Raising The Bar
By Lori Baird, February 1999
In the beginning, there was the energy bar, and it was-well, to be honest, not too good. The principle was sound: quick energy in a form other than gorp or pulverized granola bars, and you could eat it on the go without leaving a telltale trail of crumbs for the animals to follow. But early incarnations tasted like something scraped off the seat of a space capsule. In winter, the bars became frozen tooth-chippers, and in summer, tearing open the wrapper revealed a brown, messy goo that invited all sorts of unappetizing analogies.
But in true Darwinian fashion, the weak have fallen and the strongest-or, more appropriately, the tastiest and healthiest-survived. Sure, there are a few pretenders lurking about, but your choices these days, in terms of both brands and flavors, make snacking tastier than ever, as we discovered when we set out to do a taste test. We asked 10 energy bar manufacturers-those commonly found nationwide in health food and outdoors stores-for their best offerings. The bars then went into the field with Backpacker editors (I ate them, too), who chewed and passed judgment in such locales as the Tordrillo Mountains of Alaska, the high country of Idaho, and atop Mt. Rainier, Washington. We rated the bars on taste, texture, durability, and overall appeal.
But before we get to the individual reviews, a bit on the all-important first word in this category: energy. The whole point of snacking is to give your body a constant supply, especially since an average backpacker carrying a 40-pound pack burns 600 calories an hour. In case you've forgotten what you learned in high school physiology class, Lisa Cohn, a New York-based American Dietetic Association (ADA) nutrition consultant, reminds you: "Carbohydrates are the best fuel for keeping your body going." She rec-ommends a mixture of simple (like sugar) and complex (like grains) carbohydrates for both quick and long-lasting energy.
Protein and fat balance out your dietary needs, but Cohn suggests you avoid too much of either. How much is too much? The ADA recommends that daily you get 25 to 30 percent of your calories from fat, 10 to 12 percent from protein, and the rest-about 65 percent-from carbohydrates. These ratios provide a combination of quick- and slow-burning fuel needed to conquer steep hills and boulder-hop across rivers.
Most of the bars available provide all the carbos, protein, and fat you need, but finding a tasty trail-worthy energy bar can be time-consuming, pricey, and downright gut-wrenching which brings us back to our taste test. The bars listed below appear in order of overall performance, best to worst. Bon appetite.
Bear Valley Pemmican Fruit 'N Nut. This dense bar took first place, albeit by a narrow margin. Everyone, even a tester who despised the rest of the bars, loved the "real food" texture and "awesome energy." The heftiest bar in the bunch at nearly 4 ounces and 420 calories, it's "almost a meal in itself," according to testers. The only caveat: Make sure you have plenty of water because the Pemmican is slightly dry. Other flavors: Carob Cocoa, Coconut Almond, and Sesame Lemon.
PowerBar Harvest Chocolate. An original in the energy bar market, PowerBar has upped the ante with the Harvest, a crunchier version of its classic. With comments like, "reminded me of a chocolate ice cream bar" and "like eating a real granola bar," the Harvest obviously kept testers happy-except in cold weather when it became "teeth-shatteringly hard." The Harvest has a hefty helping of vitamins, too. Other flavors: Apple Crisp, Cherry Crunch, and Strawberry.
Clif Bar Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch. Clif Bar won over almost all the testers. The group particularly liked the chewiness and not-too-sweet, "big peanut butter and chocolate chip cookie" taste. Said one tester, "Loved it, loved it, loved it. The bar has been raised to a new standard." The Clif stands firm in cold and heat, and provides, according to one tester, "what it's supposed to-healthy energy in the field." Flavors range from Apple Cherry and Apricot to Chocolate Espresso and Cookies 'n' Cream.
Peak Bar Fruit Mania. Peak Bars are packed with oats, honey, and dried fruit. Our testers liked the taste and texture, which one likened to a "muffin crossed with a soft and chewy granola bar." Edible in any weather and wrapped in a nearly indestructible mylar wrapper, the Peak Bar is made for the trail. Other flavors: Bodacious Peanut Chunk, Chocolate Chip, and Super-Lean Chocolate Malt. Boulder Bar Boulder Berry. Those who like berry flavors were pleased with this preservative-, wheat-, and dairy-free bar. "So good, I'd eat it at home enough energy to power you over the pass," said one fan. Others felt the tangy berries were "a little too close to Christmas fruitcake." Boulder uses a high-carbohydrate, low-fat recipe. Other flavors: Apple Cinnamon, Original Chocolate, and Peanut Butter.
