This is the story behind MixABar and why it was created. In telling this story, I hope to bring a little awareness to what you should look for in an energy bar. A number of years ago, I was a big fan of protein shakes. But, then I wanted something more convenient, something I didn’t have to make every day, so I started looking for a healthy energy bar.
What I discovered was that it didn’t exist. And while there has been an improvement in recent years, I would contend that a healthy energy bar still does not exist today. By healthy, I mean something that is raw or minimally processed and has a good balance of macro nutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat). Don’t get me wrong, I’ll eat one of those “other” energy bars in a pinch, but I wanted something that I would feel good about eating every day. I have scoured the internet and looked through vast selections of energy bars on store shelves, and to this day I still have not found one I would eat every day.
The number one issue with energy bars is the sugar content. It is not uncommon to see energy bars with over 20 grams of sugar. Here is the nutrition panel for a Chocolate Brownie Clif Bar. It contains 21 grams of sugar.
To put that in perspective, each gram of sugar contains 4 calories, so 21 grams of sugar has 84 calories. Of the 250 calories in a Chocolate Brownie Clif bar, 1/3 of it comes from sugar. Keep in mind, those are EMPTY calories, devoid of any nutritional value. And sugar is toxic. In the long run, excessive sugar intake results in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and generally feeling pretty crappy.
For a healthy energy bar, my cut-off is 10 grams of sugar. That immediately eliminates 75-80% of the energy bars on the market.
Healthy nutrition is about balance, and balance is about getting the right proportions of protein, carbs, and fat in every snack and meal. As a general rule, protein should make up about 20-25% of your caloric intake, so if an energy bar has 200 calories, it needs to have 40-50 calories from protein or 10-12 grams (note: 1 gram of protein is 4 calories). Most energy bars fall short.
There are also energy bars that boast 18 to 20 grams of protein or more. That not only throws off the balance in the other direction, but they are using inferior protein sources like whey concentrate, which is cheap protein that is not readily absorbed by the body. Whey is also a milk by-product. I try to avoid milk in my diet, but that is the subject of a future blog.
Fiber is critical to a healthy diet. The average American consumes 10-15 grams of fiber per day, while the RDA is 25-30 grams (based on a 2000 calorie diet). To meet the RDA recommendation, an energy bar with 200 calories should contain 2-3 grams of fiber, but the more the better. I look for energy bars that have at least 5 grams of fiber.
This is a subject that food manufacturers try to avoid. A long shelf life is good for the food manufacturer because it means their product can sit on the shelf longer resulting in less spoilage and waste. While this is great for their bottom line, it is terrible for our health.
There are a number of ways that foods can be made shelf stable. A common method is to add preservatives such as salt and/or sugar. That is why many energy bars have such a high sugar content. Assuming the information on the package is accurate, which is not always the case by the way, you can see the sugar and salt content on the ingredient list. If sugar or high fructose corn syrup is one of the first 3 items on the list, it’s time to find another energy bar.
Other common preservatives include ascorbic acid, nitrites, benzoates and sulphites. Get used to reading ingredient labels and look for these added preservatives. It won’t kill you to eat them occasionally, but longer term, who knows what affect they have, so I recommend avoiding them if possible.
Food processing alters the molecular structure of foods which in turn reduces their nutritional benefits. In general, we should try to eat foods that are minimally processed, just as they grow in nature. When was the last time you saw a Twinkie Tree? Well, until you do, maybe it would be best to avoid them :-).
The majority of energy bars are created using a combination of heat and/or extrusion. Both of those processes make the food less healthy. For example, most of us know that nuts contain healthy fat, but did you know that roasting them breaks down the healthy fat and turns it into unhealthy fat. Sure, roasted nuts have a nice crunch, but if you care about your health, stick to raw nuts instead.
In summary, here are the key things I look for in an energy bar:
- < 10 g sugar
- 10-12g quality protein
- > 5 g fiber
- Raw ingredients, preferably organic
I have yet to find an energy bar that meets all of the above. That’s why I created MixABar.
If you prefer to go with one of the other bars on the market, keep these criteria in mind and go for the one that meets as many of these criteria as possible.