Take care when bellying up to sports nutrition bars

By Bob Condor
Published March 3, 2002

The so-called sports nutrition bar has become so popular that one description of the product category doesn't cover it anymore. Other names and subcategories include "energy bars," "meal replacement bars," "protein bars" and "diet bars."

In fact, you don't have to be an athlete to use sports bars, though it helps if you are an active person. The various types of bars are more nutritious than candy bars, but they still pack 200 to 300 calories on average, sometimes even more.

Many of the bars contain a significant amount of simple sugars (look for terms such as fructose and dextrose) that can alter blood sugar levels and encourage your sweet tooth. Other bars pack more fat than you would desire in a pregame or postworkout snack, plus the saturated fat content can be throwing off your efforts to reduce weight and cardiovascular risk.

"Sports energy bars are so much better for you than candy bars," said Christine Palumbo, a dietitian with a practice in Naperville. "But they are not appropriate for weight loss."

Nutritionists such as Palumbo and Western Springs-based Julie Burns would prefer their clients consume whole foods for meals and snacks. Yet they are realists about busy lifestyles.

"The bars are acceptable 'grab and go' foods if you miss a meal or snack," said Burns, who counsels the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls and Northwestern University athletic teams as part of her SportFuel business. "I keep them in the car myself, also trail mix, plus plenty of water, when I am stuck without other foods."

Burns said the type of bar she recommends is "all relative" to a person's activity level and purpose for the bar. She is less inclined to suggest the high protein bars aimed at postworkout muscle rebuilding. She cited newer research showing active people still need mostly carbohydrates and moderate protein (six grams in one new study).

Other precautions from Burns: Some bars contain up to 40 percent of the daily recommended amount of iron, which can be unintentionally placing men (especially those genetically predisposed) at cardiovascular risk. Too much iron can overtax the heart. Another problem is some energy bars contain caffeine or herbs that create a snack more medicinally potent than you might anticipate from a nutrition bar.

In any case, nutritionists will advise you to read the label of any nutrition bar before making it a regular part of your diet. That sensible suggestion might have to be tempered by the recent test results released by ConsumerLab.com (www.consumerlab.com). The company recently performed its rigorous laboratory analysis on 30 bars, including five claiming to be energy bars, eight meal-replacement bars, 10 diet bars and 12 protein bars (some bars claimed two purposes).

A disturbing 60 percent did not pass the test, providing inaccurate information about one or more ingredient categories.

The most common inaccuracy was the stated carbohydrates.

Fifteen bars contained "hidden" carbs, some in large amounts. One bar claimed two grams and actually tested for 22 grams, because in fine print the manufacturer informed consumers that the bar contained glycerin, which it was not counting as a carbohydrate, even though that is the case. The Food and Drug Administration has sent warning letters about this deceptive practice to several bar makers.

Eight of the 30 products contained more sugars than claimed by two or more teaspoons. As a guideline, the passing bars contained about 10 grams of sugar.

Although all of the tested bars were accurate for protein content, there were discrepancies in sodium and fat contents. Seven bars surpassed sodium claims, including four that contained two to three times as much. For example, one bar listed 125 milligrams but actually tested for 285 milligrams.

Four bars failed the saturated fat test, indicating closer to three grams of the unhealthy fat per serving compared to the claimed one gram. In order to be marketed as "low in saturated fat," products can have no more than one gram.

Among the passing bars in this subtest, the typical saturated fat amount was three grams. Only two products passed with the .5 grams claimed.

It might be logical to be more upset about the label inaccuracies that ConsumerLab.com has found in herbal and other dietary supplements, but regular consumers of nutrition bars have reason to be equally dismayed, said Burns.

"It's still upsetting," she said. "You assume by reading the label you know what's in the bar. Some people pay more for certain bars because they are using them for a specific purpose or therapy. No matter what the product, the label needs to be true."

For its part, ConsumerLab.com lists only the bars or products on its Web site that pass its scientific testing. When the company first started, it listed all products, but ConsumerLab.com president, Dr. Tod Cooperman, said the White Plains, N.Y.-based firm was soon "barraged with lawsuits" from those manufacturers that failed….

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