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Picking an energy bar: Taste versus content

Austin runners Tuhabonye, Secker help test energy bars

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Who doesn't need more energy?

As athletes, we're all looking for something to fuel our workouts and keep us ahead of the pack. It's got to be convenient and taste good, too.

For many folks, though, a few minutes in front of the energy bar display at the grocery store is enough to induce brain cramps. Dozens of bars promise to keep you climbing rocks, running marathons or pumping iron.

So what should you look for when you pick one out?

First, the basics.

Carbohydrates, stored as glycogen, are the most important fuel for exercising muscles. They also provide vitamins, minerals and fiber. Proteins build and repair body tissues, but they're not a primary energy source. Fats are the main storage form of energy in the body, and a major fuel source for light- to moderate-intensity exercise.

Energy bars can be an easy way to get all three.

They're not, however, designed to be eaten as everyday snacks. The calories still count.

"Some people use bars like this as an excuse to eat, thinking, ‘Well, it must be good for me because it's a healthy bar.' But anybody who eats when their body isn't physically calling for energy is going to gain fat weight," says registered dietician Alexa Sparkman, owner of Alexa Sparkman Nutrition Counseling.

The best energy bar for you depends on what you're doing.

"People who are running for a couple of hours, yes, they do need to replace glycogen stores and this is not a bad way to do that. People who go to the gym and walk around the machines for an hour — maybe they don't really need 30 grams of protein," Sparkman says.

Runners and others focusing on aerobic conditioning should look for bars with plenty of carbohydrates. A good balance is 50 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein and 30 percent fat.

Strength trainers who want to build muscle should look for bars with more protein. "Studies show that taking in 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of a workout is going to enhance muscle development," Sparkman says.

Energy bars are mainly used as a quick recovery meal shortly after exercise, but some of the high-carb, cereal-based bars can make good pre-exercise food, too, Sparkman says.

Avoid bars with a high sugar content, and consider the source of the sweetener. Some bars are made with table sugar or high fructose corn syrup; others use organic brown rice syrup, concentrated fruit juice or agave syrup.

Curious about which bars taste best, we sat down with elite runners Gilbert Tuhabonye, 36, and Russell Secker, 55.

Tuhabonye, head of the Gilbert's Gazelles training program and track coach at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, was an All-America runner at Abilene Christian University. He dislikes chocolate and candy, but says he's hooked on peanut butter Clif Bars.

Secker, who last year ran 2,800 miles across six countries in 64 days during the Trans Europe Footrace, usually sticks to real food like baked potatoes, tomatoes and fruit during long distance runs. His philosophy on the run is "Eat early, eat a little bit at a time and eat often."

Both said they'd wait until the end of a run to refuel with an energy bar.

I'm a 46-year-old recreational athlete who swims on an organized team and rides her bike to work most days.

Pro Bar Fruition, blueberry

Top three ingredients: Organic date paste, organic rolled oats, organic brown rice syrup

Size: 48 grams

Calories:160

Fat: 2 grams

Carbohydrate: 34 grams

Protein: 3 grams

Pam: ‘Brown little block. Bits of nuts and unidentifiable white specks. Figgy? Nice fruity taste.'

Gilbert: ‘Looks great, good texture. Tastes good.'

Russell: ‘Looks gritty. Slightly rubbery, but nicely moist. Tastes figgy. Not crumbly equals good!'

Kind Fruit & Nut, macadamia and apricot

Top three ingredients: Macadamia nuts, apricots, honey

Size: 40 grams

Calories: 200

Fat: 14 grams

Carbohydrate:15 grams

Protein: 2 grams

Pam: ‘Looks like real food, but it's sticky. Big pieces of nuts and coconut. Tastes Hawaiian, with a surprising zing.'

Gilbert: ‘Looks like it's fried. Tastes like honey and apricot.'

Russell: ‘Austrian pastry? Tastes apple-y, nutty, honey-ey, coconutty. May be sticky; too crumbly to eat during run. Very nice post-race, though. Would be nice with ice cream on it.'

Bumble Bar Organic Energy Bar, chunky cherry

Top three ingredients: Organic agave syrup, organic sesame seeds, organic cherries

Size: 40 grams

Calories: 180 calories

Fat:12 grams

Carbohydrate:16 grams

Protein: 4 grams

Pam: ‘Flat, not much glue to hold it together. Lots of seeds. And are those dried cherries?'

Gilbert: ‘Looks like bird seed. Good, bitter.'

Russell: ‘Looks like sesame and raisins. Very gooey. Bitter taste in mouth afterward. Raisins not tasty. Uninteresting taste, sweet but nothing memorable. Hard to use during run. Things stuck in teeth.'

Honey Stinger Protein Bar, chocolate-coated Peanut Butta Pro

Top three ingredients: Organic honey, milk chocolate, peanut butter

Size: 42 grams

Calories: 190

Fat: 8 grams

Carbohydrate:19 grams

Protein: 10 grams

Pam: ‘Looks like someone sat on a Milky Way. Dense. Weird chemical afterburn.'

Gilbert: ‘Looks like chocolate candy. I don't eat chocolate.'

Russell: ‘Like a Reese's peanut butter cup, but without the peanutty goodness. Nasty ersatz chocolate flavor. Like last year's Halloween candy.'

Clif Bar, white chocolate macadamia nut

Top three ingredients: Organic brown rice syrup, soy crisps, organic rolled oats

Size: 68 grams

Calories: 240

Fat: 7 grams

Carbohydrate: 41 grams

Protein: 9 grams

Pam: ‘Looks like an old PopTart with frosting drizzled on it. Extremely dense, a few white nuts in there. Tastes better than it looks.'

Gilbert: ‘Looks like crunched-up peanuts. Good texture. Great taste.'

Russell: ‘I like the stripes. Easy texture for eating on the run. A little too sweet, but like the taste otherwise.'

Clif Builder's Protein Bar, chocolate mint

Top three ingredients: Soy protein isolate, beet juice concentrate, organic brown rice syrup

Size: 68 grams

Calories: 270

Fat: 8 grams

Carbohydrate: 31 grams

Protein: 20 grams

Pam: ‘Three layers — cookie, kind of a granola thing and chocolate. Tastes like a Girl Scouts cookie left out too long. Very sweet.'

Gilbert: ‘Looks like chocolate. I don't eat chocolate.'

Russell: ‘Looks like a candy bar, but a little dried out. Mint chocolate chip, slightly stale taste.'

Odwalla Chewy Nut Bar Sweet and Salty Peanut

Top three ingredients: Dry roasted peanuts, brown rice syrup, organic oats

Size: 45 grams

Calories:190

Fat: 6 grams

Carbohydrate: 28 grams

Protein: 5 grams

Pam: ‘Looks like a granola bar. Oat and honey flavor. Too salty.'

Gilbert: ‘Looks like peanut nuts dipped in curry powder. Good texture. Salty.'

Russell: ‘Looks like a Payday candy bar. Holds together well. Sweet and very peanutty. I could eat this during a run.'