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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Exercise


Bar Exam: Energy Bars Flunk

Susan Mills-Gray, MS, Nutrition Specialist, University of Missouri Extension

There I am sweating to the oldies. Through the glass I can see others visiting following their aerobics class. Suddenly one woman reaches in her backpack and pulls out something to eat. The other women seem very interested - they even take turns reading the nutrition label. Energy bars...they’re everywhere!

This is one hot market. Supermarkets, health food stores, drugstores, even gas stations – everyone wants in on this $100 million dollar plus business. You may think choosing an energy bar is easy – it’s not. Whether you realize it or not, when you pick an energy bar from the vast array available, you’re making a statement about your personal nutritional regimen: crunchy vs. chewy, high protein vs. high carbohydrate, snack vs. meal replacement. At least one thing has been resolved: energy bars have definitely proven that coating something with chocolate won’t automatically make it taste good. If something tastes like medicine it must be good for you, right?

Energy bars basically come in four types:

  • High carbohydrate -- This type’s goal is too keep you from running out of energy during competition or a long training session. They consist largely of high fructose corn syrup and fruit juice concentrate, with added vitamins and minerals. Some brands add oats, nuts, or dried fruit. Research has shown that as long as you’re getting the same number of calories from carbohydrate rich foods or energy bars, there’s no advantage to the bars – plus the bars are more expensive. Actually, only athletes doing long-term exercise or events that last longer than 60 minutes (i.e. marathons, cross country running or skiing) need additional carbs during the event. If the event or practice were less than 60 minutes, the bar wouldn’t empty out of the gut before the event is over!


  • 40-30-30 -- This the ratio of carbohydrate to protein to fat. These are marketed to everyone: athletes, those who want to lose weight, those seeking a meal replacement option, and to seasoned adults who need additional nutrition. There aren’t any published studies to show how these bars affect performance. A 40-30-30 bar doesn’t have enough carbohydrate for an athlete, but may be a better choice for lunch than a Big Mac.


  • High-protein -- These are generally high in calories and size. Body builders are the typical users. Although protein needs do increase with exercise, that doesn’t mean that someone needs a protein bar. You can easily get the extra protein needed from less expensive foods. Plus, too much protein is dehydrating and a strain on the kidneys.


  • Supplement -- You’ll find the same vitamins and minerals that you’d find in a supplement pill. The main difference is that someone might take a pill along with a bowl of soup or a salad, while most people using supplement bars use it as a meal replacement. That’s not a great idea. Keep in mind that these bars lack fiber and other valuable nutrients.

The commonality among all four types of bars is the fact that the energy boost you get from the sports bar comes from the calories it provides - period. There’s no magical or secret ingredient that’s doing the job.

Sports bar buying tips:

  • If you’re counting fat and calories, avoid bars providing more than 250 calories or 5 grams of fat.
  • Some protein is good, but more than 20 grams is overdoing it.
  • Most of the extras added to bars – vitamins, minerals, herbs – are more than you need. A basic multivitamin provides the same nutrients that sports bars offer and for a lot less money.
  • Bars too expensive? Don’t like the taste? Plenty of other foods work just as well. Try a bagel, fig bars or dried fruit. There are MANY high-carb energy food choices that will save your wallet.






Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009



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