Once reserved only for fitness fanatics, today's energy bars appeal to a wider audience: outdoor enthusiasts, athletes or average consumers who simply desire a snack that's healthier than a handful of M&Ms. Products fall roughly into the following categories: bars geared toward the average consumer, usually fortified with extra vitamins or minerals; natural bars, comprised of organic or whole foods; and bars that contain a little more protein for more stringent exercisers or hard-core athletes. Bars can also vary wildly when it comes to their calorie counts. Some bars are more bloated than others. However, low-calorie bars are available and we highlight several in this report.
It's important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't enforce any nutritional or health requirements for foods claiming to be energy bars. In fact, there's little difference (other than marketing) between some so-called energy bars and a candy bar. So we checked with experts to help define what is -- and what is not -- an energy bar. Fiber and protein are two items you'll find in energy bars that may not necessarily be in candy bars. Energy bars also trim back the sugar. Suzanne Farrell, a registered dietician and American Dietetic Association spokesperson, suggests the energy bar guidelines below for healthy children and adults. An ideal bar should have:
In addition to the guidelines above, experts also offer directives for bars based on usage. What consumers should to look for in an energy bar can change, depending on their individual needs -- whether they are eating a bar for sustained energy or simply a snack. For instance, individuals who need a quick energy boost before an intense workout should select a bar that's high in carbohydrates and low in fiber and fat, says family physician Kris Walker, president of the Intermountain Medical Clinic in Pocatello, Idaho. Unlike quick-burning, energy-fueling carbs, fiber and fat take longer for your stomach to digest, which can make exercise uncomfortable. Additionally, fiber slows the rate at which carbohydrates are burned for energy, which can hinder a person's get-up-and-go. On the other hand, those who simply want a snack should select energy bars with higher levels of fiber, since heftier amounts of this nutrient make foods more filling.
In the end, though, experts say the bar that's best is one that tastes good and provides the right amount of calories and nutrients (given your gender, activity level, and overall diet). For example, experts say healthy eaters and multivitamin takers may not need the extra vitamins and minerals of some fortified energy bars.
We encountered the best energy bar reviews on sports and fitness websites and blogs. These critiques not only consider the taste and energy boost of various bars, but also offer details about their durability (like how they hold up when carried in a backpack and whether or not they melt in the heat). For some insights on nutrition, we turned to several health resources such as Prevention magazine, Health.com, and WebMD.com. Reviews from Real Simple magazine and the natural foods website MightyFoods.com also focus on finding the tastiest energy bars, while women's magazines like Good Housekeeping and Redbook zero-in on the best-tasting, low-calorie picks.
Lastly, energy bars that contain more than 25 grams of protein are considered specialty bars. These extremely high-calorie products are best suited for body builders -- so we did not include them in this report. Additionally, we excluded all energy bars affiliated with specific health or weight-loss plans. Instead, the energy bars we cover in this report are more general products, best suited for healthy and moderately active individuals.