Do we really need energy bars?
If the names of today’s energy products have any truth to them, vitality and endurance are readily available in bars, drinks, gels, ices, herbs, and supplements.
PowerBar. Red Bull. Amp. Gatorade. Accelerade. Super Energizer. Energice.
The brand names do sound stimulating, but do they actually deliver? It depends on the product and its consumer, say experts, who note that the variety of merchandise and people make blanket statements difficult.
In the interest of getting the full story, WebMD explored different kinds of energy edibles, their ingredients, and general effects on the body. Some of the goods may not have as much information as others, but this is telling of the nature of the fountain of energy. Perhaps in a few years, after science has had a chance to study the virtue of different products, we will have more answers. Until then, it seems we’re on a parallel mission with Juan Ponce de Leon.
Energy Bars and Gels
All energy bars, goos, and ices are not created equal. Some pack in the carbohydrates, proteins, or fats. Others bring in vitamins and minerals. The flavors are plentiful, too, with cookies and cream, cappuccino, lemon poppy seed, and chocolate raspberry fudge appealing to the taste buds.
John Allred, PhD, food science communicator for the Institute of Food Technologists, simply shakes his head at the mention of energy products. “They are outrageously expensive for what you are getting,” he says. “There’s nothing magical about the ingredients.”
The same nutrients could be found in a banana, yogurt, or a chocolate bar, which are cheaper options, Allred explains.
To be fair, the carbohydrate or protein composition of some energy bars and gels may provide a more sustained charge than products that primarily use sugar or caffeine. The power surge of sugar usually lasts about 30 minutes to one hour, and caffeine lasts no more than two hours. The rush from sugar and coffee is usually followed by an energy low.
Energy bars and gels with carbohydrates will definitely provide a boost, as carbs are the body’s preferred fuel source. It’s ideal if much of the carbohydrate source is fiber, as the roughage takes longer to digest, providing more sustained energy. This can be especially helpful for people involved in endurance events. Protein-rich products can also provide staying power and strength. The nutrient helps build muscle and regulates energy production in the body.
Yet the bars, goos, and ices are no substitute for real food. “Energy bars are manufactured products,” says Cindy Moore, MSRD, director of nutrition therapy at The Cleveland Clinic. “What you’re missing from any kind of manufactured product are the benefits from nature — the chemicals that aren’t vitamins or minerals, but are phytochemicals — which are still beneficial to our health.”
Phytochemicals are natural plant compounds like carotenoids, which give fruits and vegetables color, isoflavones from soy, and polyphenols from teas. They have been linked to many things from killing viruses to reducing cholesterol to improving memory.
“What I would far rather see is for someone to eat a sandwich and a piece of fruit, instead of that PowerBar,” says Moore. “It’s still something you can hold in your hand, but you’re getting the whole grain from the bread, protein from the sandwich contents — whether that’s meat or cheese or fish — and fiber from the whole grain and from the fruit.”
Add a glass of fat-free milk, says Moore, and you will also get calcium, vitamin D, and the minerals that are found in dairy products to strengthen bones.
Other convenient whole food choices include yogurt, string cheese, nuts, ready-to-eat cereal, peanut butter, toast, smoothies, and fruits such as bananas, grapes, apples, and nectarines.
In situations where there are no choices except for junk food or fast food, energy bars may be the more nutritious alternative, but it still doesn’t replace a meal, says Dee Sandquist, MSRD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Energy products may meet the needs of the physically active. “For people who are training and exercising on a regular basis, [energy bars and gels] can actually be a useful food item to help them meet their higher energy demands,” says Lisa Bunce, MSRD, owner of Back to Basics Nutrition Consultants in Redding, Conn. She says the bars and gels can be portable, palatable, and premeasured options for some athletes. Inactive individuals, on the other hand, will not benefit from high-calorie products.
To determine whether an energy bar, gel, or ice is right for you, consider your body’s needs. Are you physically active? Sedentary? Next, compare the nutrient labels of different products. Pay attention to the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
Sports, Fortified, and Energy Drinks
The thirst for energy has opened up an extensive market for various potions. Sports drinks, energy cocktails, and fortified liquids are among the plethora of choices available for the drained and dehydrated.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade are often no better than water, say experts, but they may make it easier for some people to get enough fluids in their system. They come in a variety of flavors and colors.
“If a sports drink will get someone to drink a little bit more than they would have if they were just going to drink water, then it’s probably a good choice for them,” says Moore, noting the importance of keeping hydrated. Sports drinks usually contain water, a fluid that is essential for energy production and proper functioning of the body. Hydration needs vary, depending on the individual, activity level, and the environment.
Of the herbs used for energy, ginseng probably has the most research, but the studies are contradictory, says Haggans. Plus, she says there are different types of ginseng, and the investigators don’t always make it clear what kind was used in studies.
Asian ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng, is generally known as a stimulant and has been used by older people seeking more energy, says Andrew Weil, author of 8 Weeks to Optimum Health. The Asian variety also has a reputation as a sexual enhancer for men and has been used to improve athletic performance.
American ginseng, on the other hand, is used more as a tonic and is known to increase immunity over time, says Weil.
The herbs guarana and yerba mate are rich sources of caffeine. They stimulate the central nervous system, much like coffee does. The caffeine “may be helpful for mental alertness, and possibly for weight loss,” says Haggans. But there have not been many studies on the herbs, separate from the effects of caffeine.
Rhodiola rosea has been used in Sweden and Denmark as an anti-fatigue supplement. There is some evidence it improves aspects of mental and physical performance, but other than that, we don’t know a lot about the herb, says Haggans.
Rhodiola is often combined with cordyceps mushroom, another herb that has had little scientific research. Cordyceps mushroom by itself and the combined formula of cordyceps and rhodiola have been tested on athletic performance, and the results have been contradictory.
There are benefits to taking cordyceps mushroom, says Weil. It can reportedly provide energy to older people who have been debilitated by age or illness and to young athletes who need a boost in performance.
If you are considering the use of an herb or a supplement, it’s best to first check with your doctor. Some plant compounds, no matter how natural, can interact with drugs and may have some adverse effects.
Asian ginseng, for example, can raise blood pressure in those that are prone to hypertension, says Weil. Plus, Haggans says a recent study suggests the herb may reduce the effect of Coumadin (a blood thinner) and other drugs.
Another note of caution involves the herb yerba mate. There are observational reports that yerba mate, when used in large amounts or for prolonged periods, may cause cancer in the gastrointestinal tract.
Herbs are presumed to be safe until proven harmful. They are regulated more like foods, as opposed to drugs, says Haggans. The dietary supplement ephedra, used for weight loss or athletic performance, is one example of a plant compound that was pulled from the market following numerous reports of death and injury.
The Bottom Line on Energy Products
Energy bars, drinks, herbs, and supplements may be helpful in some instances, but they are not sure-fire remedies for fatigue. If in need of a boost, experts recommend a well-balanced diet.
“As long as you are eating a variety of foods — in the spirit of the food guide pyramid — you’re going to be able to meet your nutrient needs,” says Moore. “As long as you do that, your body is going to be able to carry out all of its functions in terms of transferring food into fuel with complete accuracy.”
If a healthy diet is not helping with energy needs, examine the amount of sleep, exercise, and stress in your life. These factors, plus diseases and medications, can affect energy levels.