What’s really inside energy bars – and do they give you energy?
You can find a simple and nutritious snack bar without additives, even Irish ones
Not all energy bars come without added sugar. Photograph: Getty Images
A modern supermarket is a hunter gatherer’s delight. Or it is if you assume that they would love to have found their favourite fruit, nuts, berries and seeds made up into handy bars and neatly packaged ready to cart along on hunting trips.
Nestling alongside expensive additive-ridden “protein” bars are energy bars that tend to be better value and of superior quality. There are even Irish ones such as Acti-Snack from Kestrel Foods in Co Armagh and Karma-Free from Shanvally Innovative Food Company in Co Mayo.
The packaging on the Acti-snack fruit and seed bars is so plain I struggled to find them on the shelf, but I’m glad I did. The front of the label says the bar is “high in fibre, high in potassium, gluten and additive free, a source of vitamin B” and has “no added sugar”. Usually this is marketing speak that indicates you are buying a bar to which the manufacturer has added minerals, vitamins, artificial sweeteners and extra fibre.
In this case, turn over the product and you find just four ingredients: banana (35 per cent), dates (30 per cent), mango (25 per cent) and chia seed (10 per cent). This means that any vitamins and minerals you get come from the fruit and seeds, not from synthetic additives. The nutrition label shows it is more than half sugar but that is balanced out with good levels of fibre – all thanks to the fruit.
The nutritional information is given for 100g only and not per bar, which is 35g. It highlights in orange lettering that the product has “potassium 820mg (41 per cent NRV)” and “vitamin B6 0.3mg (21.4 per cent NRV)”.
NRV is nutrient reference value. This means that the average healthy person eating 100g of this Acti-snack product – or a little more than three bars – would consume 41 per cent of the potassium needed each day to prevent them suffering from deficiency. So it’s not a therapeutic amount, but it’s nice to know.
KarmaFree bars ladle on the marketing speak on the front. The product is “wheat free; dairy free; no added sugar; vegan-friendly” and “includes superfoods”. But don’t let that put you off. The list of ingredients in the Cocoa Orange bar is enticingly simple: dates, cashew, raisin, cocoa (5 per cent) and natural orange flavouring (0.4 per cent). It does not say which one is the “superfood”, but who cares? It also says it is a “source of fibre” and “monounsaturated fats” thanks only to the ingredients.
The Cocoa Orange bar has “less than 110 calories per bar”, which is the about same number as in the Acti-snack.
The Karma bars are made in Ireland and have the “Love Irish Food” label. Better yet, the plastic-looking wrapping is biodegradable and fully compostable as noted on the label which says: “The package is designed to break down into compost.”
Such bars are processed so you are better off with an apple and some nuts or seeds, but they are a tasty stopgap snack.
The best value in energy bars is probably in the Foodie Market range from Aldi. The Raw Pecan Pie fruit and nut bars, for example, cost €3.49 for a box of five. These are similar to costly ones from the Primal Pantry and are “high in fibre” and “gluten free”, again thanks to nothing more than the ingredients.
A traffic light system on the front highlights that the bars are in the red zone for fat and sugars – but don’t put them back on the shelf.
Check out the ingredients and you will see that the fat comes from nuts and the sugar from fruit. The bars have dates (52 per cent) crushed pecan nuts (28 per cent) and almond pieces (20 per cent). The packet also notes that they are “cold-pressed”, which sounds good given that heat-sensitive nutrients can be destroyed by heat.
The Paleo Macadamia and Coconut bar, also from Aldi, similarly has a small list of ingredients with: dates (49 per cent), cashew nuts (21 per cent), coconut (20 per cent), macadamia nuts (10 per cent) and almond oil. Dates are popular as an ingredient in these bars as they are high in fibre, nutritious and sweet, thus removing the need for processed sugar.
Not all energy bars come without added sugar. Nakd’s Banana Bread bars use fruit extract, which is basically a form of sugar, to add sweetness. They are still a good choice though, as the other ingredients are just fruit, nuts and gluten-free oats.
That’s probably just the way Paleolithic man liked them.
FOOD LABELS SERIES
1) Being a successful shopper
9) Pasta sauce
10) Chinese ready meals
11) Frozen chips
12) Chilled fish
14) Chicken Kiev
17) Baked beans
18) Tomato ketchup
19) Chocolate digestive biscuits
21) Cadbury's Dairy Milk
22) Dark chocolate
23) Salad Cream
24) Pesto sauce
26) Sliced ham
27) Vanilla ice cream
29) Jaffa cakes
30) Protein bars
31) Energy bars
32) Chicken Tikka Masala
34) Peanut butter