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The Lean Plate Club: Sally Squires

Belly Up To the Bars

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; Page HE01

They provide the promise of a quick portable meal, an afternoon energy boost or a way to eat healthfully while traveling.

Born in the world of competitive athletics, nutrition/energy bars have moved into the mainstream: These days they're often gobbled by sedentary desk jockeys rather than solely by the mountain climbers and elite athletes who first made them popular. Sales of the bars are projected to reach more than $3 billion in the United States this year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, a California publication that tracks the food industry. Companies from Atkins to the Zone have gotten into the act.

(Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)

Bar Fight

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So what exactly do these bars provide nutritionally?

"There's nothing magic in them," said registered dietitian Nancy Clark, author of the "Sports Nutrition Guidebook" (Human Kinetics). "Even though they're marketed to be easily digestible or an energizer, another snack would do that. Many people think that anything wrapped in a package is magic in terms of enhancing performance, but they're just 200 expensive calories."

One appeal of energy bars, of course, is convenience. They don't require refrigeration and are unlikely to spoil or crumble for months, making them ideal for tucking in a purse, briefcase, backpack or gym bag.

Just don't expect them to offer a nutritional advantage. Energy bars often boast of their high protein, but they often also pack added sugars and saturated or trans fat. The Clif Bars that Clark keeps in her desk have 12 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbohydrates and 250 calories "They're absolutely delicious," she said, munching on one during a recent interview. "They have chocolate and frosting and fudge and Rice Krispies. But who am I fooling? This is sugar-coated protein with vitamins added to it."

Compare that to a glass of skim milk and a medium banana (10 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbs, 185 calories) which has about the same nutritional value as that Clif bar.

Most bars, at $1 to $3 each, will cost as least twice as much as the banana and milk. And while energy bars are increasingly billed as meal substitutes, "they're not really big enough for a meal replacement," Clark said. "You'd need to eat two to three of them" to feel full.

Except that you might not want to, based on a recent and decidedly unscientific Lean Plate Club taste test of a dozen leading energy bars. Even the best-rated bars, including one from a major candy maker, averaged only modest scores for taste. Many fared much worse. [See results in the chart below.]

Asked whether they would purchase any of the bars as a snack or meal replacement, most participants said not a chance -- unless, of course, they were starving.

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