Nutrition Action Healthletter
Center for Science in the Public InterestDecember 2000 — U.S. Edition 
For $50,000 or $100,000 you can be in the bar business,Brian Maxwell, president and CEO of PowerBar Inc, told Food Processing magazine last year.

That’s one reason that supermarket, health food store, and drug store shelves carry a burgeoning selection of bars. (You can often find them at the front counter, with the other “impulse” items.) Sales of energy bars rose more than 50 percent last year, to $114 million, according to the trade publication Supermarket News. And energy is just the beginning.
The Bottom Line

 The word “energy” on any label simply means that the food supplies calories, not that eating it will make you more energetic.
 Eating healthy, whole foods like fruits and vegetables beats eating energy bars because foods contain phytochemicals and other constituents that aren’t added to bars.

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Bar Exam - Energy Bars Flunk

Energy For SaleHigh-Carb Bars40-30-30 Bars
High-Protein BarsSupplement Bars

   To create a niche for a new bar in a dog-eat-dog marketplace, each manufacturer needs a new twist. Names like Ironman and Steel sell, but they’re no longer enough. Viactiv and Luna bars are targeted at women. Protein Revolution, Pure Protein, and Perfect Solid Protein push the nutrient that muscles are made of. GeniSoy and Soy Sensations stake a claim on soy. Clif and Boulder go the natural route. And Think! promises to boost your brain power with herbs and vitamins.

   This is one hot market. Why else would Nestlé have bought PowerBar, Kraft have bought Balance Bar, and Rexall Sundown have bought Met-Rx? So when it comes to advertising, chances are we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

   Do you need any of this stuff? This month we take a look at some of the biggest and boldest bars around. But first, a short course on the “energy” scam.

Energy for Sale
   Luckily for food companies out to make a buck, “energy” has a double meaning. To most people, a food that supplies “energy” makes you feel energetic. But to scientists and the literal-minded regulators at the Food and Drug Administration, “energy” means calories.

   That’s right. To the folks who are in charge of keeping food labels honest, any food with calories is an “energy” food.

   Never mind that no more than one in a million consumers would ever guess that, especially when ads for energy bars show people running, leaping, and otherwise looking energetic. Never mind that a simple disclosure on labels could explain to consumers that an “energy food” means simply that it “contains calories.” Years after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (publisher of Nutrition Action) petitioned the FDA to require that kind of disclosure, the agency still hasn’t lifted a finger to let consumers in on the energy secret.

   Taking advantage of this irresistible loophole, companies have hit on a clever marketing scheme. While few people compete in long-distance athletic events, millions slog through a demanding day with no time for lunch. Marketing “energy” to the average office worker, stay-at-home mom, or just about anyone was a stroke of genius that’s paying off big-time... but not necessarily for you.

   “I caution people not to replace wholesome food with energy bars,” says Elizabeth Applegate, a nutritionist and exercise expert at the University of California at Davis. “Manufacturers don’t put everything you need from food into them. We don’t even know everything in food that should be put in them.”

   Applegate, who consults for the food industry, does advise some people to eat energy bars, but not because they make the eater more energetic. “If you’re going to grab a candy bar or a box of cookies or two bags of M&Ms from a vending machine for lunch, it’s better to have an energy bar,” she says.

   Why? “Most bars are low in saturated and hydrogenated [trans] fat. And they can have as much as five grams of fiber and a handful of vitamins and minerals, just like a bowl of breakfast cereal.

   “But if the wrappers are starting to accumulate on the floor of your car, back off,” she adds. “You’re better off with real food, like a sandwich on whole-grain bread, fresh fruit, and some baby carrots.”

Hi-Carb Bars
   “Don’t bonk,” say ads for PowerBars. The original PowerBar, launched in 1987, was designed to keep athletes from bonking—that is, running out of gas in the middle of a marathon or other long-distance event. The high-carbohydrate, low-fat bars consist largely of high-fructose corn syrup and grape and pear juice concentrate, with added vitamins and minerals. They have a taffy-like texture that seems more functional than flavorful.

   It didn’t take long for competitors (and PowerBar itself) to come up with energy bars that taste more like food than fuel. Clif, Boulder, PowerBar Harvest, and others started adding real food—like oats, nuts, and fruit—to their recipes. The final products taste like something between cookies and granola bars. But judging by the little research that’s been done, there’s nothing special—other than convenience—about getting your carbs in a compact wrapper.

