When energy bars first appeared on store shelves in the late 1980s, they were marketed as fuel for athletes, but now Americans of all activity levels plunk down more than a billion dollars a year on the bars, considered energy-boosting meals on the move.
The energy bars often sit beside candy bars on store shelves.
"Some are not much different than candy bars, but they should have less sugar and less fat, " nutritionist Heidi Skolnik said. "You really have to look at the label. Energy bars are simply a portable way to deliver energy in the form of calories."
They can be a helpful part of your diet, but be careful if you eat more than one per day, she said.
"Bars contain fortified nutrients, which if you have an energy bar, eight ounces of fortified orange juice and a multi-vitamin for breakfast, you have already overshot many of your nutrient needs for the day, " she said. "And you can have too many vitamins. Too much vitamin A can lead to liver damage."
Sports Bars Heavy on Carbs
There are several main types of energy bars: meal replacement, snack bars and sports or power bars, and each have different characteristics and purposes. But be wary, even if you read the label.
There are very few standards placed on nutrition bars. In 2001, an independent testing company analyzed energy bars and found that 60 percent of the bars tested failed to meet label claims concerning calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein, sugars, and other ingredients.
Sports bars, which include brands like PowerBar, Gatorade bars, Clif Bars and PowerBar Harvest bars are recommended for athletes before, during or after exercise.
They usually contain anywhere from zero to 10 grams of protein, about 40 to 50 grams of carbohydrates, two to six grams of fat, and anywhere from 200 to 500 calories. They are high in carbohydrates, which are digested and absorbed quickly and do not slow down your digestive system as you exercise.
Subbing for a Meal
Another type of bar — meal replacement bars — should contain around 300 calories, with 20 grams of protein, Skolnik said. MetRx, which comes in flavors like chocolate graham, is one brand of this type of bar.
Experts say you should look at the ingredients to determine the quality of the protein. You want the protein source to be soy, milk, whey or egg. You do not want it to say collagen or gelatin. Too much protein can mean a chalky taste.
You should also look for about three grams or more of fat in the meal replacement bars.
Are they really healthy enough to replace a meal? If you are choosing between a meal replacement bar and a danish, the bar is better, though it does depend on what meal you are eating the bar for, Skolnik says. A meal replacement bar would not be enough for dinner. It is about the equivalent of a 3-ounce piece of chicken breast.
Snack type energy bars include Pria Bar, Balance Bar, Luna Bar and SlimFast bar, Skolnik said. They contain between 100 and 200 calories, 5 to 15 grams of protein, 16 to 26 grams of carbohydrates and three to six grams of fat.
"They are usually moderate in the amount of protein, carbs and fat contained, " Skolnik said. "Fat calories should be 30 percent or less. But you have to be careful, if you are snacking on these things all day, it can really add up. They should have 5 to 15 grams of protein, carbs are going to be around 16 to 26 grams and fat is 3 to 6 grams."
It is the nutritional equivalent of about two glasses of milk or half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.