What Energy Bar is the Best?
A new crop of energy and nutrition bars is vying for your attention at the grocery store. The $3 billion industry is growing, becoming more innovative, and serving up tastier bars. Many of these new selections are promising better nutrition tailored for women who are either on the go or need extra nutrients for working out or pregnancy. But are these new bars all they’re cracked up to be? We looked past the slick wrappers and put the new generation of bars to the test.
Craving an on-the-job snack
It’s 3 p.m. You’re at work—and starving. What should you reach for? Well, if answering e-mails or typing a memo has been your most strenuous activity that day, avoid high-calorie bars, advises ADA spokesperson Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD. That means choosing one containing between 150 to 250 calories.
The PowerBar Pria Complete Nutrition bar ($1.49; at most grocery stores) is a good option. With 170 calories and 11 grams of protein, you can get a healthy energy boost that’ll tide you over till dinner. But beware: These bars aren’t substitutes for real food, so they can’t fly solo as a meal.
Best flavor: Top points go to Clif’s Mojo fruit nut crunch bar ($1.29; at REI, Wild Oats, and select natural-foods stores). (Calories 200, Fiber 3g, Protein 10g, Sugars 11g, Sat fat 1g)
Going for more fruit
Made from raw, natural ingredients, the tastiest new finds in the energy-bar aisle are those that taste like, well, real food. The all-organic Nectar bar from Clif ($1.79; at most grocery stores), gives you two servings of fruit, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid. The LaraBar ($1.69; at Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, and Kroger stores) offers 1.5 servings of fruit in each of its eight flavors, including its newest, Pecan Pie. And the Alpsnack bar ($2.75; at alpsnack.com), also made with whole foods, has a generous dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids from hemp nuts. These bars are delicious but aren’t perfect, with 14 to 17 grams of sugar in many of them.
Best flavor: Clif’s Nectar bar in lemon, vanilla, and cashew should come with a warning—Caution: This is so good you’re going to want to eat more than one. (Calories 160, Fiber 6g, Protein 4g, Sugars 17g, Sat fat 1g)
Energy for a hard workout
If you’re after sustained energy, a low-glycemic-index (GI) bar may be a good choice, says Steve Hertzler, RD, PhD, an assistant professor at The Ohio State University’s Department of Human Nutrition who has done two studies on energy bars. Because a low-GI bar keeps your blood sugar stable over time, you avoid the sugar high and low you might get from sugary bars. After all, who wants an energy crash 45 minutes into a 10-mile hike or intense workout?
Try a Solo bar ($1.99; at Whole Foods Market and GNC stores), any Balance Gold Bar ($1.39; at grocery stores), or one of PowerBar’s new Nut Naturals bars ($1.49; at grocery stores). All three bars are labeled “low-glycemic index,” because they balance protein, carbohydrates, and fat in a way that gives you a sustained energy release. Anything with a good balance of fat and fiber is going to lower the glycemic-index response, Dorfman explains. In other words, trail mix will work just as well as a fancy bar to give you extended energy.
If you love trail mix but still want the convenience of a bar, try the hefty ProBar ($3; at Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats and REI stores); it packs 15 whole foods, or unprocessed ingredients like fruits and nuts, into its compact 3-ounce package. But nibble the ProBar slowly—with 380 calories, it’s a bona fide meal in itself.
For shorter workouts of 30 to 45 minutes, experts say you should eat for quick energy instead of the slow-release energy that low-GI bars provide; any other good energy bar should do the trick.
Best flavor: Our pick is the ProBar, hands-down. We love the yummy dried blueberries and strawberries, nuts, and carob in the Whole Berry Blast flavor. The sugar is on the high side, but you have a little more leeway if you’re working out hard to burn it off. Keep your saturated fat in check, though—more than 3 grams in any bar (including this one) means you should balance out how much sat fat you’re getting at mealtime. (Calories 380, Fiber 6g, Protein 8g, Sugars 20g, Sat fat 4.5g)
Expecting a baby
Seventy-five percent of pregnant women indulge in food cravings, but only 8 percent reach for something healthy, according to a national survey by Kelton Research. With expectant women in mind, bar makers are introducing products designed to satisfy hunger and offer nutrients that pickles and ice cream simply can’t.
Dorfman recommends the Oh Mama! bar (about $1.50; ohmamabar.com) if you’re looking for an occasional fortified snack. It’s tasty (try the Chocolate Peanut Butter), and the amounts of vitamins and minerals aren’t over the top. That’s important because over-fortification can be a concern for pregnant women who take daily prenatal vitamins; their vitamin A shouldn’t exceed 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance, for example.
Other pregnancy bars such as Mommy Munchies (at Motherhood Maternity and Babies R Us), Bellybar (at grocery stores), and Ensure Healthy Mom (at major grocery stores) give you generous helpings of folic acid and other good-for-your-baby nutrients. Oh Mama!, for instance, has more than 100 milligrams of DHA, an ingredient touted for its contribution to babies’ brain development.
Best flavor: Mommy Munchies’ Cinnamon Bun tastes close enough to the real thing. (Calories 180, Fiber 5g, Protein 12g, Sugars 15g, Sat fat 2.5g)
Bar exam: Does your bar pass the test?
No matter what your needs, there are a few things to keep in mind when choosing an energy bar. Many are highly fortified, so you could end up with too much of some nutrients like iron and vitamin A. Look for bars with no more than 100 percent of your recommended daily allowance. Whole foods (raw ingredients like fruits and nuts that aren’t processed and have no added sugar) are best, of course. But if you don’t have time to make a peanut butter sandwich, and you want convenience or a boost of protein and vitamins, here’s what to look for—ideally—in any bar:
- High fiber: At least 3 grams
- Low saturated fat: Less than 3 grams
- Moderate sugar: About 18 grams or less
- No trans fats and hydrogenated oils