Runner’s Plate: Navigating the Energy Bar Aisle
Have you ever stood in front of the granola and/or energy bar aisle in a grocery store trying to figure out how on earth to choose? Although I have my go-to bars, I often stand in this aisle for more time than I’m willing to admit. How is it that there are so many varieties? There always seems to be a new brand or type of bar popping up, with yet another health claim that may or may not have any sound scientific backing, and each with a different purpose. Pre-workout, post workout, during workout, non-workout. High protein, high fiber, or both. Natural, organic, or neither. My head is spinning! If this has ever been you, you’re not alone!
So, I thought I’d share with you how one nutrition-grad student and athlete navigates her way through some of this mess. First, let me say that although I prefer my snacks to be whole foods, bars have their place. The individual wrapping is perfect for an on-the-run individual like myself. Sometimes it’s a mini-meal replacement (like when I was on a 5-hour plane ride to Colorado last week), other times it’s a snack to get me to my next meal or for a quick boost before a workout. They are not something I eat everyday (that would get very expensive, very quickly!), but I always have a stash on hand for times when a piece of fruit, or other healthful snack is not an option. Remember how I feel about being prepared with healthful snacks!
Next, I don’t believe in bars with special recovery qualities. You see a lot of them at race expos, but they are often just sugar and chemicals with some added whey protein disguised as some sort of recovery bar with magic muscle healing qualities. Although these are fine for an emergency, there is real food for this purpose.
So, when purchasing bars, the most important thing I look at is the ingredient list and I look for 2 things:
- A short list of whole ingredients, all of which I recognize and can pronounce. Bonus points if they are ingredients that I have in my kitchen individually (like nuts and dried fruit).
- Sugar should not be the first ingredient – even better if it’s not the second or third . Don’t be fooled if you don’t see the word “sugar”; it’s often listed as something else. For example, honey, agave, cane juice, brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, (regular) corn syrup, and syrup are all forms of sugar.
Next I look at the nutrition facts for:
- Number of calories. Is this bar meant to be a snack, or a meal replacement?
- If it’s meant to be a meal replacement (for me, over 250 calories), does it have enough protein, fiber and fat (yes a little fat is good) to fill me up? Or is it mostly sugar and will I be starving in an hour.
- If it’s a snack, I still will look next to ensure it has at least 2g of fiber per 100 calories, as well as some protein and fat. The goal is to make sure that the bar will be digested slow enough to keep me full for at least an hour or two (depending on the # of calories).
These few criteria will eliminate the majority of the bars on the shelf. After that, it’s all about taste…
Here are a few of my favorite bars, in no particular order:
- KIND bars: These bad boys are extremely filling, primarily because of the nuts. They are made from only a few ingredients, and keep me full for a long time. They have a variety of flavors to satisfy any mood – some with chocolate, some without, but al with fruits and nuts. I like the “minis” since they are only 100 calories and I rarely can finish an entire bar. Sadly, they are hard to find (I may or may not have stalked the KIND bar boot at the dietetics conference I went to last fall and traveled across the country with a bag full). They stay fresh for a couple of days if you eat half and wrap the rest up.
- LARABAR and Jocalat: Another favorite, these are more of a treat than anything else. I LOVE that, with the exception of their chocolate flavors, there is no added sugar – they use dates to sweeten them. Every time I eat the peanut butter and jelly bar, I’m amazed at how they can get it to taste just like a PB&J sandwich with only dried cherries, dates, and peanuts. With these I also prefer the minis, but I have discovered that opened bars stay good for weeks in the fridge. I also just saw on their website that they are introducing a new bar UBER bars – sweet and salty with chunks of nuts and fruit. I must try these immediately!
- Purebar: This is a new one in my pantry, but I am hooked. The ingredient list is very similar LARABAR, except some come in certified organic. The chocolate brownie tastes like a dessert. Except a half of a bar gets me through an hour long tough workout plus the commute home and shower time after. I don’t know any brownie that will do that!
- Kashi TLC bars. This is an exception to my short list of ingredients rule, but only because there isn’t anything on the ingredients list that I don’t recognize or feel OK about putting in my body. Plus for only 120 calories I get 4g fiber and 5g of protein, meaning these can keep me full for a while. This is my go-to granola bar and I prefer Cherry Dark Chocolate and the Chocolate Peanut Butter.
How do you choose your granola bars? What are your favorites?
(Sarah is a 2nd year grad student pursuing her MS in Nutrition Communication at Tufts University Friedman School in Boston. She is also completing the requirements to become a registered dietitian and will begin her dietetic internship in 2012. Sarah is a certified spin instructor and an avid runner and regularly participates in road races from 5k to a 1/2 marathons. Follow her on Twitter @SpinnerSarah and at her personal blog Food and Fitness Friend.)