   David Pearson and colleagues at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, conducted one of the few studies on high-carb bars, though so far only a summary has been published.1 First, nine trained cyclists rode for an hour to lower the levels of stored carbohydrate (glycogen) in their muscles. The next day, they rode for another half-hour and then sprinted.

   After a one-hour rest, the cyclists were randomly assigned to eat 1,000 calories’ worth of PowerBars, Tiger’s Milk bars, or cinnamon-raisin bagels over a four-hour period. An hour later, they rode for another hour while the researchers measured their energy output and blood sugar levels.

To the folks who are in charge of keeping food labels honest, any food with calories is an energy food.

   “The bagels resulted in the same aerobic performance as the energy bars,” says Pearson, whose study was funded by Nabisco. “There’s no magic to the bars. As long as you’re getting the same number of calories and carbs in each food, there’s no advantage to eating energy bars, and they’re much more expensive.”

   Of course, most people don’t even need carbs when they exercise. “High-calorie, carbohydrate-dense bars are really only for athletes doing long-term exercise,” Pearson explains. “People think, ‘if top-grade athletes eat these bars, I need them for my workout.’ That’s a misconception.”

   Pearson’s hard-pedaling cyclists performed better with bars (or food) than with just water because they needed carbs. But unless you’re running, cycling, cross-country skiing, or doing some other aerobic activity continuously for more than an hour at a stretch, you don’t need a quick carb fix.

   “The bar wouldn’t empty out of your stomach before the event is over,” says Pearson. What’s more, he adds, “most people burn off fewer calories in the workout than they get from the bar.”

   So the next time you run a marathon, you may find it easier to pack some high-carb bars instead of bagels. (Some experts recommend taking one bite every ten minutes until the bar is gone.) But if you’re just looking for a snack or pick-me-up after a game of tennis, save your money.

40-30-30 Bars
   With the high-carb field sewn up, competitors like Balance, Ironman, and ProZone entered the market with bars that have a 40-30-30 ratio of carbohydrates to protein to fat, as touted by the best-selling diet book The Zone.

   “The companies that market these bars have done a fabulous job of getting people to think that one bar makes their whole diet 40-30-30,” notes Applegate.

   Reaching 40-30-30 in a bar isn’t difficult. It simply means replacing some of the high-fructose corn syrup with protein (from whey or soy protein isolate or casein) and with fat (often palm kernel oil).

   Palm kernel oil is popular because it’s saturated enough to stay solid at room temperature, so the coating doesn’t smear all over your hands. Whether it smears all over the walls of your arteries is another question. Palm kernel oil is twice as saturated as lard.

   It’s not clear who is supposed to be eating 40-30-30 bars. And that’s one secret to their success.

   A bar that isn’t for anyone in particular is for everyone. They’re for athletes (real or would-be) who want to stay “in the zone.” (Long before—and one reason why—Barry Sears’ diet book became a best seller, that term applied to athletes at the top of their game.) They’re for people who want to lose weight. And they’re for people who want the “sustained energy” that the bars promise in order to get them through the day.

   Of course, no published studies show how 40-30-30 bars like Balance or Ironman affect performance or weight loss for any of those groups. One small study concluded that an Ironman bar didn’t raise blood sugar levels as rapidly or as much as a (high- carbohydrate) PowerBar.2 Of course, a quick rise in blood sugar is precisely what an athlete wants.

   “A 40-30-30 bar doesn’t have enough carbohydrate for an athlete,” says Ball State’s Pearson. “But if you’re sitting behind a desk and you want a bar instead of a Big Mac for lunch, you’re better off with a 40-30-30 bar than a high-carbohydrate bar, because it’s closer to what you’d get in a typical American diet.”

   That’s not to say that the highly processed milk and soy protein, high-fructose corn syrup, oils, vitamins, and minerals are anything approaching an ideal food. Missing are the vegetables, beans, low-fat diary, and other real foods that can cut the risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke (see cover story).

   “If you’re using bars in place of a meal, look for at least 10 to 15 grams of protein,” says Applegate. “I also recommend eating at least one real food—like a piece of fresh fruit or some carrots or low-fat cheese sticks—with the bar.”

