We all have them at hand in our pantry. They are the healthy kind too – Nut bars, granola bars, dried fruit bars, protein bars, etc. It is convenient to eat (just unwrap)… and portable, just put it in your purse or pocket. No need for spoons or napkins, so easy. Is it bad for your diet?
Before I get into that, let me take you back to the beginnings of some of these bars….Why were they invented?
Great Products, Great Entrepreneurs
I love the entrepreneur stories behind these successful brands-
Larabar – The idea for Larabar was conceived by Lara Merriken during a hike. Her original bars used dried fruits and nuts without any added sugars and preservatives. She was working at Whole foods and got her first break when she told her manager about this product she was developing. Those bars became a great hit year after year and went on to get acquired by General Mills. A great success story, and a wonderful product.
ClifBar – Clif bar was invented by Gary Erickson, an avid cyclist, who made his bar when he was fed up with the bars that were available back then (in the 90’s). He then worked in a bakery to personally develop the recipe for the Clif bar and worked like a maniac to develop it into one of the best privately held companies in US.
Kind Bar – Kind bar was founded by Daniel Lubetzky who used to travel intensively to sell specialty food products. He then launched kind bar made with nuts and very little sugar that became a nationwide hit. He is also the founder of Peaceworks Inc, where he promotes peace in the middle-east and wants to spread kindness in the world. Now, who would not admire that?
All the above are great products, but did you notice that not one of the products were meant as a snack for your everyday lives? If you are an avid cyclist, an avid mountaineer or you spend a lot of your time travelling, go ahead…these portable and healthy snacks are perfect for you.
But, what if you are a software engineer who sits on his/her desk 12 or more hours or a mom juggling a million errands? What if a bar or two is your substitute for a meal?
Each bar roughly adds 200 calories or more to your diet. You can easily wolf down a bar in 10 min or less. After which, you will be wondering…hmmm, not fully satisfied, now what can I eat?
A typical workout session of 30 min would burn off the same amount of calories. Say, you ate a few of these bars, you are dead tired to go the gym, and then decided (to maintain your weight) to eat a light dinner to compensate for these calories. You carry the unsatisfied half hungry/half full feeling until you fall asleep. But, do you really want to substitute fresh food for these dried bars?
The science behind these bars
The bars are a condensed form of food. They are basically dehydrated, cooked food. Most bars need to have very low moisture levels or high levels of sugar in order to be shelf stable. Only if a bar can be shelf stable for 6 months or more, do supermarkets agree to stock them.
The less water content there is in a food product, the lengthier the time before expiring. Having less water content means that the density of the food is high. A lot of calories and nutrition gets packed in these rectangular forms that can be eaten very quickly without feeling full.
What happens if you increase moisture levels? You need to add some kind of preservative to keep bacteria from feasting on it. Now, all Michael Pollan admirers (myself included) know that preservatives, with their weird sounding names, are best kept to a minimum. There are also innovations in packaging that has helped with the shelf life, but not as much as keeping the moisture levels very low.
Basically, if you make a cup of hot oatmeal, you can possibly eat it, very unwillingly, on day 3. But an oat bar will keep in the wrapper for 3-6 months after that day. But the oatmeal will keep you fuller for much longer and you can make it just the way you want it.
The bars also have this weird wrapping technique that you can never quite open a bar neatly or reseal it halfway through. So, once you open the bar, you are psychologically poised to finish it primarily to avoid touching the sticky insides.
Enjoy a meal instead
Yes, cooking is a pain. Waiting in line in restaurants are a pain, agreed. But is the trade-off to sit at your desk and chomp down a bar worth it? I would argue, not. These are no substitutes to, say, a thai noodle soup, veggie packed burrito, chapathi with lentils, etc… A fresh hot meal has more water content, fiber, fresh veggies, herbs than any bar can provide. It will keep you fuller than any bar can. A meal is the best bang for your buck in terms of calories, healthy habits, nutrition and satisfaction.
Lots of companies do great disservice to their employees by stocking their pantry with these ‘health’ bars. I know many of my friends who skip their lunches fearing the long queues and save time by drinking coffee and snacking on these bars all day long. The companies may get a better ROI on health by offering freshly made wraps or sandwiches from the local deli next door.
So, the next time you feel like eating a bar, put it away for your next hike or road trip. Instead, go the kitchen/office pantry/neighborhood deli and choose a meal instead.