Walk into any grocery store, and you'll see that "clean" energy bars are everywhere. They now have their own aisles. They're even on those pesky shelves right next to the checkout, staring you down as your stomach grumbles.
Eventually, you give in and buy one thinking to yourself, "at least it's not a Snicker's".
We hate to break it to ya, but chances are that healthy energy bar is more similar to a Snickers than you think.
Chances are, it's full of sugar and starch. And if it doesn't include sugar, it probably has some sort of artificial sweetener to make it taste palatable. It's probably also packed with cheap protein that can cause gut issues like bloating, gas and constipation. Or, if the bar you've chosen actually is healthy, we'll bet it either tastes like cardboard, falls apart in the heat, or is very likely to chip a tooth when it gets cold.
This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the issues with these so-called “healthy” energy bars...
But in this article, all the dirty little secrets of the energy bar industry will be revealed, and you'll find out the disturbing truth about everything from "healthy" ingredients to processing, preservatives and more. You'll also learn about Kion co-founder Ben Greenfield's quest to create the perfect clean energy bar.
The Origin of Energy Bars: Straight From Outer Space
The first energy bars were actually made for astronauts. Pillsbury (yep, the Pillsbury dough boy folks) created Space Food Sticks in the 1960s, modeling them after the small "space food cubes" eaten by astronaut Scott Carpenter on board Aurora 7 in 1962.
Pillsbury's food engineers had already been hard at work on similar engineered sources of nutrients and calories, such as non-crumbly cake, relish that could be served in slices and meat that needed no refrigeration to be able to take into space and to have a long shelf life. In 1970, Pillsbury filed a trademark for Space Food Sticks, then repackaged and advertised them to consumers as a “nutritionally balanced between-meal snack.”
Space Food Sticks faded from the market as the space program was removed from government focus, and thus energy bars didn’t appear back on the scene until 1986 when Canadian marathoner Brian Maxwell founded a company you may already be familiar with: PowerBar. Maxwell claimed to be “creating the perfect energy bar, to help athletes survive long-distance events without running out of glycogen". He and his wife progressed from handing out the fledgling bar to marathoners after races to eventually selling to Nestlé in 2000 for $375 million!
...and we all know what happened then: a host of flashy energy bar and processed health food marketing companies from Clif Bar to Muscle Milk emerged to form the nearly $9 billion food bar market that now exists today (unfortunately primarily comprised of a host of chemical cocktails neatly packaged in plastic and full of a host of nasty compounds).
Three Secrets Of The Energy Bar Industry
Secret No. 1: Preservatives
Preservatives such as BHA, BHT, sodium nitrate, sulfites, sodium benzoate and other chemicals are very often found in modern energy bars to improve their shelf life and make them "edible" for years and years. This saves these bar companies plenty of money, but also results in plenty of chemicals getting shoved into your gaping maw every time you bite down on that "organic" packaged munch-able.
The health consequences of consuming food preservatives range from mild to severe, and include but are not limited to headaches, allergies, asthma, skin rashes, and even cancer.
The bottom line: Preservatives are added to food products to improve a company's bottom line, not your health.
Secret No. 2: Cheap Protein
Most bars are also using proteins from cheap sources such as soy and whey protein isolate, both of which can cause allergies, autoimmune reactions, constipation, bloating, and other unpleasant reactions. But hey - at least they're inexpensive!
Soy is often touted for being a great plant-based source of protein with an amino acid profile similar to meat, but there are issues with modern soy products that actually block your body's ability to absorb this protein. Soybeans naturally contain anti-nutrients like saponins, phytates, trypsin inhibitors, goitrogens and phytoestrogens that cause digestive woes and block the digestion of plant proteins in the gut. And then, of course, there's the fact that over 90% of all soy in the US is genetically modified.
And what's worse, the soy found in your protein bar is probably soy protein isolate, which is more Twix bar than tofu. The process of "isolating" the soy protein leaves behind traces of neurotoxins such as hexane and aluminum.
Traditionally fermented soy on the other hand, like natto or miso, does not contain these anti-nutrients as they are destroyed in the fermentation process. However, I'm not aware of any energy bar that uses fermented soy products... that would be a little gross.
