Friday, March 20, 2009

The Energy Bar Standoff

Energy bars sure have come a long way since I first started running in the 80s. I remember thinking the first one I ever ate tasted like a piece of cardboard and I think I chewed on it for hours! Well 20+ years have brought vast improvements to energy bars at least in taste and texture. Recently I saw that Snickers had an energy bar. Because a candy company had entered the energy bar market, I began to wonder how good these bars really are. So, I did a very unscientific study. I purchased several of the popular energy bars and did a nutrition label comparison as well as a taste test. I found some interesting results as well as probably gaining a few pounds.

Shortly after digging into the nutrition label information , I realized I needed to back up and do a little research on fat and calories first. Basically, what I discovered is that you should keep the fat content of your foods to 30% or less or in other words no more than 30% of your daily calories should be from fat. You also need to be aware of the types of fat you're eating such as trans, saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. Trans fats and saturated fats are the bad guys and unsaturated fats are the good guys. No more than 10% of your daily fat intake should come from saturated fats and you should avoid trans fats altogether. The average daily calorie intake for a 30-year-old man is about 2,500 and for a woman the same age, it's about 1,940. A man eating 2,500 calories should eat no more than 83 grams of fat (747 fat calories) of which no more than 8.3 grams (75 fat calories) should be from saturated fat. A woman eating 1,940 calories should eat no more than 65 grams of fat (585 fat calories) of which no more than 7 grams (59 fat calories) should be from saturated fat.

So how does this correlate to an energy bar being good for you or not? Well, basically, the fat calories should be no more than 30% of the total calories and the saturated fat calories should be no more than 10% of the total fat calories. It's very important to look at the types of fat, because a bar could be at the max for total fat calories or maybe even a little over, but if those calories are coming from polyunsaturated and/or monounsaturated fats then that bar is going to be a lot better for you than one that's under the 30% but has over the 10% saturated fat calories.

The chart below shows the nutrition content for 7 major energy bars. For fun, I also included the nutrition information for a popular candy bar—Snickers. The chart reveals that most of the bars hover around having 30% of their calories from fat. Cliff Bar and PowerBar Harvest had the lowest percentage of calories from fat at 18%. The saturated fat content of almost all the bars well exceeded the 10% mark. Optimum Energy Bar was the lowest at 13%. This bar had a fairly high percentage of calories from fat but 87% of the fat calories are from unsaturated fats. Interestingly enough, the Snickers candy bar had a lower percentage of saturated fat than all but two of the energy bars. But, don't run out and stock up on Snickers bars. It still has 26% more saturated fat than it should.

You know it dawned on me that the real magic of an energy bar is its convenience and portability. A banana slathered in peanut butter makes a great energy snack and most likely packs just as much muscle repairing protein and cramp preventing potassium as an energy bar. It's a heck of a lot cheaper too! But, I have to admit, it wouldn't travel too well on a long run. As convenient as energy bars are, they can reak havoc on some runners' digestive systems. So, be sure to test out new bars well before race day.

Which bar is my favorite? Well, taste-wise, Cliff Builders was the best, but it has way too much saturated fat for me. My favorite over-all bar would be the PowerBar Harvest. Still a little heavy on the saturated fats, but its overall percentage of fat from calories was low as well as its total fat content. And, it tastes pretty good too!

There are some great bars out there that pack a lot of energy and/or recovery-rich nutrients, but read the nutrition labels carefully to make sure you're not doing more damage than good.


Denise said...

Great post!! I can't get over how many bars are out's overwhelming!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Denise! I know what you mean. I just selected a few to review. I also discovered that there are a lot of start-up enery bar companies that sell their products only online or only in nutrition and/or sports shops. And there are so many different types of energy bars now—protein bars, recovery bars, goes on and on...

Chris said...

decent amount of saturated fat - it's needed to help your body produce essential hormones.

RunnerDude said...

Good point Chris. Lots of people are scared of fat because they think it's bad. As long as you keep the saturate fat to about 10% of your fat for the day your fine.