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Energy Bars: Scam or Fallback Plan?

Some people think energy bars are a scam—another one of those foods that we’ve been convinced are good for us but actually aren’t as nutritious as the real thing. To me and to many others, however, they are sometimes the lesser of two evils when faced with junk food. These bars almost seem like virtue in a convenient package. Just how bad are they, both for your body and the environment?

Well, that convenient package is part of the problem. Millions of these foil wrappers end up in the landfill every year. TerraCycle has a recycling programs though on TerraCycle’s site it says you must sign up for a waiting list.

The environmental impact of this faux-food doesn’t stop there. Consider that these are a highly processed food –each of the hard-to-pronounce ingredients has had to be shipped around to pass through many hands , obscure industrial processes, and multiple factories just to produce the “meal in a bar” wolfed down in a few seconds. See a chart rating some energy bar brands according to various criteria, including environment and social responsibility. 

Do these expensive “meals” even do their job? They all do provide some sort of “energy,” in the sense that they contain calories, but many brands are exactly what they look like: glorified candy bars. Studies show that depending on the carb-protein-fat ratio of the bar, it may be no better than a regular meal at controlling insulin levels after meals. Only the high protein versions seem to be slightly better at maintaining a steady insulin level. And none really help with weight loss

So is there a greener, healthier alternative? There are energy bar mixes on the market that would reduce the packaging involved--they seem to at least contain pronounceable ingredients. There are also many energy bar recipes online—none of which I’ve tried, since I tend to get lost in the recipes that are based only on the loosest concept of “energy.” An internet search turned up variations listing corn syrup, pancake mix, chocolate chips, and marshmallows (as far as I’m concerned, the ultimate anti-food) as ingredients. Many of the high protein ones seem to be made mostly out of egg whites and protein powder--which may be an accurate reflection of how appetizing the ingredients of a commercial recipe look--and don't sound very tasty.

On a deeper level, one wonders how these things were ever invented, and why they took off in such a big way. They certainly remove a lot of the pleasure from eating: the ones with better carb/protein/fiber/fat rations don’t really taste like food and they lack the texture and aroma that are integral to a meal. I think there are basically two groups of people, other than athletes, who use energy bars regularly: people who have never read the label and thus don’t know all the funky ingredients and sugar many brands contain; and those who for dietary reasons read every label, and find the list of ingredients and nutrients in black and white reassuring. Sometimes you like knowing a bar is safe and predictable.

For either group, there has to be a recipe for a “convenient” breakfast/snack without a ton of sugar out there. Even if you choose to boost the protein with a protein powder bought in bulk, the environmental impact is probably less than buying all those individual wrappers. It’s just a matter of picking a recipe and trying it, I guess. Until then, a smoothie is a pretty convenient fallback plan for breakfast.

Tags: Diet, Energy bar, Green diet, Nutrition, Packaging, Processed food

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