Energy Bars Little More Than Candy

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It is difficult to enter any local drug store or grocery and not be intrigued by the nutrition bar aisle. Who wouldn't be tempted by such claims as, "PowerBar Harvest, a great way to kick start your day with the natural energy and nutrition that powers world class athletes"? Others are targeted more towards female consumers, ones looking to celebrate life with every bite: "OASIS is the new nutrition bar from BALANCE, designed uniquely for women. OASIS is a delicious nutritious way to embrace life anytime, anywhere." But the ingredients make them sound more like sweet desserts than healthy snacks: "Chocolate Peppermint Stick: A fun, refreshing taste, with real, all-natural crushed peppermint candy inside the soy coating. It's heavenly!" They sound like wonderful, time-saving alternatives to well-balanced meals, but in reality they are little more than mislabeled, glorified candy bars.

The nutrition and energy bar market is a growing industry with sales increasing more than 50% last year. While consumers see them as an invigorating way to get through the day, the term "energy" on the label means nothing more than calories. Although they may be a healthier alternative to an ordinary candy bar because they are lower in fat and have added vitamins and minerals, they still cannot compare with real food. Missing are many of the nutrients of vegetables, fruits, dairy, and whole-grain foods that these bars do not provide.

While the energy bar slogans claim to give you the extra energy you need to run a marathon, research shows that other sources of complex carbohydrates, such as bagels, work just as well. It is not the secret ingredients of the bars that give you energy but rather the amount of calories and carbohydrates and the psychological effects caused by the ads, which invite the consumer to anticipate a burst of activity.

In response to the news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent letters to several nutrition bar manufacturers warning them to stop excluding certain ingredients from their carbohydrate counts, independent analysts at Consumerlab.com tested thirty nutrition bars. They found that 60% of the bars tested did not meet label claims when tested for accuracy on calories, fats, carbohydrates, sugars, proteins, cholesterol, and sodium. The most common problem was undeclared carbohydrates five out of thirty bars exceeded their purported levels of carbohydrates. For example, one bar claimed to have only 2 grams of carbohydrates but was found to have closer to 22 grams. Sugars were also higher than claimed in eight products, by an average of two extra teaspoons. Seven products had more sodium than reported on the label, two had higher than reported levels of fat, and four had higher counts of saturated fat. It appears that the American public is getting more than they bargained for and less than they hoped for in these little bars.

Consumers should also be watchful for nutrition bars that may contain other unexpected ingredients. Some bars include ephedra, a natural stimulant and appetite suppressant that has been linked to numerous deaths in the United States. It can be dangerous for individuals with heart disease, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, hyperthyroidism, and diabetes. According to ConsumerLab.com, "You should also be aware that bars, particularly those for 'energy,' may also include ingredients containing caffeine such as coffee extract, guarana, or even cocoa. Be aware that caffeine can enhance the action and increase the side effects of other stimulants, such as ephedra."

So, the next time you're waiting in line, feeling a little weary, and are tempted to pick-up a PowerBar, do your body a favor and think twice. You might be better off with a cheaper and more nutritious alternative, such as a bagel or a piece of fruit.

Responses:

February 22, 2002

Karen, thanks for your editorial. Is there a way we can check out specific products? I'm interested in New Vision International's 40-30-30 bars. Thanks.

Rita Michael, RN

Schneider replies:

There unfortunately doesn't seem to be a lot of objective information out there on nutrition bars. It is very easy to be overwhelmed by advertisements and retail websites when searching for this topic on the Internet. I do recommend that you check out www.ConsumerLab.com. They extensively researched nutrition bars, and although New Vision's 40-30-30 bar is not among those tested, they offer helpful hints that you can use as a consumer. For one, they recommend you read the label. Of course, many nutrition bars have carbohydrates levels that exceed those reported on the label. The problem is that the manufacturer is not counting glycerin an ingredient that "adds a sweet taste and moist texture" as a carbohydrate even though the FDA considers glycerin a carbohydrate. "Glycerin" will be listed somewhere on the label, most likely in small print.

ConsumerLab found in their testing that manufacturers were accurately reporting the number of calories, and from this you can easily check to see if the product you're considering is labeled correctly:

"To determine if a bar is labeled properly, you may do the following calculation: multiply the listed weight of each component [the amounts found on the label] by the number of calories per gram shown below, and add them together for the total amount of calories.

Carbohydrate (excluding dietary fiber): 4 calories per gram Protein: 4 calories per gram Fats: 9 calories per gram

For example, a product labeled as containing 25 grams of carbohydrates, 15 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fat would have 100 calories from carbohydrates (25x4), 60 calories from protein (15x4), and 45 calories from fat (5x9) for a total of 205 calories."

Also, you should check to see if palm kernel oil is listed among the ingredients. If you are watching your cholesterol, you should know that this oil has twice the saturated fat of lard. Finally, ConsumerLab found that protein bars (the category that New Vision's 40-30-30 would fall into) were the most likely to fail their tests, followed by meal replacement bars and diet bars. It makes it difficult to be optimistic about any of the 40-30-30 bars out there. Another good website for product reviews is www.epinions.com, although this website is geared more towards consumer ratings of taste and texture than to actual laboratory testing.

Good luck!