Bars, nuts, chocolate

not on my breakfast menu

Bars, bars, bars.  When did bars take over our food supply?  Why did that happen?  Based on some statistics on food purchasing behavior, I’m guessing the reasons go like this:

  • Bars are convenient
  • They have a massive Health Halo, mostly undeserved.  In fact in most cases bars are the exact opposite of healthy.  Yet many consumers believe Bars = Nutrition.
  • They taste like candy OR you’ve eaten so many that you’re used to the taste and texture.
  • They’re filling and satisfying
  • They’re not messy, you can eat them in the car or at your desk
  • They keep well

Bars were everywhere at the recent Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, and I sampled a few of the usual suspects.  Larabars Clif Bars, Luna bars, Kashi, diabetic bars, Now Energy and KIND bars.  Here’s my conclusion: with few exceptions, they all taste the same.  The problem with bars is that they have to stick together, but not be sticky and not spoil.  The types of ingredients that work are rather limited.  No fresh fruit, no real yogurt.  Yet most bars want to grab that Health Halo, so we end up with grains, dried fruit, nuts and nut butters, with various sweet syrups, soy, chocolate and protein powder.

What about claim for “energy”?  If a bar (or any food) has calories, it provides energy.  As far as I can tell, all bars have calories; therefore all bars provide energy.  Energy claims are silly, and not a reason to purchase one over another.

Claims for protein are another matter.  Some brands boost protein content with whey or soy powders.  You could make a case that higher protein bars are better choices for snacks or for a grab and go meal replacement.  But I certainly don’t recommend making this a daily habit.  Eat real food.  Bars don’t exist anywhere in nature that I’m aware of.  And a steady diet of bars means your food variety is severely limited, to dried fruit, nuts, sugar sweeteners and protein powders.

I’d like to see a blind bar Taste Test, like people do with wine in brown paper bags.  Few people can identify the expensive wine, and I bet few people can distinguish one chewy dried fruit nut butter soy bar from another.  For the record, I think KIND has the best selection of bars that taste good while maintaining a valid claim to nutrition.

Kraft is attempting to position Belvita Breakfast Biscuits in the bar-like category.  The label claims “nutritious sustained energy”.  So is a peanut butter sandwich.  I tried Belvita biscuits and I wouldn’t recommend this as breakfast food.  They’re more like a less sweet cookie made with mostly whole grains.

Nuts were also big at the FNCE, and the walnut people had a clever idea: hand out hand-shaped scoops, with the tag line “Eat a handful everyday.”  That’s because a lot of research done on nuts shows that daily consumption of the equivalent of a handful provides health benefits.  Anyway the scoop was cute.

could a handful a day lead to a Nobel prize?

After reading the latest study about chocolate, most of my colleagues might want to re-purpose that scoop.  The author compared chocolate consumption in different countries to the number of Nobel prize winners per capita.  Results: a “powerful correlation between chocolate intake per capita and the number of Nobel Laureates.”  So a handful everyday could make you a genius.  Or at least help preserve cognitive function and vascular health.  I think most of us would be happy to have that effect.

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