Nowadays, if you walk into a drugstore, convenience store, or supermarket, it will be hard to miss the wide assortment of energy bars. After all, it has grown to a $3 billion industry. Unlike years ago, energy bars no longer just appeal to athletes or outdoor enthusiasts but to a general audience.
Their popularity is largely due to the sweet taste and convenience. Manufacturers have emphasized on making taste a priority, so the bars have become quite pleasing to the palate. You can eat them anytime, anywhere without the fuss of buying, preparing, or bringing real food.
However, are you aware that most energy bars contain plenty of sugar and possibly, other unsavory ingredients?
Questionable Ingredients —
The following are a number of ingredients that should not be present in a healthy energy bar:
Artificial sweeteners are just about the worst of all possible worlds, as far as dietary choices go. They are beyond processed, completely unnatural, insufficiently tested for long-term safety, and have a long history of causing health problems. They are extreme examples of what has gone wrong with our modern day diet. Studies show that people gain more weight on artificial sweeteners than regular sugar.
Avoid energy bars containing saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, and acesulfame potassium.
High fructose corn syrup
Until the 1970s, most table sugar (or sucrose) was derived from sugar beets or sugar cane. Sucrose is half fructose, half glucose. Since the 1980s, manufacturers have largely switched to making sugar from corn for use in processed foods due to its lower production costs, thanks to government subsidies to U.S. corn growers.
Sugar derived from corn has higher fructose content; high fructose corn syrup may contain somewhere from 42% up to 90% fructose, depending on what it is used for. A small amount of fructose, such as the amount found in most vegetables and fruits, is not a bad thing. However, fructose in high amounts can be problematic.
- Fructose is processed in the liver. When too much enters the liver, it can’t process all the fructose fast enough. It starts making fats from the fructose and sending them to the bloodstream as triglyceride. High blood triglyceride is a risk factor for heart disease. Additionally, the fats may accumulate in the liver (non-alcoholic fatty liver disorder) and the abdominal area.
- Studies found that there is a strong link between a high fructose diet and insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
- Fructose lowers the production of the satiety hormone called leptin, resulting in overeating. Therefore, regular high fructose consumption may lead to weight gain.
Avoid high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, and corn sweetener.
Agave’s meteoric rise in popularity owes to a great marketing campaign. The truth is that agave is not a whole food; it is a highly processed sap that is 90% fructose and 10% glucose. What’s more, beware that even when the label says “raw”, agave is still highly processed, just at lower temperatures.
Therefore, don’t be fooled by the marketing. Avoid the many so-called “healthier” energy bars that have switched to using agave as sweetener.
Many manufacturers use a complex carbohydrate called maltodextrin as a sweetener. They can claim that the energy bar is “no” sugar or “low” sugar because maltodextrin, being a complex carbohydrate, is not counted as sugar. However, maltodextrin has a worse effect on blood sugar than refined sugar. Therefore, read the ingredient list carefully and avoid maltodextrin.
Majority of the energy bars contain plenty of sugar. If you think that you are consuming less sugar by avoiding candy bars, you may be wrong.
One teaspoon of sugar is equivalent to 5 grams. Many energy bars contain 20 plus grams of sugar, which is like 4 teaspoons or more! This is not much better than most candy bars which have roughly 20-30 grams of sugar.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils
The process of hydrogenation alters the chemical structure of liquid vegetable oils, such as those made from corn, soybean, safflower, or sunflower, resulting in trans fat. Trans fat is the worst of all fats because it boosts your levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowers your “good” HDL cholesterol. That’s double trouble for your heart and arteries.
Always check the ingredient list for words like “partially hydrogenated oil” or “hydrogenated oil”. Even if the packaging says “0” gram trans fat, it might still contain less than 0.5 gram of trans fat. When you are eating several servings a day, it can add up.
Canola oil was developed in Canada. It comes from a naturally bred rapeseed plant, which is part of the mustard family of plants. Rapeseed oil contains 20% erucic acid which is known to be very damaging to the heart and toxic to other tissues. This is why rapeseed was bred to make canola oil in the first place.
However, canola is not totally void of erucic acid; it still contains about 1-2%. This is precisely why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans the use of canola in baby formula because it can cause a buildup of triglycerides in the heart.