Balance Bar Honey Peanut. Balance Bars are based on the controversial 40-30-30 nutrition theory that recommends a daily calorie intake of 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. The biggest objection tasters had was this bar's too-sweet flavor, although it did get a communal thumbs-up for being edible in cold conditions. Ten flavors run the gamut from Almond Brownie to Almond Butter Crunch and Chocolate Raspberry Fudge to Mocha.
Tiger Sport Peanut Butter. From the makers of Tiger's Milk nutrition bars come these vitamin-rich sport bars, which divided testers into "like it" and "hate it" contingents. "Candy that's good for you," commented one of the sweet-toothed. Others didn't care for the "fake-food" texture. Although one tester liked the immediate surge of energy that came after snacking, another was soon left hungry. Tiger Sport is best suited to warm weather, since in cold weather "you could drive nails with it." Other flavors: Apple Cinnamon, Cafe Mocha, Chocolate, and Vanilla.
Stoker Real Cocoa. Stoker got rave reviews for its vitamin-packed formula (the bars supply 100 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance for most vitamins), and even reminded one tester of "the chocolate taffy bars I bought for a nickel when I was a kid." Still, it was thumbs-down for the "pseudo-food" texture, a wrapper that tore easily in the pack, and the "gooey mess" it became in hot weather. Other flavors: Orange Cranberry, Peanut Butter Crunch, and Real Apple Oat.
Source One Chocolate Cheesecake. Source One bars come from MET-Rx, the company that markets "engineered nutrition," and the engineering shows in the texture. The "decent chocolate taste" couldn't mask the "chalky" and "artificial" texture. One tester said, "The taste is so artificial that I feel like I'm eating bad astronaut food." On the positive side, "I detected an honest-to-goodness surge of energy when I really needed it," said another taster. Other flavors range from Chocolate Banana Split to Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich to Mocha Latte Swirl to Chocolate Roasted Peanut.
PR*Ironman Triathlon Granola. This is yet another bar that adheres to the 40-30-30 philosophy. General consensus was that it stands up to "several days of abuse," but that was all testers agreed on. Some liked the granola taste, while others compared it to eating brown sugar. Texture that "reminded me of putty" and "tasted and looked like bird seeds compressed into a bar" left some wishing they had gorp. Other flavors: Chocolate Chunk, Cookie Dough, Chocolate Brownie, Chocolate Praline, Yogurt Berry, and Creamy Peanut.
Banana-Oat Energy Bars
3/4 Cup butter
1 Cup brown sugar
1/2 Teaspoon salt
1 1/2 Cups mashed ripe bananas
4 Cups quick-cooking oats
1 Cup raisins
1/2 Cup chopped walnuts
Maryann Costa of Eldersburg, Maryland, says this fruity variant from Backpacker's book Trailside's Trail Food ($9.95, Rodale Press, Inc., 800-848-4735) was the preferred energy bar on a 21/2-week trek in California's Sierra Nevada.
Microwave Energy Bars
2 Cups rolled oats
1/2 Cup melted butter
1/2 Cup brown sugar
1/4 Cup syrup
One reader posted this recipe on our BaseCamp Web site but warned "this is without exact proportions. Just try it." So we gave it a test run (sampling the results, of course) and came up with these proportions for a quick and tasty energy bar. If your cooking skills are a little iffy and you overcook it, break it into pieces and eat it like gorp.
3/4 Pound caribou jerky
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
2 garlic cloves
2 Ounces raisins
2 Ounces cranberries
5 Ounces lard
Dennis Schmitt, of Houston, Texas, passed along this one, and while it may ruffle feathers in our low-fat society, it's what Native Americans subsisted on during long trips. Searching for a campsite with a view is probably just as energy-draining as hunting for buffalo, right?