What’s the biggest difference between energy bars and candy bars?
Meal Replacement Bars
A lot of people use meal replacement bars as a dieting strategy. It’s not the herbal extracts or metabolism-boosting vitamins that make you lose weight, though. It’s that you eat fewer calories than you would if you ate a normal meal. (If, that is, you can actually eat the meal replacement bars instead of, and not in addition to, other meals.)
The other big advantage to a meal replacement bar is convenience. They don’t need refrigeration, preparation, or even utensils. In a pinch, a meal replacement bar will keep you going. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that these engineered foods are somehow more nutritious than an actual meal. For one thing, notice that they don’t make these bars in flavors like salmon and brown rice or broccoli and tofu. Instead, your “meal” choices are strawberry shortcake, peanut butter brownie, or chocolate caramel pretzel.
And that’s my biggest gripe with most of these bars: They typically contain some soy protein isolate, maybe some puffed rice or a little oat bran, and a few vitamins for good measure—but it's all held together with the nutritional equivalent of marshmallow fluff.
Don’t kid yourself: Wholesome sounding ingredients like brown rice syrup, organic evaporated cane juice, grape or apple juice concentrates, and barley malt syrup are all just forms of sugar. When these are four of the first six ingredients, that adds up to a lot of sweet stuff. And unless you’re exercising really hard, sugar serves no useful nutritional purpose.
This organic, whole-grain Toffee Almond Crunch bar I happen to have here on my desk, for example, contains 30 grams of sugar, exactly as much sugar as a Snickers bar. They also have precisely the same number of calories. And you know what? A Snickers bar tastes a lot better.
There are some low-carb bars that are made with artificial sweeteners instead of regular sugar. They contain mostly protein, fiber and fat. (This makes them almost useless as exercise fuel, by the way.) They can be used as a low-carb meal replacement, but these highly-processed bars bear about as much resemblance to actual food as a paper towel bears to a tree. But, hey, if you like that sort of thing…
Now, there are also some bars out there that are made almost entirely with whole foods like dried fruits and nuts. But now it seems to me as if we’ve sort of come full circle. Wouldn’t be just as convenient (and a whole lot cheaper) just to keep some dried fruit and nuts around?
One last tip: Many energy bars use peanut butter and as this episode is being written, there are still concerns about salmonella contamination of some foods containing peanut butter. I’ve put a link to the FDA’s page, which is being updated as new information comes out. You can also check with individual manufacturers about whether their products may be affected by the recalls.
This is Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, with your quick and dirty tips for eating well and feeling fabulous.
Have a great day and eat something good for me!
Information on Peanut Butter recall (U.S. FDA)
Bar Exam: Energy Bars Flunk (Nutrition Action Newsletter)
Energy Drinks and Food Bars: Health or Hype? (Nemours Foundation)
Energy Bars, Gels, and Sports Drinks (About.Com: Walking)
Energy Bar Comparison (Lisa Drayeer, MA, RD)