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ATLANTA _ Wherever you go, there they are. In supermarkets, health food stores and sporting goods shops.
Called energy bars, protein bars, power bars or cereal bars, they are conveniently packaged in individual servings for on-the-go eaters. Variably marketed as breakfast foods, meal replacements, dieters' supplements or power boosters for athletes, the bars seek to fill different nutritional niches: Some offer high carbohydrates, some high protein, some a balance of both.
No matter the nutritional angle, they all send comforting messages of good, clean living. And American consumers have responded with enthusiasm. But depending on the bars they choose, they could be countering their dietary goals.
According to an article in this month's Consumer Reports magazine, the nation spends about $1.4 billion per year on brands including PowerBar, Clif, Clif Luna, Carb Solutions, Atkins Advantage and Ultra-Slim Fast.
"They're the Egg McMuffin for the health set," said Chris Rosenbloom, associate dean of Georgia State University's College of Health and Human Sciences. '`They're something you can eat with one hand _ in the car, on the cellphone, et cetera.''
What it's all about is convenience,'' said Dianne Busenbark, a member of the technical sales staff at Phidippides, an Atlanta running equipment store that has been selling energy bars since they first hit the market in the late 1980s.(Runners) don't have to pack a bagel or take a banana and let it get squished in their fanny pack. ... They drop their dollar-fifty and get their PowerBar, and then they're on their way.''
Marlene Thomas, a running enthusiast who lives in Marietta, Ga., can relate; she always keeps PowerBars within reach.
I carry them in the car, they're in my running bag, they're in the kitchen, they're everywhere,'' she said.If I get hungry, I just open up a PowerBar. It's better for you than fast food.''
Originally marketed as a carbohydrate boost for runners and other serious athletes, the product's nutritional mission has become muddled as its popularity has spread to other consumer groups.
It used to be, the people who were buying these things were the ones who were out every day for an hour or two,'' Busenbark said.But now it's like a snack'' that's enjoyed by far more casual athletes, she observed.
`They know they're working out, they feel like,I'm doing something, I deserve something.'''
But the problem with that reasoning, say nutrition experts, is that most people do not need the extra calories offered in so-called energy bars. And bars marketed as meal replacements may not provide the same quality of nutrition, or hunger satisfaction, as real food.
To a nutritionist, energy just means calories. But if they called them calorie bars, no one would buy them,'' said Rosenbloom, a longtime nutrition consultant for Georgia Tech and Georgia State athletes.For people trying to lose weight who are going to the gym or aerobics a few times a week, I'd stay away from all of these energy bars. They're probably going to sabotage your efforts.''
Many of the brands marketed as meals on the run _ called cereal, nutritional or breakfast bars _ are high in sugar and low in fiber, noted Rosenbloom.
A lot of these are basically candy bars,'' she said.They may be fortified with vitamins and minerals, but they may be similar as far as fat and calorie content.''
Information printed on the packages for Special K breakfast bars indicates they are virtually identical, nutritionally speaking, to packaged Rice Krispies Treats; both are low in fat, but high in sugar and offer little in terms of vitamins and minerals. A gram-for-gram comparison between Quaker Chewy Trail Mix bars and 3 Musketeers candy bars suggests that although the Quaker bar has slightly more protein and significantly less sugar, the two have very similar caloric, total carbohydrate and fat contents.
Still, if the choice is between grabbing a fortified snack bar on the go and skipping breakfast, only to buy a candy bar two hours later, then the snack bar is a far better choice, said Mollie Katzen, a nationally known advocate of healthy eating and author of the new breakfast cookbook ``Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Cafe'' (Hyperion).
You go from feeling like having nothing to eat to feeling like eating the walls,'' she said of the classic breakfast-skipper.Going from those blood sugar swings is really not that healthy.''
Katzen said she designed the recipes in her book to feed her busy family but admitted that she keeps some packaged nutritional bars on hand too, for emergencies.
What is it you get at work?'' she asked.Is it something out of a machine? Or a pastry you get with your coffee? I can guarantee you those have more calories and less food value than something you take with you.''
Of course, some bars offer better nutritional value than others. Although athletes generally consider PowerBars a carb-booster _ the chocolate peanut butter flavor offers about 45 grams of carbohydrates, 20 of them from sugar _ they also have a fair amount of protein: about 10 grams, the equivalent of a cup of yogurt. That could be helpful information for the healthy-snack set.
``People always ask, which nutrient is most important? They're all important,'' said Rosenbloom. Roughly 15 percent of total daily calories should come from protein, 30 percent to 35 percent from fat and 50 percent to 60 percent from carbohydrates, she said.
Over the years, Katzen's dietary philosophy has evolved from a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet to a more balanced mix of protein, complex carbohydrates and high-quality (unsaturated and non-trans) fats.
So, when shopping for healthy snacks for her family, she considers total calories, fiber content and protein content. She also tries to avoid trans fats, such as hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Like Katzen, Sonia Genovesi, a racewalker who prefers bars with protein. She says she eats Balance bars every day _ not during her workout, but as an afternoon snack or after-exercise boost.
I'm a vegetarian, so I never get enough protein,'' she said.I eat enough carbs anyhow.''
A former marathon runner, Genovesi said she has tried every brand out there and prefers Balance bars _ especially the yogurt and honey peanut flavors _ for their low sugar content, high protein and palatable texture.
``We went through enough to find out which ones go down the best, because a lot of them do taste bad or go down very dry and you gag on them when you're trying to swallow,'' she said.
Katzen has a suggestion for those who find packaged bars hard to swallow: Make them at home. Homemade bars are amazingly simple and endlessly variable, she said, so they can be customized to provide high-quality carbs for the serious athlete or a balanced snack for the seriously hungry.
When you've eaten one of these bars,'' she said,lo and behold, you've eaten some actual nutrition that can hold you over until lunch.''
Deborah Geering writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Cox News Service