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Is there a difference between an energy bar and a candy bar? You may be surprised!

‘Energy bars’ can contain as much sugar and fat as a candy bar – it’s a flavorful fact that can derail a diet.

Another word for energy is calories, so the manufacturer might as just well say ‘calorie bar’ as ‘energy bar’.

A calorie is a measurement, just like a teaspoon or an inch, a gram or a millimeter. Calories are the amount of energy released when the body digests and absorbs food.

If you’re eating a whole meal’s worth of calories in a single bar, then they’re surely harmful. But when chosen wisely – and used judiciously – these bars can help busy people stay fueled and combat cravings for a sweet treat. But are they the best portable snack?

If you’re in the market for a bar, avoid bars that have similar ingredients and calories as candy bars. Most of them do.

The first ingredient is a form of sugar (brown rice syrup) and the tiny bar has almost 6 teaspoons (23 g) of sugar.

As reported in FoodNavigator-usa.com, “more than a third of the products contain more saturated fat than a glazed donut from Krispy Kreme.” AJC.com reports that many ‘healthy’ energy bars have more sugar than a Snickers bar, more than 20 grams per bar, more than five teaspoons of added sugar.

Typically sweetened with regular old sugar or high fructose corn syrup, honey or molasses, others, certainly the ‘low-carb’ bars, contain fewer calories because they’re sweetened with no-cal artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. Many also have a laundry list of artificial colors and preservatives.

The protein source for most bars comes from whey, a substance produced from the milk used to make cheese. Others use soy protein, processed from concentrate and other soybean derivatives. And those sugars and sweeteners are absolutely necessary because, in processed form, both whey and soy protein powder taste totally awful.

Protein is a buzzword when it comes to energy bars. As reported in WSJ.com, consumers seeking ‘healthy’ are more likely to look for the ‘protein’ label. But when your protein comes with a generous dose of sugar, artificial additives and preservatives, it somewhat cancels out the heath halo.

Recently, Mars Foods has launched a ‘protein’ spiked Snickers and Mars Bars! Snickers come with 18 grams of protein, Mars with 19, and they both have fewer grams of sugar than the original. How do they boost the protein? With ‘protein blend’ made from ‘hydrolysed collagen, milk protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, and soy lecithin emulsifier. What is ‘hydrolysed collagen’ you might ask? Hydrolyzed collagen is collagen that is derived from cow’s bone and cartilage. Usually, the bone is crushed, ground, defatted, soaked in acid to remove the calcium, soaked again to break the collagen bonds and then dehydrated.

High protein doesn’t equate to ‘healthy’ when the list of ingredients is so long.

Yes, protein is necessary for building and maintaining muscles, and protein helps you feel full longer. However, there are more healthful ways of consuming adequate protein, and more protein doesn’t add up to more muscle or more energy.

The recommendation for grams of protein per day varies depending on your age, weight, activity level, and current health. Most people get adequate protein daily (about 1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight). All animal products ranging from fish and meat to eggs and dairy are good sources of protein — nuts and seeds, legumes and grains are good non-animal sources. There’s even a small amount of protein in vegetables. Click here for a free online protein calculator that will suggest your protein needs based on your height, weight, sex, age, and activity level.

More protein isn’t necessarily better. Excess protein is usually stored as fat, and any surplus of amino acids is excreted. When a single bar may have a third or more of the protein necessary for the average diet, you could be overdoing it — unless you’re cutting back on protein for your other meals.

The bottom line: Read the label before you buy.

Serving size: The very first thing to read on the package label is… serving size (you know that!). All the numbers listed for calories, protein, etc. pertain to the serving size listed. Beware of the scam that manufacturers use to make it appear that the calories and sugar are acceptable — if the serving size is a half-bar, then you need to double all of the numbers.

Calories per serving: Depending on your needs and your eating habits, this number is variable. Click here for a calorie calculator that, like the protein calculator, will give you a daily goal estimate based on your vital statistics.

Grams of fat:  Trans fat should always be ‘0’ grams — read the ingredient label to avoid partially hydrogenated fat. Most manufacturers have replaced trans fats with tropical oils like palm and coconut oil because they are mainly saturated fats and are stable at room temperature. However, environmentalists urge consumers to avoid commercial palm oil — as reported in the UK’s Independent, “the creation of massive (palm) plantations has meant these rich ecosystems have been replaced with monocultures — “green deserts” in which native animals and plants cannot thrive. Burning of forests to make way for palm pollutes the environment, and deforestation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.”

Protein: A good bar will contain about 8-11 grams per serving — one egg or one ounce of chicken has about 6-7 grams.

Fiber: At minimum 4 grams per serving — fiber generally translates to whole grains.

Sugar: No more than 10 grams per serving (2.5 teaspoons) — less is best. NewHope.com services the “healthy lifestyle industry” and writes about nutrition bar manufacturing. They write, “The sweetener system also plays a vital role acting as a glue, binding all of the ingredients. Sweetening agents also serve as the primary source of carbohydrates. Traditional sweeteners include corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup is the main binding component whereas high-fructose corn syrup provides intense sweetness. Powdered corn sweeteners such as dextrose or maltodextrin are often incorporated to aid in binding.”

Other more ‘natural’ sweeteners include brown rice syrup, agave nectar, evaporated cane juice and fruit. All nutritive sweeteners have similar calories and a similar effect on blood sugar.

Artificial sweeteners: Just like regular sugars, sugar alcohols function to create a strong bond with water molecules and allow the bar to retain moisture and stay fresh. Low-cal/low carb bars typically contain maltitol, lactitol, and other sugar alcohols like erythritol, glycerol, sorbitol and/or xylitol. They have about 1.5 – 3 calories per gram compared to sugar’s 4 cals per gram, and are metabolized more slowly than sugar and are touted as appropriate for people with diabetes because they have a smaller impact on blood sugar. The bad news is in the gut — sugar alcohols can cause gastric upset like bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Watch for symptoms and avoid sugar alcohols if you experience any.

Sugar alcohols and other ingredients in nutrition bars can cause gastric upset.

Ingredients first. The best bars contain whole grains, real dried fruit and nuts. Hey! Real nuts and real dried fruits like raisins and apricots are genius energy snacks! They’re nutritious and delicious, and portable too!

A second helping

High cost: The “best” bars can be pretty pricey.

Do they really work? No research supports the notion that an ‘energy bar’ will give you more physical energy than an equivalent number of calories from a handful of nuts and dried fruits.

Processing: Energy bars are highly processed foods, whereas whole, unprocessed foods should be the staples of a healthy diet.

Other ingredients: Some ‘energy’ contain stimulating ingredients like caffeine and guarana and other herbal ingredients. Dietary supplements are not regulated, and they are not tested for potency or safety. Many bars contain carrageenan, a seaweed emulsifier that can also cause

Homemade is best.

stomach/intestinal distress, and glycerine, that’s also a moisture retainer/sweetener. And if you can’t pronounce the name of that additive, definitely leave it on the shelf.

Feedback?

If you have any feedback about your favorite bars or want to share some information on ‘nutrition’ or ‘energy’ bars that more resemble a candy bar, feel free to post a comment or write to me: susanthedietitian@gmail.com