Once marketed only to athletes, energy bars have gone mainstream. If you’ve cruised any grocery store recently, you’ve seen them—usually displayed near the candy bars. They come in a wide array of flavors and their packaging is full of health claims—but are these snacks healthy or are they nothing more than a candy bar dressed up as health food? That depends.
Energy bars were once designed to provide quick energy during exercise, but they have since become a convenient snack or meal replacement. Food is fuel. The right energy bar under the right circumstances can be a healthy choice. The trick is discerning the health from the junk.
Anatomy of an Energy Bar
Thanks to savvy marketing, most of us operate under the assumption that energy bars are healthy and indeed, some of them are—but others leave a lot to be desired in the nutrition department. Like any food, energy bars consist of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids).
Many bars are high in carbohydrates, which are digested and absorbed quickly into the bloodstream—this can be good if you are on a 3-hour bike ride, but not so good if you’re sitting at your desk.
Some key components of energy bars (or any packaged food) that are important to analyze are:
- Carbohydrates: Energy bars may contain anywhere from 10 to 60 grams of carbohydrates, depending on the brand and intended use. They may include complex carbohydrates, such as rice or oats, and simple carbohydrates, such as high fructose corn syrup or dried fruit.
- Protein: Bars that are designed to serve as meal replacements or snacks (rather than fuel for exercise) typically have a higher protein content, ranging from 5 to 25 grams of protein. They may contain soy, milk, or whey protein.
- Fat: Fat content varies widely among energy bars, especially depending on their use. Most experts agree that 3 to 5 grams of fat is a healthy range for these bars.
- Fiber: A high fiber bar is probably not a good idea for exercise, but bars designed to serve as meal replacement should contain about 3 to 5 grams of fiber.
- Calories: Beware the calorie content of energy bars. Some bars contain as many as 500 calories. If you’re eating a bar as a snack at your desk, look for one that is less than 200 calories.
- Sugar: Energy bars seem like a healthy idea, but often they contain a lot of added sugar. Read the label to determine whether there is sugar lurking beneath the packaging.
Read the Label
It may sound obvious, but read the label. Check the ingredients. If a bar has an ingredient list longer than your entire grocery list, beware. If the ingredients are unpronounceable, take heed. If the ingredient list leads with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, walk away. Instead, look for a bar that has fewer than 10 ingredients and make sure the ingredients are whole foods such as oats, dried fruit, or nuts.
Energy Bar versus Food
Energy bars have become a convenient, go-to snack for people on the go—but convenience shouldn’t trump nutrition. Energy bars can be a good snack in a pinch and they are certainly a better choice than a candy bar or a bag of chips. However, if you find yourself buying energy bars by the case and relying on them on a daily basis, you might be overdoing it. Most of the time, real food is the better alternative. Energy bars are often the easy choice—they come in their own wrapper and you can eat them on the fly. But bananas and oranges also come in their own “wrapper” and offer more nutrients.
The bottom line—not all energy bars are created equally. Some are healthy. Some are not. The burden falls on you, the consumer, to choose wisely.
Choosing a Bar
Want to make a healthy choice? If you’re eating a bar as a snack or meal replacement, here’s what to look for:
- Look for a bar that is low in fat (less than 5 grams).
- Choose a bar with 3 to 5 grams of fiber.
- Choose a carbohydrate/protein ratio according to your need. If you’re eating a bar as a meal replacement, you’ll want a higher protein content; if you’re consuming a bar during endurance exercise, you may want a higher carbohydrate content.
- Check the calories, particularly if you are watching your weight. Bars range from 150 to over 500 calories. Choose wisely.
- Choose a bar with as few ingredients as possible.
- Choose a bar with healthy ingredients. Avoid bars that contain high fructose corn syrup or excessive sugar. If either of these falls within the first three ingredients, steer clear.
Make Your Own Energy Bars
If you need the convenience of energy bars, but want to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need, why not make your own? With a little creativity, there is no limit to the possibilities. Here’s a simple, no-bake recipe:
No-Bake Nut Butter Bars
1/2 cup natural peanut butter, almond butter, or nut butter of your choice
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk powder
1/4 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
1/3 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup unsweetened apple juice concentrate, thawed
Mix all ingredients thoroughly and form into bars or balls. Store in refrigerator.