Energy Products: Energy for Sale (cont.)

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.