By Melissa Breyer, Mother Nature Network
In 1970, Pillsbury filed for a trademark for a "non-frozen balance energy snack in rod form containing nutritionally balanced amounts of carbohydrate, fat and protein." Dubbed Space Food Sticks, the glorified Tootsie Rolls were a boon to parents looking for a healthy-sounding snack for their kids, and kids got to feel like astronauts. Space Food Sticks were considered the first mass-marketed energy-nutrition bars - also known as the first step toward reducing real food to the easy-peasy convenience of a candy bar. (If you've been to Kennedy Space Center or the Smithsonian Air & Space Center since 2006, you may have come across a reformulated Space Food Stick - but it's not the same snack as the '70s sensation.)
The idea isn't so awful: Condense protein, vitamins and carbohydrates into a compact package to stand in for a missed meal, to refuel during or after exercise, or as a healthy between-meal snack. But all the good is dependent on the components, which actually need to be healthy. Instead, a hodgepodge of dodgy ingredients are compressed into a product that winds up being much closer to a candy bar ... often times worse than a candy bar.
While the boosted protein or fiber content at least means some of the contenders can't be relegated to the heap of "empty calories" (the scarlet letter of the food world), often times the protein boost isn't worth the other schlock that the bar delivers. Aside from exorbitant amounts of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, unhealthy fats, chemical additives, artificial colors and flavors, and questionable preservatives, some of the protein sources may be suspect. Whey or casein protein are okay, but the popularly-used soy proteins are of concern because of their estrogen-mimicking behavior. Also commonly used are boiled animal scraps, which you can find on the label under the euphemisms of gelatin, hydrolyzed collagen or hydrolyzed gelatin. Made from slaughterhouse leftovers like skin, bones and various connective tissues, these inferior sources lack all the essential amino acids required to make them a complete protein, yet they boost the protein grams on a nutrition panel.
Meanwhile, a quality organic chocolate bar like Equal Exchange Organic Ecuador Dark Chocolate Bar is comprised of four ingredients, all of them natural and organic: chocolate liquor, raw cane sugar, cocoa butter and ground vanilla beans. Each serving of this particular bar contains:
Fat: 14 g
Fiber: 4 g
Sugars: 12 g
Protein: 3 g
Iron: 30% RDA
A candy bar like this ends up being a healthier option in terms of natural ingredients, sugar content, calories and sometimes even fiber, when compared to some of the popular nutrition bars on the market. Here are some that fail in comparison.
1. Oh Yeah! Original Bar: Peanut Butter & Strawberry
Oh yeah!? Oh no! While it's true that these high-protein bars boast 27 grams of protein, they are a far cry from something you should be eating for health. Along with a surfeit of sugars, artificial colors, chemical preservatives, gelatin, and partially hydrogenated oils, they offer an exuberant 370 calories, with 16 grams of fat, 9 of those being saturated.
Total fat: 16 g
Saturated fat: 9 g
Sugars: 9 g
Fiber: 4 g
Protein: 27 g
Related: 5 homemade energy bars and snacks
2. PowerBar Fruit Smoothie Energy Bar: Berry Blast
Berries, and a blast of them no less - oh, the marketing magic of superfood buzzwords. Aside from the glaring lack of fiber, the PowerBar Fruit Smoothie bar has more calories and more than double the sugar of our model candy bar. The first ingredient is evaporated cane juice syrup, followed elsewhere on the list by sugar, fruit juice concentrate, dextrose, and fructose (read: sugar, sugar, sugar and sugar). The protein source is soy. Not to mention that there isn't a single berry listed in the ingredients. How does that qualify as a blast?
Sugars: 27 g
Fiber: less than 1 g
Protein: 6 g
3. Quaker Oatmeal to Go Apples & Cinnamon
Although this breakfast in a square actually has oats as the first ingredient (yay!), the second ingredient is high-fructose corn syrup. (Boo!) Other hiss-worthy components include a number of sugars in their various guises, two types of partially hydrogenated oils including margarine, and artificial colors and chemical preservatives. It has only one more gram of protein than the candy bar, yet has almost twice as much sugar and more calories.
Sugars: 22 g
Fiber: 5 g
Protein: 4 g
4. Genisoy Chunky Peanut Butter Fudge Protein Bar
This isn't the most offensive bar of the bunch, but just be warned: More calories than the candy bar, more sugar, and half the fiber.
Sugars: 22 g
Fiber: 2 g
Protein: 10 g
Related: Energy bars you can make at home
5. Met-Rx Big 100 Colossal Peanut Butter Pretzel
Given the whopping 28 grams of sugar, it's not surprising that the second, third, and fourth ingredients of this monster bar are corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and sugar. If you're going to eat this Big Colossal whopper as a meal, that's one thing, but as a snack, the 410 calories and 28 grams of sugar are going to make you one step closer to big and colossal.
Sugars: 28 g
Fiber: 3 g
Protein: 30 g
6. Muscle Milk Vanilla Toffee Crunch Bar
It's probably no surprise that a bar that comes in "vanilla toffee crunch" flavor isn't going to win many health food awards, but coming from a nutritional supplement company, one might think that there was a bit of merit involved. The first ingredient is evaporated cane juice (hello, sugar); nine other forms of sugar show up as well, along with two types of hydrogenated oils. And yes, it has more protein than a candy bar. That said, the protein comes from hydrolyzed gelatin.
Sugars: 17 g
Fiber: 4 g
Protein: 23 g
7. Seitenbacher Banana Cranberry Bar
Seitenbacher is generally a good choice for a number of reasons: Their products are gluten-free and vegetarian; they use non-GMO soy; and the ingredient lists are usually simple and natural. But the banana cranberry option surprises with one glaring nutritional value: 32 grams of sugar. That translates to about 8 teaspoons of sugar, a lot of sweet stuff yet with only half the fiber and one-third the protein of the chocolate bar.
Sugars: 32 g
Fiber: 3 g
Protein: 1 g
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This story original appeared on Mother Nature Network and was reprinted with permission here. Copyright 2013 MNN. All rights reserved.