250         13           6              37

PR Bar                                                            1.77 oz                   200         13           6              23

Steel Bar                                                          3 oz                        330         16           6              52

Super Heavyweight                                     4 oz                        465         29           10           65

Sweet Success Bar                                       1.16 oz                   120         2              4             23

Tigers Milk Bar                                             1.25 oz                   140         6              5             18

Ultra Fuel Bar                                              4.87 oz                   490         15           3             100

White Lighting                                               3 oz                        310         27           6              27

Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrates are reported in grams.

SOURCE: Data derived from product labels. *Some of the nutritional information varies depending on the particular flavor chosen.

Image from: getoutdoorgear.com

Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N, is a registered dietitian who has been teaching healthy lifestyles strategies to consumers for over 35+ years.

1 Comment on "Energy Bars or Junk Food?"

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