Sorting Through the Confusion
Energy bars have been part of the outdoor scene since the Crusades in the Middle Ages--and possibly before. Crusaders tucked an energy bar called the panforte (a mix of flour, honey, shortening, nuts, and dried fruit) into their tunics to give a lift during long marches. Native Americans, and later the American soldiers, turned to pemmican bars, made of meat paste, fat, berries and dried fruit, to keep them going on their travels.
It wasn't until 1987, when PowerBar hit the retail shelves, however, that the energy bar became a recognized category of its own. Since that time, the market has exploded--I have the catalogs of 27 different energy bar companies representing 28 different energy bars piles all around me as I type this. By some reports, the energy market could easily top $100 million in the next year or two.
What's driving all this growth and attention? Perhaps it is the fact that you can now find energy bars being sold almost anywhere--gyms, supermarkets, health food stores, sporting goods stores, drug stores and specialty outdoor stores. Once only a food for extreme and serious athletes, the energy bar has found favor with anyone seeking a nutritional lift.
While just about everyone appears unanimous on the success and market demand for energy bars, differences in opinion crop up immediately when the question of which bar is best for which activity. Add ingredients to the discussion and the conversations begin to border on the respectfully contentious--no blatant finger-pointing but plenty of veiled "my bar's better than their's because" assertions. Do you want more calories or less, high or low fiber, more fat or less fat, added vitamins or no? Don't even think about trying to debate brown rice syrup vs. corn syrup because you'll get no where with study after counter study tossed into the discussion mix. And therein lies the challenge for the poor customer trying who just wants a bar to nibble on when hiking or running. Unless you have a degree in nutritional and sports science, it becomes a game of "who do you believe?"
That said, I turned to expert sports nutritionists Cathy Sassin-Smith, director of the Intrafit Center (the nutrition center) at Golds Gym in Venice Beach, California, and Helen DeMarco with the sports medicine program at Stanford University, California to help explain the nutritional mumbo jumbo.
The body gets energy from carbohydrates, fats and proteins, but carbohydrates are the most important fuel. Whether high fructose corn syrup or brown rice syrup is the better sugar to use remains debatable, even among nutritionists. Both are simple sugars (simple carbohydrates), although there is some evidence that brown rice syrup causes less of an insulin spike and requires less liquid intake to process, important if the bar is being consumed when quantities of liquids might not be readily available.
Maltodextrin is a complex sugar (complex carbohydrate) and comes from corn. Since this sugar is not as broken down or processed as the simple sugars, it takes longer to digest and helps provide a steady dose of sugar to the body's energy system.
Proteins (amino acids) are important in small quantities because they help the body process the sugar and help to prevent hunger, an essential item if the bar is being used in place of a vital snack. Fat also helps to prevent insulin spiking and, in addition to adding texture to a bar, minimizes a feeling of hunger.
Vitamins, Minerals and Other Additives
The more minerals and vitamins a bar has, the better, especially if it is being used as a food supplement source when a regular diet is being compromised--such as on the trail. Everyone loses minerals (potassium and sodium) when they perspire so a good bar will replace these. If your customer is taking vitamin supplements to begin with, they want to be careful, however, that they are not taking in too much of a dose of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) because they can become toxic in high concentrations.
Chromium (the element) Picolinate (what it is bonded to) is of little value to anyone who is eating a normal diet and its primary use is to assist diabetics by enhancing the effect of insulin in the body-it helps glucose get into the cells and aids in the uptake of amino acids into cells.
Because of their highly concentrated nature, you must drink plenty of water with energy bars. Combining the consumption of energy bars with some kind of drink supplement, such as Gatorade, Gookinaid, Cytomax, etc., is fine as long as you are also ingesting quantities of pure water too. Sassin-Smith, herself an extreme athlete, has found through studies of other adventure and extreme athletes that it is best to dilute the drink supplement down to one-quarter of what the label recommends.
"Drinking 100-percent mix of a drink supplement while eating an energy bar with a high fructose corn syrup as the sweetener appears to cause nausea and a loss of appetite in just about every athlete I know, which is a dangerous side effect because you lose the ability to judge how hydrated you need to be."
Energy Bars as Meal Replacements
In a word, NO! Energy bars are a good nutritional source of supplemental energy, but they are not food in any way, shape or form. Only when combined with a healthy regimen of exercise, well-balanced diet and plenty of liquids are an energy bar's strengths well utilized by the body.Contributed By: Michael Hodgson
Michael Hodgson is a an award-winning journalist and author of numerous books including Camping for Dummies, Compass and Map Navigator, and Facing the Extreme. He is a volunteer instructor for the American Red Cross, Nevada County Sheriff's Search & Rescue team and was a former mountain guide. Michael is well-known for his sense of humor and eagerness to try anything once in the pursuit of a really good story. His friends remain amazed that he can still walk. He has partnered with his journalist-wife, Therese Iknoian, on four web sites: his own www.AdventureNetwork.com, plus www.GearTrends.com, www.TotalFitnessNetwork.com, and www.SNEWSnet.com