Secret No. 3: "Guilt Free, Low-Carb" Sweeteners
You may already be familiar with IMO if you read our other article, "What Is IMO? The Truth Behind “Healthy” Protein Bars".
IMO is a key "natural" ingredient in many so-called high-protein, low-carb energy bars. It's advertised as a “prebiotic fiber”, allowing bar manufacturers increase the amount of dietary fiber on the nutritional label, thus lowering the net carbohydrate content. Voila: low-carb!
Many quote-on-quote healthy energy bars also contain IMO because it is sweet-tasting enough to make an energy bar palatable while having fewer calories than natural sugar. On the surface, IMO appears to be a one-two punch of low-carb and low-calorie sweetness.
The problem is that IMO syrup (how it's commonly found in bars) is not a completely indigestible prebiotic dietary fiber, as claimed. It also does seem to spike blood sugar in healthy individuals, meaning that marketing it to a low-carb demographic that's typically wary of blood sugar spikes... well, that's a bit deceiving.
Another problem is that IMO syrup isn't really “natural”, as many bar labels claim. While IMO occurs naturally in some foods, it is not economically feasible to extract it from whole foods on a large scale. Because of this, commercially-available IMO syrups are enzymatically synthesized from starch, making it completely incorrect to say that the IMO syrup added to foods is natural in any way.
How to Create the Perfect Clean Energy Bar
Step 1: Minimize Preservatives
It turns out that the only preservatives really necessary to make a bar shelf stable can indeed be a few simple ingredients such as sea salt, chia seeds, Vitamin E contributors like almonds and tocopherols (a family of vitamin E compounds naturally found in foods like nuts, fish and leafy green vegetables).
Sea salt is about as natural as you get with preservatives, having been used for thousands of years before those convenient refrigerators came on the scene.
Additionally, almonds are dense with tocopherols and vitamin E (a natural preservative due to its antioxidant effects), chia seeds' overwhelming antioxidant stores allow them to hold up extremely well (two to three years at least) and skin, joint and gut nourishing gelatin is stable over a two year period.
By simply using real food such as salt, almonds, chia seeds, and gelatin, you can create a bar with decent shelf stability and no artificial preservatives.
Step 2: Use Non-Allergenic Proteins
Soy and whey aren't the only protein options out there, friends. Here are a number of others that are not only natural, but actually good for you!
Gelatin is a well-researched ingredient that has been actively studied for its benefits for the gut, joints and skin. Gelatin is highly bio-available, provides a full spectrum of long-chain amino acids for muscle support and serves as the building block of connective tissues such as bones, cartilage, skin, and tendons.
Another fantastic and hypoallergenic protein source is something called "kaniwa", a close cousin of quinoa that is often referred to as baby quinoa. Kaniwa is a plant-based protein with a higher amount of protein than quinoa but is also a perfect protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that your body cannot produce on its own.
Kaniwa is particularly high in lysine, an amino acid that is typically found only in small amounts in grain products. It also contains an enormous variety of vitamins and minerals, including iron, B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, and manganese. Kaniwa also contains flavonoids, which means it doesn't need extra preservatives added to keep it stable.
Both quinoa and kaniwa have a delicious nutty flavor, although kaniwa is slightly sweeter than quinoa. Additionally, kaniwa has a slightly crunchy texture, making it a perfect ingredient for an energy bar to give it added mouthfeel and "crunch".
Pea protein supplies a unique array of amino acids such as high amounts of lysine, arginine, branched-chain amino acids, enzymes, and other vitamins, minerals and nutrients. Not only is the plant-based pea protein (unlike peas or legumes themselves) very low in gut-irritating lectins and phytic acid due to the highly effective hydrolysis process used to extract the protein from the peas, but it's also a complete protein that is allergen-free, unlike whey and soy.
When combined, grass-fed gelatin, organic kaniwa and pea protein turn out to be a mighty flavorful and protein-packed threesome that allows you to get a perfect amount of protein into an energy bar with zero allergens, minimal preservatives, and amazing mouthfeel and flavor.
