Energy for Sale

Energy products abound: in drinks, herbs, bars, and even goo. But do they do anything?

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Matthew Hoffman, MD

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.

Well they sure sound energizing. But are they actually any better than a candy bar or a bottle of soda? It depends on the product and its consumer, say experts, who note that the sheer variety make blanket statements difficult.

To get the full story, WebMD investigated the different kinds of energy edibles, their ingredients, and general effects on the body. Some products provide full nutritional information, while others closely guard the secrets of their proprietary blends. But many of these products just haven't been studied very well.

We also asked the experts whether these products really add anything to our lives. Are we all limping through life, suffering from an energy crisis -- a crisis that unwrapping a power bar can resolve? Or does our obsession with edible energy have very little to do with good nutrition?

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, 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 about 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 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 pre-measured options for some athletes. Inactive individuals, on the other hand, will not benefit from high-calorie products.


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