Power bar, protein bar, energy bar, whatever you want to call them, at the end of the day, the majority of them are some kind of sugary, oily, soy-laden combo that’s supposed to taste like banana bread or a mint julep. Bar-fiends stock up on their coveted performance boosters at Wal-Mart (10 for $10), collect the more heady versions at health food stores, or order primo specialty bars through a rep who is also on their Monday night cycling team (you know the kind, the pyramid-scheme, shove-it-down-your-throat-type). But no matter where you purchase these perfectly rectangular, real food substitutes— a lot of the time, they’re not good for you. There are three main red flags when it comes to bars: high sugar, inflammatory fats, and processed GMO soy. Let’s take a closer at them, see which real foods are better choices, and find out how easy it is to make your own.
High Sugar Content:. The American Heart Association has specific guidelines for added sugar —about six teaspoons of added sugar for women and nine for men (a teaspoon of sugar equates to four grams). Sugar has zero nutritional value. In fact, in order to metabolize sugar, nutrients like energy promoting B vitamins are used up while immune system compounds like phagocytes are decreased. Sugar is an enemy to the body. Period. There are around 40 different names for sugar, and energy bars often have four to five different types of sugar in them. For example: the first ingredient in a bar I looked at is organic brown rice syrup, followed by barley malt extract, then three separate listing of organic evaporated cane juice. This bar has a total of 23 grams of sugar. Better choice? A banana and a handful of almonds – no added sugars, packed with potassium and vitamin E.
Inflammatory Fats: Every time you see canola oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, corn oil, or vegetable oil on a label you can be assured two things. First, unless specified as organic (or is labeled non-GMO on the label), assume the oil comes from a genetically modified food, and second that it’s been processed with petroleum derived solvents and bleaching agents. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. It is just about impossible to find a processed food these days that does not contain one or more of these oils. The additional nutrition nightmare with these oils is that they fall into the omega-6 fat category. A healthy diet contains a 2-to-1 balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids (think wild caught salmon and walnuts) help reduce inflammation, while omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation if consumed in large amounts. The typical American diet tends to contain close to 22 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids and here’s where athletes will see increased risk of injury and slower recovery times.
GMO Soy: Monsanto's genetically modified (GM) soy is grown on 91 percent of US soybean fields, so unless your bar reads organic, or GMO free, then assume it’s a modified food. Again, you’ll be hard pressed to find proteins bars that don’t contain soy protein or lecithin. Here’s the rub: repeated animal studies preformed worldwide have shown drastic drops in fertility and increased reproductive disorders in animals fed GM soy. Researchers have also found that the pancreatic cells of mice fed Roundup Ready soy produced significantly less digestive enzymes, and that mice fed GM soy were found to have altered young sperm.
Whole foods or those products that have less than five ingredients will always be a better choice for fueling your body. However, if you are still looking for the convenience of a bar-type food, you can make your own. This way you can control the ingredient list and flavor. You really only need a food processor, tasty ingredients, and a creative mind.
Chia Chocolate Spice Energy Bars
If you haven’t heard of chia seeds yet (yes, the same ones used in the 90s Chia Pets), then get to know them. Very high in omega 3 fats – higher than flax – and a great source of protein and antioxidants chia seeds may very well be the perfect food for an athlete.
3/4 cup pitted dates
1/2 seeded jalapeno pepper
1/2 cup sprouted or cooked buckwheat (a gluten free grain)
1/4-cup organic raw cacao powder
1/4-cup chia seeds
1/4 cup Brazil nuts (great source of antioxidant selenium)
Sea salt to taste
Process everything in a food processor until well blended. Spoon contents into a parchment paper lined baking pan and flatten into desired depth. Cover and freeze overnight. Slice into desired sized bars, individually wrap and store in the freezer.
Jess Kelley is a Master Nutrition Therapist and has a private practice in Durango, Colorado. She is also the Managing Editor of Edible San Juan Mountains Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.