Step 3: Create Stable Energy with Healthy Fats
Healthy fats really are the key to stable energy, all day long. And when you combine clean protein with those fats, well, that puts the "energy" in energy bar! Here are a few amazing sources of fats, as well as another unique health properties.
White Chia Seeds
Harvested from the Salvia hispanica plant, white chia seeds pack a protein content of up to 25%, dietary fiber up to 30%, and significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Hence, chia seeds have garnished the coveted title of "superfood".
As a matter of fact, Aztec warriors ate chia seeds to give them energy and endurance, and claimed that a single spoonful of chia could sustain them for 24 hours. Chia actually means “strength” in the Mayan language, and they were known as “runners food” because runners and warriors would use them as fuel while running long distances or during battle.
Chia seeds also promote healthy skin, support the heart and digestive system, and nourish bones and muscles. Also, when soaked in the juices of the digestive system, chia seeds can coat the lining of the stomach and serve as a gut-nourishing compound, especially during physical activity.
Loaded with protein, healthy monounsaturated fat, fiber and antioxidants, almonds support performance and satiety while adding a crunchy texture. Their high oleic acid content also makes them perfect for nervous system and cell membrane support.
Chocolate of all kinds (except the candy-bar kind) has a myriad of health benefits, but cocoa nibs are some of our favorites. A single ounce of cocoa nibs has a whopping 9 g of fiber to keep your digestive system running smoothly. They also contain contain antioxidants, magnesium (64 mg in a single ounce), potassium (more per ounce than bananas), iron, and other mood-enhancing nutrients.
Once thought of as unhealthy because of being a "high saturated fat" food, we now know that the fat in coconut is different from most other fats. Not only is it an extremely stable saturated fat that will not turn rancid at high heat like vegetable oils - a much more common ingredient in most energy bars - but it is also an extremely rich source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are burned easily as a slow-release form of fuel and do not circulate in the bloodstream like other fats. Instead, MCTs are sent straight to the liver and converted into energy and ketones.
And that is how you make an energy bar with healthy fats, sans the greasiness or gooey chocolate coating: white chia seeds, almonds, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, cocoa nibs and coconut flakes!
Step 4: Use Small Amounts of Healthy, Natural Sweeteners
Most energy bars do not use healthy OR natural sweeteners, fearing a rising calorie count on their label. But, at this point, we all know that calories are NOT the only thing that matters when it comes to health or your waistline, right?
What matters is the quality of your calories. Where are they coming from? Are they natural, fairly unprocessed sources? Are they nutrient-dense?
This is why we are firm believers that unless you are following strict, long-term keto for specific health reasons, a little bit of natural, healthy sweeteners can definitely fit into a healthy diet. And organic honey is one of our favorites (many of the reasons are outlined in this article).
Along with blackstrap molasses and maple syrup, honey is one of the most nutrient-dense, natural sweeteners. It's a great source of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, and has a relatively low Glycemic Load - meaning the effect on blood sugar is very minimal.
In reality, honey is far, far different than sugar, and there is now plenty of clinical research proving these significant differences. For example, a 2010 RCT study compared the effects of honey or sugar on appetite hormones and glycemic and thermic effects after a meal in 14 healthy, non-obese women. The researchers found that the group given 450 calories of honey in their breakfasts experienced "a blunted glycemic response that may be beneficial for reducing glucose intolerance," and saw positive modulation of appetite hormones, compared to the sugar group.
Another study published in Journal of Medical Food in 2004 compared honey to dextrose and sucrose and found that natural honey was capable of lowering plasma glucose, C-reactive protein and homocysteine in healthy, diabetic and hyperlipidemic subjects. Animal research has also confirmed that, when compared to sucrose (such as you'd find in sugar), honey is far more effective at promoting lower weight gain, fat accumulation, and triglycerides.
Another very cool thing about honey is that it, along with grass-fed gelatin, serves as an all-natural binder. That means that when you combine these two into a bar, there is no need for that nasty IMO syrup, or any other artificial fillers or binders.
