Tara Gidus

What's Really in My Energy Bar? Five Ingredients to Know

In any grocery store or convenience store, you'll most likely see an entire aisle devoted to energy bars. High-protein, low-carb, low-sugar—the list goes on. Navigating all of the ingredients can get exhausting! So what should you know?

Energy bars or nutrition bars can offer a healthy and convenient alternative to help meet your calorie, protein, carb and fat needs when food choices are limited or eating whole foods is not an option. Depending on your exercise regimen, energy bars can also provide a great pre-workout boost in available energy or help replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle post-workout. Even though certain energy bars can be useful and healthy, some products contain ingredients that are less than stellar. Take a closer look at these five ingredients the next time you need a grab-and-go bar.

  1. Palm Oil
    • Use of palm oil in processed foods has skyrocketed 60% in the past seven years. After a 2006 FDA ruling that mandated trans-fatty acids to be on the Nutrition Facts label, food manufacturers began increasing imports of palm oil, a naturally trans-fat free alternative.
    • Palm oil is odorless, tasteless and solid at room temperature, making it ideal in processed foods to enhance the texture, mouthfeel, and shelf life.
    • Palm oil is high in saturated fat, which is known to raise LDL cholesterol but is safer to consume at higher amounts than trans-fats. Note: Saturated fats should make up less than 10% of overall energy intake for healthy athletes.
    • Aim for bars rich in healthy fats like whole nuts, nut butters and seeds!
  2. Sugar Alcohols
    • Common sugar alcohols are mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH). Look for –ol at the end of ingredient names, usually it's a sugar alcohol.
    • Used as sweeteners and bulking agents in many sugar-free items.
    • As a sugar substitute, sugar alcohols provide about a half to one-third fewer calories than regular sugar, and are often used in diabetic friendly and diet foods.
    • Eating too many of these sugar alcohols is likely to cause digestive issues such as uncomfortable gas, bloating and diarrhea.
  3. Protein
    • If protein is a priority in your bar, choose bars that use high-quality sources of protein such as whey, whey isolates and micellar casein.
      • - Whey isolate is highest in protein content and commonly found in quality energy bars.
      • - Whey concentrate contains 80% protein in addition to small amounts of fat, minerals and lactose.
    • Whey protein naturally has the highest percentage of branched-chain amino acids including leucine, which plays a large role in muscle protein creation.
    • Whey protein is also quickly digested and absorbed to support muscle growth and repair more effectively than other protein sources.
    • Collagen and gelatin may contribute to protein content in energy bars but are considered low-quality protein, meaning it does not contain all of the essential amino acids the body needs.
    • Keep in mind these proteins are okay in moderation, but I've seen athletes down 2-3 protein bars a day. The best way to boost protein intake is get a bar filled with whole protein rich ingredients like nuts and seeds, and drink with a glass of milk for whey protein instead of relying on processed powders.
  4. Fiber
    • Obtaining enough fiber in the diet helps maintain a healthy digestive system and helps lower cholesterol, control blood sugar, and supports weight loss or maintenance.
    • Too much fiber pre-workout can cause bloating, gas or diarrhea and leave you feeling too full during a run. Bars lower in fiber (about 5 grams or less) may be helpful in reducing these common symptoms.
    • Post-workout, fiber is beneficial in increasing the feeling of fullness and curbing appetite.
    • Dietary fiber is natural and should be obtained through eating foods like nuts, seeds and beans. Often energy bars are lurking with synthetic fibers like inulin, maltodextrin, and polydextrose that can lead to gas and bloating, and may not have the same health benefits.
  5. Added Sugars
    • While sugar is needed to provide the "glue" and keep the energy bar from falling apart, make sure that your bar is not loaded with added sugars.
    • Some sugars are natural like the ones found in dried fruits—dates, cherries, raisins, apricots are common fruits and the healthiest sugars found in energy bars.
    • Check the ingredient list on the nutrition label! Foods are labeled in order of largest to smallest quantity in the product. If added sugar is one of the first three ingredients put the bar back.
    • Other names for added sugar: Brown Rice Syrup, Agave Nectar, Honey, Maple Syrup, Beet Sugar, Barley Malt, Date Sugar, Corn Syrup Solids, Fructose, Glucose and the list goes on.

While energy bars can be a convenient snack, some can be as rich as a candy bar, so check the ingredient list. If you want to know first hand the ingredients that go into your energy bar, try my Peanut Butter Pistachio Energy Bites recipe!! Questions or comments tweet me @DietDivaTara.

Known as the "Diet Diva," Tara Gidus is a nationally acclaimed nutrition expert and the official nutritionist of runDisney.