March 4, 2008

Super-Charged Drinks and Bars: The Right Source for Nutrition?

By Jana Folkert, Dietetic Intern, Bay Pines Health Care System
Pinellas County Extension, Family & Consumers

JoggersThere seems to be a special drink or energy bar to address every conceivable health need these days, from athletic performance to vitamin deficiency to sleepiness. In reality, however, are these carefully marketed beverages and bars genuinely useful as part of a well-balanced and nourishing diet? And are the advantages of supplementing usual intake with these products worth their expense, usually significantly greater than “normal” food and drink options?

The beverage market has exploded with extensive options for the thirsty shopper, including an overwhelming selection of flavored waters, sports drinks, and herbal teas. Fancy water choices boast fruit flavors and vitamin supplementation, while sports drinks promise electrolyte replacement and herbal teas tout their ability to improve any number of functions- from memory to energy. Unfortunately, many of these beverage choices contain sugar in addition to their other special ingredients, easily contributing an additional 100-150 calories per bottle to the diet. In regard to the herbal teas, caution must be exercised in trusting the grand and glorious claims made by the label- in many cases the supplemented herbs have not been scientifically proven to perform the intended effect (such as memory enhancement), not to mention the lack of regulation in quantity and potency of the “herb potion” advertised on the bottle. As far as sports drinks are concerned, their electrolyte and carbohydrate replacement functions aren’t necessary unless strenuous physical activity continues for greater than an hour at a time. Considering all these factors, the best beverage choice is still plain old water in most situations.

University of California Extension has a fact sheet comparing the some of the drinks that are on the market.

BikerAnother recently exploding market has been that of energy and meal replacement bars. Many athletes have introduced a trendy and portable snack option to their exercise routine, believing in the supplement’s ability to improve performance and workout benefit. Others have begun to use these bars as handy snack and meal options while on-the-go as their lives spin at breakneck pace. There are certainly attractive advantages to the energy bar concept, including provision of necessary calories, vitamins, and nutrients, in a convenient, portable form. Downsides to their use, however, are also of concern. Most bars can be rather expensive, have been extensively processed, and may contain herbal additives of questionable potency and usefulness. They also can cause excessive calorie intake when added to the diet without swapping out another calorie source. In reality, there isn’t any “magic” about the nutrient components of the bars, and healthy workout snacks or on-the-go meal options can be created from regular food using a little effort and creativity.

If you plan to choose an energy bar consider these tips:

  • Try to avoid bars with palm kernel oil or partially-hydrogenated fat in the first five ingredients on the label.

  • Limit saturated fat to 3 grams or less per bar and no trans fat.

  • To help manage appetite for weight control, choose a bar with at least 3 grams of fiber.

  • Women may want to choose a bar that contains at least 300 mg of calcium per serving to help meet their daily calcium needs. But evaluate your other sources of calcium during the day first to see if you need the extra amount in an energy bar.

  • Sources of sugar should not be more than half the grams of carbohydrates in the bar. Look at the total carbohydrates on the label, then the sugars listed just below. Try not to select a bar with high fructose corn syrup, glucose, or fructose as the first ingredient.

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