Picking A Nutrition Bar

By | August 21, 2007

Fueling your body takes effort. It’s much easier to run out the door without breakfast, stop at a fast food restaurant for lunch, and throw some money in a vending machine for a snack loaded with refined carbohydrates and trans fat rather than taking the time to plan ahead so you are putting high nutrient foods in your “tank,” so to speak. Think about the last time you were on a long trip; did you take some healthy options or did you rely on the myriad of “health foods” that rest areas or planes offer? Maybe at work you’ve been burning the candle at both ends and not doing what it takes to perform at your peak; either physically or mentally. We’ve all probably found ourselves in these types of situations. Fortunately there are options.

When talking with folks about weight loss, weight gain, or just health, I always recommend they are prepared for anything. You never know when you’re going to be driving home from work for a seemingly normal day to go home and eat dinner, when you get a flat. Or maybe there is unexpected traffic from an accident. Next thing you know, you get home one hour later than expected, and you’re now so hungry you’ll eat anything that gets in the way—even if it’s the door to get into the house.

Like meal replacement powders, nutrition bars should be part of your “safety” arsenal and are great as snacks to keep you going in the middle of the day. Plugging in a blender in your car or on an airplane doesn’t always work so well, but pulling a bar out of your glove compartment does. Of course real food is the best option for all meals of the day; I’m not recommending replacing all your real foods with snack bars, but on occasion they can surely make life easier (and healthier) if you compare them to other available options. The only problem with many “nutrition” bars is that they are nothing more than a well-packaged candy bar, that tastes like you’re choking down chocolate covered chalk. So how do you pick a bar that suits your needs?

First or all, just like with foods, take a look at the nutrition label. Remember that the order of ingredients dictates how much of each is in the product. The first ingredient on the label is the one that is most abundant in the product and the further down the list, the less that is actually in there. If trying to gain some lean body mass, pick a bar that provides a good amount of total calories and is a good source of high quality protein. Bars are notoriously high in low quality protein; if hydrolyzed gelatin is one of the first ingredients, put the bar back. Let’s dissect some of the most popular ingredients in many bars.

Here’s a very brief synopsis of a few proteins you may see gracing the sides of bars.

Whey Protein
Before getting into some different components of whey, it’s important to first describe whey protein itself. Whey protein is taken directly from cheese production (think Little Miss Muffet, eating her curds and whey). The product is clarified, to remove the most or all of the fat and lactose, and dried into a white powder. The extent of isolation and purification then determines what type of whey is produced.

Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)
WPC is one of the cheapest methods of whey production, leaving some other non-protein components in the powder in addition to protein itself. When compared to more expensive forms of whey protein, it contains a little less protein per gram, which is why it is less expensive, but this does not make it a useless form of protein. Whey protein concentrate has some specific components in it that are otherwise filtered out with the isolate.

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)
WPI is more expensive because gram for gram, it contains more protein than other forms of whey. It also has higher levels of some immunoglobins and certain amino acids than other forms of whey.

Casein Protein
Casein protein is commonly found in dairy products (think lumps in cottage cheese). Casein is actually the curds part of the separated cheese (Little Miss Muffet apparently wasn’t happy referring to her curds as casein, she preferred to eat her curds and whey because it sounded catchier in the famous children’s poem). Because casein is highest in dairy products, it’s not surprising that it also contains more lactose than whey protein.

Protein Hydrolysates (all inclusive for all hydrolyzed proteins)
Hydrolyzed proteins are ones that have been enzymatically broken down. This process makes the protein more easily digestible because there is less work for your GI tract. Proponents of this form of protein promote its ability to be absorbed more rapidly (because it is essentially pre-digested).

Soy Protein
Soy protein is commonly used in many different bars. Soy offers another unique mix of amino acids. Soy is one of the higher quality plant proteins and its inclusion should not be shunned.

Now, depending on the type of nutrition plan you may be following (e.g., low or high carb), only certain bars may fit into your plan. Some bars include more carbohydrates; here are some of the more popular carbs included.

Whole Carbohydrates
Some of the better bars available use whole oats as a source of carbohydrates; oats are loaded with fiber and nutrients, so they’re great to have in a bar (and should be part of your meal plan, too).

Maltodextrin is a common glucose polymer (chain of glucose molecules) that is one of the more prevalent carbohydrates added to many bars. It is relatively inexpensive, causes a rapid rise in blood sugar (recommended post-workout) and adds sweetness (i.e. flavor).

Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s)
Essential fatty acids are one of the more recent additions to quality bars. They are often added as peanuts, sunflower oil and/or flax seed, although flax seed. EFA’s are typically included to slow the rapid rise in blood sugar following a meal and for their known health benefits.

There are also a few ingredients you need to keep an eye out for and avoid like the plague.

First and foremost is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. Companies often add hydrogenated oils to their products because it is a cheap way to make their product taste good; unfortunately they don’t include a coupon for an angioplasty too because too much hydrogenated oil (which give a nice dose of artery clogging trans fatty acids) is not heart healthy. The American diet is already filled with too many trans fatty acids; when someone is finally trying to make a healthy adjustment, like replacing a fast food meal or vending machine snack with a healthy bar, they would be shooting themselves in the foot. Unfortunately these are found in many bars, but should be avoided like the plague! There is no dietary requirement for trans fats, they are more harmful than saturated fats, they negatively effect blood lipids, and have been correlated to cardiovascular disease risk!

Similarly, high fructose corn syrup is a cheap sweetener used in many products that permeates most of the foods on store shelves. Unfortunately, it has also made its way too many bars. High quality products have never and will never contain such ingredients.

Again, snack bars should not be the mainstay of anyone’s diet, no matter who you are. However, they can definitely make a nice addition for convenience alone – and many of them actually taste great. If you have to hold your nose, jump up and down, and almost pass-out just to choke down your chalky bar, it’s not going to have much benefit due to lack of compliance.

On the contrary, if you have a product that is enjoyable and contains most of the positive aforementioned ingredients discussed, you’re in luck. Remember to read the labels and pick the product that best suits your needs in the categories of taste, convenience, and value.

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