PowerBar Performance energy bars are still sold in shiny space age-y wrappers, but the original energy bar has lost some of its luster, as a growing number of athletes and health-conscious consumers want fresh, unprocessed “real” foods to fuel their active lives.
Everything “Natural” $ells
Since it’s reported that more than 60% of American shoppers say they’re looking for less processed foods, there’s now at least 50 bars marketed to serious athletes to weekend warriors with “natural,” “pure,” “simple” or “real food” claims on their labels. Even the originator of the sports bar category, PowerBar, has new offerings for the so-called clean-eating athletes.
How real are these new naturals or are they more of the same, just sold in brown or see-through packages? Will they help boost your performance or are they better as a 3 p.m. snack?
To find out, we looked under the wrappers to come up with the ultimate guide to natural energy bars.
What’s a “Natural” Sports Bar?
Unlike products labeled “organic” which must adhere standards for production and processing “natural” is a loosely defined by the FDA as not containing artificial ingredients. Since the term is so squishy, it shouldn’t be why you’re buying one product versus another and, taken on its own, is no sign that the bar is healthier or better.
About half of the bars are certified organic or made with organic ingredients, and several are gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, GMO-free, wheat-free or vegan. Unlike bars of the past marketed on what they provide—lots of easily-digestible carbs, electrolytes, vitamins and minerals— the hype around these is with what they lack.
With the exception of a few (ie, Clif Nectar, ProBar Fruition), the bars in our guide roughly into two general categories: dried fruit and nut bars or whole grain-and-nut-based bars. Because dried fruit and nuts are calorie-rich, the new school bars provide around 4.2-5.0 calories/gram while the first-generation high-carb bars are less calorie-dense with 3.3-3.5 calories per gram. However, because they’re generally sold in smaller sizes (other than Pro Bar), they provide the same general amount of calories (200-240) of traditional high-carb bars.
Due to the nuts and seeds in many, they contain a higher percentage of calories from protein and fat, have more fiber and fewer total carbohydrates and sugars. For example, original PowerBar and Clif Bars get about 78% calories from carbs, 3% from protein and 11% from fat. The naturals are around 40% of calories from carbs, 20-25% from protein and 35% percent from fat. A few notable exceptions include: ProBar Fruition, Clif Nectar and Figamajigs–bars that retain a high-carbohydrates, low fat and moderate protein composition.
No Refined Sugars
A real call-out for almost all of the bars is that they don’t contain the refined sugars of their predecessors. Most use dried fruit, agave, brown rice syrup, maple syrup or honey. However, those that have chocolate coatings often have cane sugar as an ingredient.
Agave, honey and brown rice syrup have lower GI values and contain antioxidants and other compounds that may provide metabolic advantages over more refined sugars like sugar cane and corn syrup. According to Mark Kern, Ph.D., R.D., CSSD, Professor, School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University, “Our preliminary research using an animal model showed improved blood sugar and insulin responses in mice fed agave nectar compared to equal amounts of cane sugar.” While more studies need to be completed using real food as fuel with athletes, there is reason to believe that some real benefits could be found with fueling up with real food.
5 Tips to Buy the Best Bar
- The number of ingredients of the product is not the best gauge of the healthfulness or its performane-boosting ability. The bars below have anywhere from 3 ingredients to more than 30—all make some type of “natural” claim. Using a bar successfully in training is the only way to really wear-test it to see if it will work for you. Some of these bars will not hold up well in extreme conditions compared to traditional bars, gels and blocks.
- If you’re a distance runner or triathlete, fiber- and protein-packed bars may provide GI consequences compared to more carbohydrate-based bars.
- Carbohydrates are still king for endurance athletes during exercise. Experts recommend anywhere between 30-70 grams carbohydrates per hour for events of 2 or more hours. (Some studies are showing improved endurance performance benefits with up to 90g CHO/hour for some ultra-distance events.) Bars with a high percentage of protein and fat can make it harder to meet your carb quota.
- If the bar is intended for a between meal pick-me-up or you’re more weekend warrior than world champ, choose one that has more protein and fiber, as it will keep you fuller longer. Any of the fruit and nut-based bars will be an instant upgrade from most snack food choices..but none beat eating a fresh fruit or veggie snack. “I always suggest that athletes keep a Kind or Lara Bar in their office, car or gym bag, so they’ll have a satisfying snack instead of something less nutritious,” says sports dietitian, coach and endurance athlete, Sara (Boisen) Schwertfeger, RD, LD.
- If your goal is a more natural approach to sports nutrition, give real foods like dates or date paste; dried figs or raisins with or without nuts. With dried fruit, nuts and a few spices, you’re just a food processor away from your own secret formula. Look for our DIY energy bars in a follow up post to this.
For Comparison: PowerBar Performance Energy Bar, Peanut Butter (65g): 240 calories, 44 grams CHO (25g sugar); 9 g protein; 4 g fat; 1 gram fiber; fortified with vitamins and minerals. Main ingredients include evaporated cane juice syrup, maltodextrin, fructose, dextrose.