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Energy bars are not for dieters. They are for athletes - runners, bikers, climbers, swimmers, football players and anyone else who is more interested in quick fuel than quick weight loss.
Most of these calorie-dense, high-energy snacks pack more than 200 calories into less than 2 ounces - that's more per ounce than a good steak. And, unlike steak, traditional energy bars are high in carbohydrates - our body's most efficient, longest-lasting fuel.
Most bars contain moderate amounts of protein, which the body uses for repairing and rebuilding muscles. Recent additions to the market are several new high-protein bars, apparently developed for consumers who are on the Atkins diet or some other high-protein, low-carb eating plan. And, although most of these bars are low in fat, some contain a balanced combination of 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat. Most have additional benefits such as vitamins, minerals and electrolytes.
The first performance energy bar to hit the market was PowerBar, created in 1986 by an Olympic marathoner. Since then, the market has expanded tremendously. According to PowerBar, consumers bought $600 million worth of energy bars last year. PowerBar comes in 12 flavors and several formulations (including an Energy Bites crunchy snack that got better taste ratings than any of the bars we sampled). Myriad other companies have put out versions of high-energy bars and snacks, including some newer squirt-in-the-mouth gels that aim to help athletes reach high-performance goals.
For consumers facing the range of bars in their supermarkets or athletic stores, two questions reign: How can you tell the difference between the many and various energy bars - and do any of them taste good at all?
For those who don't have the time - or energy, even - to sort through the bars themselves, we offer this guide.
POWERBAR PERFORMANCE BAR
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Oatmeal raisin; Calories: 230; Carbohydrates: 45 grams; Protein: 10 grams; Total fat: 2.5 grams, .5 gram saturated
Flavors available: 12, including cookies & cream, peanut butter, raspberry and cream stripes, cappuccino, wild berry
Aimed at: Those looking for long-lasting fuel - marathoners, bikers, high-performance athletes
Taste: Taste is not the goal here. Even PowerBar spokesman Lance Armstrong doesn't mention the taste in his promotional materials - just the product's efficiency.
POWERBAR PROTEIN PLUS
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Chocolate caramel nut; Calories: 220; Carbohydrates: 26 grams; Protein: 15 grams; Total fat: 6 grams, 4.5 grams saturated
Flavors available: Include chocolate-fudge brownie and vanilla yogurt; layered versions include chocolate caramel nut and strawberry creme; sugar-free versions are also available
Aimed at: Those who want extra protein in their diet for replenishing muscles after strength training
Taste: Our testers' comments ranged from "sludge in a wrapper" to "sweet and strangely hypnotic - I almost ate the whole thing before I realized how nasty it was."
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Strawberry shortcake; Calories: About 110; Carbohydrates: 17 grams; Protein: 5 grams; Total fat: 3 grams, 2.5 grams saturated
Flavors available: Include chocolate-peanut crunch, strawberry shortcake
Aimed at: Those looking for snack-meets-energy bar; has as much calcium as a glass of milk and includes soy protein.
Taste: Crisp and chewy texture covering yogurt or chocolate makes it more appealing than the synthetic-tasting Performance bar
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Double chocolate; Calories: 260; Carbohydrates: 45 grams; Protein: 7 grams; Total fat: 5 grams, 2 grams saturated
Flavors available: Include apple crisp, cherry crunch, peanut butter-chocolate chip, strawberry, plus six dipped flavors
Aimed at: Those who want a natural whole-grain bar with ingredients like oats, fruit and nuts or a long-lasting morning energy bar
Taste: Good, clean flavor; crunchy; better texture than Performance bars
BALANCE, BALANCE GOLD, BALANCE GOLD CRUNCH
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Honey peanut; Calories: 200; Carbohydrates: 24 grams; Protein: 14 grams; Total fat: 6 grams, 3 grams saturated
Flavors available: Eight regular; five Gold; four Gold Crunch. Gold is a three-layer version of the standard bar; Gold Crunch adds texture.
Aimed at: Athletes who are not in the middle of an endurance workout and who want calories split fairly evenly (40-30-30) between carbs, protein and fat
Taste: Gold with crunch is the most appealing of the variations, generally.
ZONE PERFECT BAR
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Chocolate mint; Calories: 210; Carbohydrates: 22 grams; Protein: 16 grams; Total fat: 7 grams, 4.5 grams saturated
Flavors available: More than a dozen, including caramel apple, fudge graham and strawberry yogurt
Aimed at: Those who want an all-natural snack bar; those who want the omega-3 additive
Taste: "Edible, if in a pinch."
ADVANTEDGE CARB CONTROL
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Apple cinnamon; Calories: 210; Carbohydrates: 19 grams; Protein: 26 grams; Total fat: 5 grams, 3 grams saturated
Flavors available: Include chocolate cream pie, chocolate strawberry mousse
Aimed at: Those looking for low carbs but wanting a protein boost for diet or exercise needs
Taste: "Nasty, cross between medicinal and plastic taste."
CARB SOLUTIONS HIGH PROTEIN BAR
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Hazelnut; Calories: 260 (almost half from fat); Carbohydrates: 15 grams; Protein: 21 grams; Total fat: 13 grams, 3.5 grams saturated
Flavors available: Include chocolate-fudge almond
Aimed at: Those on low-carb diets
Taste: Hazelnut "tastes like bad coffee"; medicinal aftertaste
GENISOY PROTEIN BAR
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Arctic frost crispy chocolate mint; Calories: 240; Carbohydrates: 37 grams; Protein: 14 grams; Total fat: 4.5 grams, 3 grams saturated
Flavors available: Eight, including New York style blueberry cheesecake, Southern style chunky peanut butter fudge
Aimed at: Women, especially, and others interested in the health benefits of soy protein
Taste: Disgusting; "No peanut butter or fudge detected, despite bar's name."
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: S'mores; Calories: 180; Carbohydrates: 26 grams; Protein: 19 grams; Total fat: 4.5 grams, 3 grams saturated
Flavors available: 16, including key lime pie, chocolate pecan pie and chai tea
Aimed at: Women who want a bar with fewer calories, soy protein for heart health and calcium
Taste: "Toxic aftertaste," "chewy, one of the better bars"
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Carrot cake; Calories: 240; Carbohydrates: 43 grams; Protein: 10 grams; Total fat: 4 grams, 2 grams saturated
Flavors available: More than a dozen, including peanut-toffee buzz, lemon poppyseed and black-cherry almond
Aimed at: Those who want a more natural bar with ingredients like rolled oats, soybeans and organic soy flour
Taste: Chocolate chip peanut crunch was "tasty" and a "good combination"
WORLDWIDE PURE PROTEIN
Sample flavor, with nutritional content: Blueberry cheesecake; Calories: 190; Carbohydrates: 16 grams; Protein: 20 grams; Total fat: 5 grams, 2.5 grams saturated
Flavors available: Include chewy chocolate chip and blueberry cheesecake
Aimed at: Those who follow low-carb diets or want a protein boost after strength training
Taste: Uncomfortably thick, chewy texture; decent taste
(c) 2003, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.