   Ads boast that the new Balance Gold bars “taste like a candy bar!” That’s because they are candy bars...with some extra soy or milk protein and vitamins. Balance Outdoor bars use more natural ingredients, like soy pieces, fruit, and nuts. But watch out.

   “You can still get a lot of calories from these bars,” says Pearson. The 200-odd calories may not seem like much, but 200 calories in roughly two ounces of food means that bars are calorie-dense.

   For a quick snack, you’re better off with an apple, a handful of grape tomatoes, or some other fruit or vegetable that fills you up with fewer calories.

High-Protein Bars
   They’ve got names like Ultimate Lo Carb, Met-Rx Protein Plus, Promax, Protein Fuel, Protein Revolution, Pure Protein, Solid Protein, and Steel. They’re often bigger in calories (250 or so) and size (as much as three ounces), for people who want bigger muscles. Body builders—not dieters, soccer moms, or busy Yuppies—are the typical target audience.

   Do they work?

   “Protein needs increase with exercise, whether it’s strength training or endurance,” says Applegate. But that doesn’t mean that people need protein bars.

   “You can easily get the protein from food,” she explains. “The bars are more expensive and it’s just food protein they put in there. People are surprised to hear that. They think, ‘it’s exactly what my muscles need.’”

   Few companies have studies to show that their “proprietary blends” of milk or soy protein and other ingredients like “growth factors” and glutamine trump the competition.

   Take Met-Rx’s blend, which is called metamyosyn. Two published studies have tested its impact in healthy people in exercise programs. One found that overweight policemen gained more muscle mass and strength on metamyosyn than they did on another protein supplement, but the measurements were outdated and inexact.3

   “The results of this study are interesting, but it needs to be repeated using more sophisticated methods of body composition assessment before definitive conclusions can be made,” says Rick Kreider of the University of Memphis.

   The other study, using more exact measures, found that Met-Rx was no better than a high-carbohydrate supplement at increasing muscle mass and strength in college football players.4

Supplement Bars
   “Just taste these delicious, satisfying new energy sources for women,” say ads for Viactiv. “Boost bars are the ideal snack and help give you the energy to do the things you want to do,” says the company’s Web site.

   Yes, you do get calories from these bars. You also get the same vitamins and minerals that you’d find in a vitamin pill. The main difference is that someone might take a pill along with a bowl of lentil soup, a plate of stir-fried vegetables and chicken, or a fruit salad. But Mead Johnson’s clever marketing for its Boost bars persuades people—especially women—to eat a fortified candy bar instead of real food... and to think they’re healthier and more energetic as a result.

   Soy protein bars like GeniSoy and Soy Sensations may help lower your cholesterol. But it’s too early to say if their phytoestrogens can cut the risk of breast and prostate cancers. In fact, some preliminary studies suggest that consuming more soy may raise the risk of breast cancer in some people (see Nutrition Action, Sept. 1999 and Jan./Feb. 2000).

   And soy isn’t the only new twist. Think! bars sell nothing less than brain power. As if the name weren’t enough, the labels and the company Web site ( note that the bars have “ginkgo biloba to stay sharp” and other “mind-enhancing” ingredients, which have an “impact on brain and nerve cell function.” But don’t expect the company to supply evidence to back up its claims.

   “We’re not claiming it helps you think,” insists Garrett Jennings, the inventor of Think!, the “Food for Thought” bar. Think! bars contain Jennings’s secret blend of amino acids, fatty acids, and herbs.

   Good published studies show no significant impact on thought or memory in people given the amounts of ginkgo or ginseng (60 mg each) or the other ingredients in Think! Bars. (A recent study found that 160 mg of a proprietary blend of ginseng and ginkgo modestly improved the “quality” of memory in middle-aged men and women, but until it’s published, we can’t draw any conclusions.)

   “But if somebody feels great after a Think! bar,” asks Jennings, “who cares if that’s just a placebo effect?”

The information for this article was compiled by Jackie Adriano.
1: J. Strength Cond. 10: 1996.
2: J. Amer. Diet. Assoc. 100: 97, 2000.
3: Ann. Nutr. Metab. 44: 21, 2000.
4: J. Exercise Physiol. (online) 2: 24, 1999.
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