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DIET BARGAINS
Energy bars: Quick pick-me-up, or a recipe for disaster?


A Popular Product
When PowerBars debuted in 1987, with their strangely dense and chewy texture, they were marketed as fuel for athletes. But their convenience -- a one-handed pick-me-up with a healthy reputation (however debatable) -- quickly caught on with busy executives and frantic moms.

Now, a trip to your grocery store reveals entire aisles of different bars, marketed to those looking to pump up their protein intake, to lose weight, to add vitamins and minerals and to pinch-hit in a no-time-for-lunch crunch. In 2002, U.S. sales of nutrition bars grew about 30 percent; sales are expected to double from current sales of about $1.6 billion by 2006. "Such a huge growth rate is not something that many product categories ever experience," says Patrick Rea, research director of Nutrition Business Journal, a San Diego-based market-research publication. "Obviously, the makers of these bars have hit on the right combination of price, taste and convenience."

Few nutritionists will argue against the value of nutrition bars to athletes and exercisers who need a portable pre-workout meal. But some non-athletes see them as a kind of magical supplier of energy and vitamins, forgetting that along with the nutrients comes a not-insignificant number of calories. Sure, nutrition bars are better than the kind of empty-calorie foods busy people often turn to when there's no time for a proper lunch, like a candy bar or a bag of chips, says Roxanne Moore, RD, a Baltimore-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). But you can also get quick energy from a piece of fresh fruit, for example, which is equally portable and probably healthier.

But don't kid yourself. "Many energy bars are just glorified candy," says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Food & Mood (Henry Holt, 1999). "They're highly processed, and you're not going to find the thousands of disease-preventing phytochemicals you'd find in fruits and veggies."

Good in Moderation
Still, if you choose wisely, these bars can make smart snacks. Certain bars can be a good way to get a boost of, say, calcium or folic acid, especially if you're having trouble getting enough of a particular vitamin or mineral into your diet. But be careful if you're a daily energy bar consumer, because you actually may be getting too much of certain vitamins and minerals. If you have an energy bar, eight ounces of fortified orange juice and a multivitamin for breakfast, you probably have already overshot some of your nutrient needs for the day, which can have negative health consequences. For example, too much vitamin A can lead to liver damage, and too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea. And calcium or iron, even mildly in excess, can cause constipation or gastric discomfort. Additionally, many nutrients compete with each other in the digestive tract, so consuming too much of one decreases absorption of the other. "You really need to look at the whole diet and remember to consume balanced meals to feel and look your best," advises Moore.

And if the extra energy promise of ginseng or another added herbal ingredient appeals to you, beware. "Number one: There isn't much data to show that any of these herbs are really all that effective," warns Althea Zanecosky, RD, a Philadelphia-based spokeswoman for the ADA. "Number two: There aren't any standards for how much herb is really in these bars or how much is safe."

In fact, there are very few standards placed on nutrition bars at all, and they are not routinely tested before sale by the FDA or by any other federal agency. Manufacturers simply are required to comply with certain labeling laws -- but they don't always do that, either. In 2001, an independent testing company analyzed energy bars to see if the amounts of calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein, sugars, and sodium matched the amounts indicated on the labels. The results? Sixty percent of the bars tested failed to meet their label claims. The biggest discrepancies were in the high-protein category. Some of the labels indicated that the bars were "low-carb," but there really is no definition for what that means. Several companies, including Atkins Advantage, failed to identify glycerin as a carbohydrate (the FDA defines it as such). Since the release of the report, Atkins has changed its labels. The new packaging includes glycerin in the total carb count but also bears a seal advertising a low number of "net carbs" -- those that supposedly affect blood sugar levels.

Best of the Bars
Whether you want a pre-workout snack or a quick meal when lunch is out of reach, you want a bar that does the job. Start by looking for one in your calorie budget that is low in saturated fats and simple sugars. Compare labels. Look at total fat, then look at saturated fat. Fat calories should be 30 percent or less of the total. Same goes for sugars: Look at total carbs and sugars. Sugars should not comprise most of the carbs, and look for a bar that offers 3 to 5 grams of fiber per 200 calories. Key words in the ingredient list can also tip you off: High fructose corn syrup, glucose, sucrose, brown sugar, and honey are all simple sugars. Hydrogenated vegetable oil is a trans fat (which may raise levels of bad cholesterol), and coconut and palm oils, despite their vegetable origin, are potent sources of heart-harming saturated fats.

You also want a bar that will deliver the appropriate balance of carbohydrates and protein for your intended use. Unless your goal is to gain weight (or you're a competitive weight lifter), you can probably pass by the super-high protein bars, says Moore. "In general, people get more than enough protein in their diets," she says. (That's 50 to 70 grams for a 130-pound woman.)

If you're looking for a meal replacement, go for a bar that's more balanced in carbs and protein than one with a higher proportion of carbohydrates, suggests Moore. "The protein helps slow down digestion, which may keep you feeling satisfied longer," she says. Any of the bars marketed as 40-30-30 formulations (40 percent of total calories from carbohydrates and 30 percent each from protein and fat) will work for this purpose, as will some of the soy-based brands. For appetite control, look for 200 calories for the bar, and around 15 grams of protein.

But if you want quick fuel, that's the time to go for a bar high in carbs. "Carbohydrates are digested and absorbed quickly," says Moore. "They're better for people who are actually doing physical activity and don't want slowed-down digestion."

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