Finally, when you add in natural fiber from almonds, cocoa nibs and white chia seeds, you get an even lower glycemic response, resulting in a TRUE energy bar that provides a stable source of energy with zero sugar crashes.
Step 5: Sneak In Extra Nutrients and Antioxidants
In addition to protein, there's one other important component to look for in an energy bar: high sources of natural, full-spectrum antioxidants without high amounts of synthetic antioxidants (the latter have been shown to actually blunt the physiological response to strength training). The inclusion of antioxidants from natural food sources can help to shut down the damaging free radicals caused by everything from excessive exercise to pollution to toxins to stress to lack of sleep and much more.
Organic honey, almonds, cocoa nibs, kaniwa, white chia seeds and chocolate liquor all contain antioxidants and flavonoids. These benefits are best delivered in their full-spectrum, natural format from whole food sources and not from supplements.
Not only do the ingredients above serve to make a bar simply jam-packed with free radical scavengers, but there is one other antioxidant-rich ingredient that hasn't been mentioned yet: sesame seeds. Sesame seeds add a nutty taste and a delicate crunch to the texture of a bar. They are also a source of calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin B1, zinc, molybdenum, selenium, and even more dietary fiber.
Step 6: Maximize Flavor Naturally
All these natural ingredients are great, but how do you actually make a bar taste good without adding taste enhancers like high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, sucralose or gas and bloating-inducing sugar alcohols like erythritol, sorbitol and xylitol?
By using.. add this one to your vocabulary... Organoleptics.
Organoleptic properties are the aspects of food, water or other substances that you experience via any of your senses, and this can include taste, sight, smell, and touch.
When organic honey is combined with slightly bitter cocoa nibs, the result is a perfect chocolate flavor. The chocolate liquor and coconut flakes provide a slightly sweeter effect, but all in a very subtle, non-overwhelming way. Then the white chia seeds, kaniwa and almonds give the bar a natural, nutty crisp.
This results in a bar that is incredibly flavorful and extremely well put together from a taste, sight, smell and touch standpoint - without artificial flavors, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or "natural" flavors added.
Step 7: Real-Life Testing
And finally, the truth is, most modern energy bars aren't tested in the trenches before making it to shelves - no matter how tasty or healthy they really are. Rarely do companies put their food products through rigorous, real-life testing to ensure they won't freeze into a tooth-chipping brick or melt into a giant, greasy pile of goo.
You probably know this if you've ever packed a (BRAND NAME) bar in your bag on the ski slopes, tucked it into your pocket during a long run, or left it in your car on a hot summer day.
It's not only important to have an energy bar that actually keeps you satiated, tastes delicious, and doesn't rot your gut or spike your blood sugar; it also needs to be able to keep up with your rigorous, adventurous, active lifestyle.
Because, if it doesn't, what's the point?
Thus, The Creation of a *Truly* Clean, Healthy Energy Bar
And that, folks, is how the Kion Bar came to be.
By combining all the health-promoting ingredients you just read about, we created a clean, hypoallergenic, guilt-free energy bar. It's jam-packed with a unique blend of ingredients that support energy, performance, gut health, and ideal body composition... without preservatives, cheap protein, ingredients you can't pronounce, or excess carbohydrates.
The Kion Clean Energy Bar has a balanced macro nutrient profile and ingredients you can feel good about, including:
- Cocoa Nibs
- Chia Seeds
- Coconut Flakes
- Chocolate Liquor
- Organic Rice Protein
- Pea Protein
- Sesame Seeds
- Cocoa Powder
- Cocoa Butter
- Sea Salt
- Organic Honey
And, yes, it's been tested "in the trenches". The Kion Bar has been out for three-hour long bike rides in 90+ degree heat, in a sauna for hours, and subjected to a 38 degrees below zero winter morning. No greasy goo or frozen bricks.
Finally: a tasty, appetite-satiating, nutrient-dense bar that can withstand the rigors of living a limitless, exciting life. Our Kion Bar is a stable source of energy without causing sugar crashes and delivers a big, tasty punch of mouth-watering, chocolatey-salty-coconut flavor.