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Energy bars—are they beneficial during exercise?

This blog is about real food, and energy (granola, protein, nutrition, performance) bars are about as processed as you can get, so this should be a no brainer. However, in addition to being a real food advocate I am also an avid cyclist, logging up to 100 miles a week. So the question of how to keep energy up on a long ride often comes up. Most of my fellow riders eat these bars while riding, so I thought I would look into the ingredients in various bars and explain the pros and cons of consuming them on a ride (or run, walk, hike, whatever you are into).

On the plus side the bars are convenient. They are lightweight and easy to carry, unwrap and eat while stopping for a break on a ride or out on the trail. They provide a quick carbohydrate boost to replenish diminishing blood sugar during sustained exercise to prevent ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’, when our bodies run out of glucose from our glycogen stores and we suddenly run out of energy. Unfortunately, convenience is about their only attribute.

The major ingredient in these bars is refined sugar. It may not be listed first on the label because it is generally listed in several places by various names, such as brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, apple (or any other juice) concentrate, berry extract, oat syrup solids or oat syrup, barley malt extract, honey, maltodextrin, fructose, dextrose, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, invert sugar, corn syrup solids, all different forms of highly processed sugar. With the exception of maltodextrin, these sugars are a combination of glucose and either fructose or another slow to digest sugar. It is glucose we need to fuel our muscles. It can enter our blood stream quickly after ingestion and provide a boost in energy. Fructose must first travel to the liver and then enter the pathway to fat storage. Other sugars also take 2-3 hours to digest. Maltodextrin is processed from starch and consists only of glucose, but it is not generally found in energy bars. The upshot is that about half of the sugar in these bars can be quickly processed into energy; the rest will go to storage (fat).

All of the ingredients in these bars are highly processed. The grains have not been soaked or sprouted (see previous post) and have been cooked or extruded, meaning that many of their nutrients are unavailable. The majority of these bars contain soy protein isolate. This substance is produced from soybeans as a byproduct of the huge soybean oil industry. While it is a highly processed food it has not undergone fermentation and therefore contains phytates (see previous post) trypsin (a protease) inhibitors, phytoestrogens (a good way for men to reduce their testosterone), and goitrogens (which reduce thyroid function). Although it contains all of the amino acids of a complete protein, they are not in the correct ratios, making it a poor quality protein source. Other highly processed ingredients include flavors, colors, oils (sometimes partially hydrogenated, i.e. trans fat), and sources of fiber. Some even contain sugar alcohols (maltitol, sorbitol) and non-caloric artificial sweeteners (sucralose, acesulfame potassium). Why put non-nutritive sweeteners in an energy bar?

Fiber is often added to these bars in the form of inulin, a soluble fiber that is partially fermented in the large intestine, causing gas in some people. Quick energy is the goal, but adding fiber can slow digestion, thereby increasing the time it takes for glucose to hit the blood stream and do you some good.

Another drawback to energy bars is cost. A quick survey shows that they cost between $1.29 and $2.29 apiece (Hawaii prices; may be less elsewhere). Taste also leaves something to be desired, especially if you are used to eating real food.

There is one brand of bar that can be recommended—Lara. These bars come in several flavors but all of them contain only fruit, nuts and flavorings, no added sweeteners, oils, fibers or processed grains. However, they tend to be expensive. A better alternative is ‘gorp’ or trail mix. It is a mixture of dried fruit and salty nuts and/or seeds that can be conveniently carried in a small plastic bag and eaten intermittently during a workout. For a better taste make your own. Packaged trail mix tends to taste stale since the nuts absorb moisture from the dried fruit on sitting for long periods. Dried fruit is a concentrated source of sucrose, which provides as much glucose as the highly processed sugars in energy bars, and nuts with their protein, fat (for staying power), and carbohydrate. The salt is necessary to replenish what is lost in sweat. Some people like to add pretzels to the mix. Though highly processed, they do provide easily digestible carbohydrate that breaks down into glucose, and of course salt.

One final note, many of these bars are little different from cookies or candy bars, except that they are purposely low in fat (and you know how I feel about that!). If you need an energy boost while exercising eat whole, minimally processed, real food and skip the overpriced imitations.

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