In the current bar-wars environment, there are literally hundreds of these prewrapped and portable products competing for shelf space at gyms, health-food stores, and supermarkets, with names ranging from PowerBar and Luna Bar to Balance Bar and MET-Rx. But nutritionists agree that not all bars are created equal. There are high-carbohydrate bars, protein bars, energy bars, breakfast bars, brain-boosting bars, meal-replacement bars, diet bars, and women-only bars. And with so much to choose from, consumers hungering for a quick nutritional fix; whether they're recreational athletes, workaholics tied to their desks, or overcommitted moms with barely a moment to spare. You may feel dizzy from all the product overkill and heavily hyped claims.
Without a doubt, grab-and-gobble nutrition bars are great for people who race nonstop from sunup to exhaustion. "They're a convenient alternative for someone who would otherwise be reaching for a doughnut or using the vending machines for snacks at the office," says Liz Applegate, PhD, lecturer in nutrition at the University of California at Davis. "But there's nothing magical about these bars. Most of them are fine, but some are too high in fat."
Dawn Jackson, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, concurs, noting that the bars are convenient, especially when you're physically active. "You wouldn't put a turkey sandwich in your pocket when you go on a bike ride, but you could easily bring one of these bars with you." However, she cautions, "Some of the bars have as much sugar and as much saturated fat as a candy bar. So use them in moderation."
Steve Hertzler, PhD, RD, assistant professor of medical dietetics at Ohio State University, conducted a study showing that endurance athletes may not get the sustained energy boost that they're expecting from certain bars. In his research, he compared the effects on blood glucose levels of two popular energy bars; the Ironman PR Bar and the PowerBar.
Most nutritionists emphasize that even when consuming nutrition bars, don't let them crowd whole foods out of your diet. “For a quick snack, you may be better off eating an apple or a banana. Before an athletic competition,” says Hertzler, "A bagel or graham crackers can produce a response in blood glucose levels similar to some energy bars, and they cost a lot less."
When you're choosing and trying out nutrition bars, a number of factors may influence your selection. For example:
- Look for a bar that's low in fat (less than 5 grams of fat).
- When evaluating the fiber content of bars, aim for 3 to 5 grams of fiber, says Jackson.
- Particularly if you're watching your weight, check the calories listed on the label. For example, while a Luna Bar contains 170 to 180 calories, a MET-Rx 100-Gram Food Bar has 340 calories.
- "If you're shopping for a meal-replacement bar, choose one that has about 15 or more grams of protein, along with some fiber, and fortified with about 35% of the RDAs for vitamins and minerals," says Applegate, author of Eat Smart, Play Hard. Meal-replacement bars tend to be larger than other bars, with proportionately higher levels of carbohydrates, fats, and protein.