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January 2001 Issue
Energy Bars: Just Expensive Candy Bars?
by Michael Fick
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We baby boomers grew up on candy bars, oblivious to their unhealthy nature. But we're enlightened now, and it's paying off. The huge surge in heart disease fed by the postwar (that would be WWII, Generation X-ers) success of processed foods, especially junk food, has declined since we've recognized the threat. Now those who read and heed nutrition labels on almost every food they buy have cut way back on junk foods such as candy, and are living longer and healthier lives than those who choose not to. Those who also exercise regularly earn a "much" in front of "longer and healthier".

Processed food market analysts, who largely determine what goes on the grocery shelves, quickly recognized our emerging health enlightenment as a cash cow. They saw two huge, distinct demographic groups of customers emerge:

  1. those who exercise more and eat less junk food and
  2. those who know they should exercise more and eat less junk food.
Market analysts make careers out of creating niches and/or products to fill them, and saw this as a no-brainer: re-package, re-name, and re-target candy bars for health-aware consumers, both exercisers and wannabes. Proclaim it healthy, associate it with exercise, jack up its price, and rake in the moola (i.e., the mating call of the cash cow).

We fell for it hook, line, and sinker. If a bar has words such as energy, granola, power, strength, muscle, fiber, zone, protein, marathon, sports, diet, or BUY THIS BAR on it; if it's packaged in a space-age, child-proof plastic wrapper; if its price is in dollars rather than cents; and if it's sitting under our nose while we stand in line at the grocery or sporting goods store checkout counter, we're hooked. We're going to presume it's no longer a candy bar. That it's somehow healthy. That it's -- excuse me, but I (and the marketers) are laughing so hard that we must stop to breathe -- actually a pocket-sized, balanced meal. Or ... hoo, hoo, ha, ha, ho, ho, hee, hee -- get this -- that it's a unique source of clean-burning energy that can't be obtained from real food. That it's energy without calories.

I gotta stop! I'm outta breath! And the marketing gurus? Why, when their Gucci bars' sales took off several of them had heart attacks from laughing so hard and whooping, "We're rich, I tell ya -- RICH!" Sales of "energy bars" and the newer gels (Are we really that stupid? If we're going to eat donut jelly, we should DEMAND the donut be wrapped around it!) rose thirty times faster than candy bar sales in 1999.

The buggars who market these things deserve their heart attacks, or at least a little angina every time they climb a flight of stairs. They knew these were just candy bars with fancier labels and higher prices wrapped around the same old sugar and fat. They knew no food provides energy without calories. They knew food energy is defined by its calorie content, right down to three decimal places and to the moleclar level. They knew their careers depended on finding or creating a new market for stuff their employers could manufacture. They knew if they made these things taste bad enough we'd presume they're healthy. And they knew enough to literally bribe stores to display their repackaged junk food by the checkout counter.

At this pace, we'll soon see a 7/8th-ounce candy bar hermetically sealed in holographic mylar, advertised during the Super Bowl two-minute-warning timeout, sold only in finer jewelry stores, and labeled "Hook, Line, and Sinker Bar: $8; with organic peanuts, $15". We'd clean them out!

There's more sugar than all other ingredients combined in virtually every bar on the market. Whether it's called "high energy corn syrup", maltodextrose, pear juice, or molasses, it's still just sugar. Some forms of sugar hit our blood streams sooner than others, but every one of them still dumps four calories per gram -- about 120 calories per ounce -- into our bodies. For even higher energy (aka calorie!) density, here comes da fat. It's packing nine calories per gram, or about 270 calories per ounce, and if it's saturated fat it goes right to our artery walls after a detour through our liver. (Our arteries were intended as pipelines, not waste repositories.) And even though these bars may be small, it's food's mass (weight), not size, that counts. A gram is a gram, whether compressed into a tar bar or fluffed into popcorn.

We're so gullible. We make so many processed-food marketers -- then diet gurus, doctors, undertakers, probate lawyers, and wheedling heirs, in that order -- unnecessarily rich.