Nowadays, most of the canola have been genetically modified so that they are resistant to a toxic pesticide called Roundup. Can it really be healthy eating something that has been genetically modified and sprayed with a toxic chemical?
There are no established human studies on the long-term effects of canola. But in animal studies, canola increases the rigidity of membranes and depletes vitamin E which is crucial to cardiovascular health. Therefore, before we know more about its long-term effects on humans, it is prudent to avoid energy bars that contain canola oil.
Soy protein isolate
Brilliant marketing has skyrocketed soy food sales in the last 15 years. However, soy is not the health food it has been promoted to be.
The only type of soy that is healthy is the fermented soy products such as soy sauce, miso, tempeh, and natto. All others are not healthy. Here are some facts regarding soy:
- More than 80% of the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.
- Trypsin inhibitors in soy interfere with protein digestion and they cannot be de-activated by normal cooking.
- Hemagglutinin in soy promotes blood clots.
- Phytic acid in soy blocks absorption of minerals, in particular, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
- Goitrogens in soy suppress thyroid function.
- Phytoestrogens in soy disturb hormonal balance, particularly in infants and children.
Soy protein isolate is a highly processed food. It is true that manufacturers have tried to remove the anti-nutrients, a varying amount still remains in the soy protein isolate. When choosing energy bars, it is best to avoid those with this ingredient.
Better Ingredients —
Often the healthier energy bars will use some of these natural ingredients:
Natural sugars in moderate amount
Refined and processed sugars are void of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.
Look for energy bars that use natural sugars such as barley malt, unrefined evaporated cane juice, fruit juice, brown rice syrup, raw honey, or pure maple syrup.
Pay attention to the amount of sugar in the energy bar. It is best to find one with less than 12 grams of sugar.
Some manufacturers use whey protein to boost the protein content of the energy bars. Whey protein is a by-product of cheese production. It is relatively easy to digest and is a source of good, lean protein. In moderation, whey protein is a good supplement unless you have milk protein allergy or lactose intolerance.
After surveying many energy bars available on the market and eliminating those that contain the questionable ingredients, the following are three brands that are healthier than most. There is also a website where you can build your own bars.
- Choose the ingredients you like and exclude all undesirable and allergic ingredients
- Choose the size you desire
- View the nutrition facts while you are creating it
- Customize your desired proportion of protein, fat, and carb
- Comes in 12 flavors but only the Original Flavor, Original Flavor with Almonds, Original Flavor with Cashew, and Original Flavor with Hazelnuts contain 9 grams of sugar. All others have more.
- 5 grams fiber, 17 grams total carb
- 16 grams fat, but healthy fats
- 6 grams protein
- 230 calories
- 100% organic, vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free
- Omega-3s from flaxseeds
- Calcium from sesame seeds
- This bar is lower in carb and is suitable for people who need more fats in their diets. The higher amount of fat will help keep you full longer than most bars.
Boundless Nutrition – Oatmega 3 Wellness Bar
- Comes in 3 flavors: Dark Chocolate Peanut, Dark Chocolate Mint, and Mocha
- 10 grams sugar, 5 grams fiber, 24 grams total carb
- 6 grams fat
- 14 grams protein, from time-release whey protein
- 190 calories
- 44% organic ingredients, cold-pressed to preserve healthy enzymes
- Omega-3s from fish oil (= 1/2 serving of fish)
- Antioxidants from green tea (= 3 cups)
- Calcium from milk
- This bar is high in protein and is suitable for people with a greater protein requirement or after a strenuous weight training session.
- Granola bar comes in 5 flavors with different fruits and nuts
- 12 grams sugar, 4 grams fiber, 32 grams total carb
- 8 grams fat
- 4 grams protein
- 210 calories
- Some organic ingredients, wheat-free and dairy-free
- Omega-3s from flaxseeds
- This bar is higher in carb and lower in protein. It is more suitable for people who have a higher need for carb.
Snack Option —
Even though these energy bars are healthier than most others on the market, they should only be used as snacks, not meal replacements. Without doubt, it is always preferable to eat fresh, unprocessed foods.
A healthy, convenient, and economical snack will be a small banana with a handful of almonds (1/2 ounce or about 12 almonds).
You get 12.5 grams sugar, 4.5 grams fiber, 26 grams total carbs, 7 grams fat, 4 grams protein, vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and phyto-nutrients. How can you beat that!