A sports nutritionist settles the score on energy bars: are they really giving you energy or are they just nutrient-depleted candy bars?

By Catherine Orda | Lead photo by Lara Intong

When a busy person with nothing but a plucky resolve to eat healthier goes to a supermarket, chances are, they’ll head to the healthy food section where shelves of energy bars are stacked on top of another. While there are more pressing issues to worry about when it comes to following a diet, it can get confusing to choose among arrays of gluten-free, low-fat, high-protein, high-fiber, and low-carb energy bars that come in almost every flavor possible. And then there’s the question of whether or not these bars can actually do you any good. It might be the least of your concerns diet-wise, but we thought we might as well settle the score on energy bars—how to pick the best one and whether or not you should even be eating them. We talked to sports nutritionist Timothy Ting, and here’s what he had to say:

Can you give us some tips on how to choose the right energy bar? What are the criteria in choosing the most appropriate one for you?

It really depends. I believe good nutrition should be tailored to your needs. As such, in order to choose the perfect energy bar we should start by answering why you need one in the first place. Do you need it for meal replacement/pre-run or workout? If so, you can afford to choose a bar higher in calories ranging from 300 to 400 calories with a decent amount of protein: about 16 to 24 grams as this mimics a well-rounded meal, making it a convenient way to alleviate hunger and fuel your body. However, if you find yourself in the middle of a run/workout and need a quick energy boost, you can pick ones with lower calories with majority of the calories coming from simple sugars like maltodextrin, which are easily digestible by the gut and has a low risk of stomach upset.

What do you recommend in terms of serving size and the frequency with which energy bars should be consumed?

One bar (one serving) is usually enough for a regular person. Frequency-wise, you can use them as a convenient way to get quality nutrition your body needs. However, keep in mind that while some of these bars can be very nutritious, a variety of whole foods are still preferred to ensure your body gets all the vitamins and minerals it needs.

Which is the best time to eat an energy bar—before, during, or after a run/workout?

There’s no best time to eat an energy bar. The best one will depend on the type and composition of the energy bar. Some bars with higher calories like some fiber-rich, fruit/honey-based bars that contain a combination of fast digesting carbohydrates like glucose, which gets directly shuttled into the blood stream, and slow digesting carbohydrates like fructose, which gets processed in the liver before being tapped for a more steady source of energy in conjunction with a high protein (16 to 24 grams) content, are best consumed before and after the workout to provide or replenish the body with both energy and amino acids to spare or rebuild muscles.

On the other hand, those lower in calories and are mainly composed of easily digestible simple sugars like maltodextrin and glucose are ideal during exercise to give you a quick pick-me-up.

What can we actually gain from eating energy bars? Do they have any disadvantages?

Number one is convenience; you can take these bars anywhere. In addition, they’re fully prepped and compact, sanitary, tastes great, and have a relatively long shelf life. The only disadvantage here is that people may mistake ‘energy’ bars as something magical that makes them stronger. In reality, there are no performance-enhancing substances in these energy bars and only serve to fill in the gap if you’ve been chronically under-eating relative to the intensity and volume of your activity.

There are so many energy bars in the market. There’s high-protein, low-carb, low-sugar, etc.—not to mention all the flavors that they come in. Do all of these actually have nutritional value?

That’s true. There’s a whole range of energy bars to choose from; some of these bars are made out of dried fruit and nuts, which are particularly dense in not only energy but also vitamins and minerals vital to human function. In addition, some of which even have plant-chemicals called phytochemicals, which serve as antioxidants that protect against oxidative stress put off exercise, cancer, and heart disease. On the other hand, some of these energy bars are more like nutrient-depleted candy bars.

Do you have any tips on how to read the nutrition labels on energy bars? Which items should we focus on?

The main item you should focus on is, of course, total calories in relation to your total energy requirement, after which the focus should go into the composition of the calories, whether it’s carbohydrates, proteins, or fat. Lastly, check for the ingredients, the first one on the list is the ingredient that’s highest in volume. Keep in mind bars that list sugar or sugar alternatives like syrup, invert sugar, etc. as the first ingredient are rich in simple sugars do displace some nutrients and are better consumed primarily during exercise for a quick jolt of energy.