But there really is a pony buried under all this hype. In their eternal quest to keep finding and creating new market niches, candy bar marketers have come up with a revolutionary idea and stooped to new heights: they've actually designed some bars that are safe, adequate, overpriced, almost healthy substitutes for a very small snack of real food. A few of the high-carbo bars are low in saturated fat and contain enough fiber to mitigate their sugar injection rate. They do fuel physical exertion (that's what calories are for), although only after at least an hour's digestion delay. Of course, a simple bagel provides an equivalent performance boost, and a tired marathon runner wants its quicker blood sugar surge.

Carbo bars segue into the "breakfast bar" marketing niche of "people too harried to eat breakfast". [Sidebar: Isn't that sad? We've fasted all night (get it? "Break-fast"?), and yet we consider getting to some lousy job more urgent than enjoying what could be a sensual gastronomic foundation for the rest of our day. Think how many people wait 'til they retire to discover that healthy pleasure they've missed for 60 years.] Compare breakfast bars to any real breakfast, from a mixing bowl full of Raisin Nut Bran buried under a mound of fresh fruit, walnuts, cinnamon and honey to grilled chicken, candied yams, and crunchy broccoli smothered in low-fat cheese, and you'll notice a common thread in breakfast bars: there's nothing there! Just some white flour, part of a three-cent vitamin pill, and some fruit-flavored sugary glop. Jeez -- whack! -- you coulda had a V-8 ... and a heap of homemade low-fat lasagna or a salmon/bell pepper/chile pepper omelet on a bed of fresh spinach -- 5 minutes to fix (you chopped the peppers or made the lasagna last night) and 20 to savor, and it lasts 'til lunch. What enlightened adult would prefer a Pop Tart to that? People who prefer the texture and taste of these things to those of real food might consider cooking lessons or a better restaurant, and people too harried to eat real food might consider a better -- and likely longer -- lifestyle.

Another niche is the so-called diet bar. Its primary fallacy lies in its high calorie density (about 100 cal/oz), which does not promote weight loss because it does not trip our satiety trigger even with its usual glass of water. Some also have way too much saturated fat to be called a diet bar. Some of the balanced 40/30/30 (their percentages of carbos, protein, and fat) bars also get their fat from the saturated fat. High-protein bars? For what? Non-vegetarians eat too much protein anyway, and even body-builders do better on real food than on the "Pump You Up" bars. Supplement bars? Why not enjoy a delicious light meal instead, and if you feel some burning desire for a supplement, pop a 3-cent vitamin pill with it? And, oooooh, what about the brain food bars that help us think, remember, make love, or play the piano better? Yeah, right. Even if ginkgo or ginseng does ultimately prove to aid the "quality" (what's that?) of memory, researchers say the amount in these bars appears impotent. And now that we've raised that topic, do you really think a new incarnation of the term "oyster bar" -- an oyster-sawdust mulch requiring shears to unwrap -- is going to help set any moods?

OK, so some bars, maybe a large handful out of the hundreds on the market, are fairly healthy snippets of food. To spot them, read the labels. If it has just a gram or two of saturated fat, an occasional bar will do no harm. If it has at least three grams of fiber, it probably has some actual nutrition beyond just calories, and probably won't spike your blood sugar. If you're comfortable spending $2 on 25 cents' worth of manufactured food substitute and/or occasionally urgently need the undeniable convenience and portability of these calorie bombs, feel free. Just realize that even if you study the labels and depend only on the healthiest faux food bars for much of your nutrition, you'd still be missing countless vital micronutrients Mother Nature packs in real food but food engineers do not.

If my dream comes true -- that I get six months' warning of my demise so I can catch up on the 50 years' worth of junk food I will have avoided to achieve that 50 years -- it surely won't be these astronaut sustenance spinoffs I gorge on. Food should be designed by Mother Nature, Martha Stewart, or at least Sara Lee, not by NASA or Black & Decker. I'd rather expire with -- not because of - a mint chocolate caramel cheesecake sundae on my chin and a double cheese Big Mac in my belly than with sugared sawdust bar shards in my teeth.



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