Healthy gourmet: how to find a good bar

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 9:40am

We like energy bars because they are convenient. Bars are great for lunch hours spent working out, for a post-hike snack in a remote country park and for a bite on the bicycle when fuss-free energy is key.

But as far as health is concerned, the bars we buy at the stores are not a substitute for a well-balanced meal made with real food. Even during prolonged exercise, there are better alternatives: home-baked bars, low-fat cakes, boiled rice patties, fresh and dried fruit, baked potatoes, and bread with Nutella.

In some cases, the harm of pre-packaged energy bars can outweigh the convenience they provide. Tooth decay, for example, is a serious problem for athletes because of the sugar content of bars. "Most bars in the market are the equivalent of candies," says dentist Dr James Costello. "They are marketed differently, but the effect of the sugar on the teeth is the same."

Costello started his own organic whole food bar range under the Hong Kong-based food company Stephen James Luxury Organics name when his brother Steve couldn't find an energy bar for his son that wasn't unhealthy, or tasted terrible, or both.

Costello's advice is to look for energy bars with low sugar content, or those that use complex sugars. This way, you can avoid the acidifying effect that refined sugars have on the blood. He suggests you "stay away from chewy and sticky bars that get caught between the teeth, and stay in the mouth longer".

Besides putting your smile at risk, bars may end up on your hips. Bars are meant to replenish energy stores during exercise, rather than being eaten as snacks. But they are often unnecessary, even for an athlete who exercises regularly.

Carbohydrates are the body's key source of energy. What is not consumed right away is stored in the muscles and the liver in the form of glycogen. The body can store around 445 grams of glycogen, and any extra is stored as fat.

Timing is also important: it takes the body at least two hours to digest and convert carbs into energy. Eating during a hike that's shorter than two hours will provide you with energy when you are back home.

You shouldn't eat proteins, fat, fibre and minerals such as zinc or iron just prior to, or during, prolonged exercise, as these ingredients are hard to digest.

Look for bars that provide at least 70 per cent of calories as carbohydrates. During activities longer than two hours, consume bars that offer at least 25 grams of carbs, and avoid eating just before or after moments of intense effort.

After exercise, replenish muscle glycogen. Bars containing high glycaemic-index carbs (meaning they are digested quicker), as well as some proteins, are recommended.

No two brands are equal. Examining the nutritional label before you buy is critical. You should look for products that do not contain high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to obesity and other health problems.

Differentiate between high-quality protein such as egg, milk, soy, whey or casein, and low-quality sources such as collagen and gelatin. Stay away from bars with trans fats and chemical sugar substitutes.

Costello showed me photographs of flax seeds taken with a so-called "energy camera" that is said to capture the life force energy in foods. He points out the considerable difference between regular and pre-sprouted seeds.

"The Chinese people considered qi to be the vital energy that sustains life. They understood intuitively the importance of [pre-sprouting] - soaking nuts and seeds before eating them as a way of activating their life energy," he says.

Costello suggests soaking nuts and seed for 10 hours before eating them. "Any concept of health and healing, in order to work, must include enzymes. Foods without enzymes create a 'drag' on the body which impairs peak performance in athletes. Pre-sprouting activates the enzymes in the food, which is then easily digested and converted to energy for your body."

Costello sees my upcoming 40th birthday as the tipping point when my qi level starts to decrease: "Your ability to recover is slower, your injuries take longer to heal and you start to look older. While in our youth, qi reserves were endless, from now on is very important to actively nourish your qi by eating energetic and balanced food."

I searched the internet for advice on how to make healthy bars at home, and was surprised at the amount of butter and sugar most recipes included. Instead, I came up with a non-dairy, gluten-free, low-sugar alternative that is easy to make, and tasty.

Andrea's energy bars
Makes six bars

80 grams walnuts

1 tbsp flax seeds

One whole pumpkin

100 grams jumbo oats

30 grams dried cranberries

1 tbsp honey

1/2 tsp cinnamon

  • Pre-sprout the walnuts for 16 hours and the flax seeds for eight hours by soaking them in water.
  • Cook one whole pumpkin in an oven at 160 degrees Celsius for one hour or until soft.
  • Peel it and process the flesh into a purée - you need 135 grams of this purée.
  • Roughly chop the cranberries and walnuts, and mix them with all the other ingredients in a bowl.
  • Place the mixture in a tray covered with baking paper.
  • Fill the tray with the mixture to about 1cm deep. Bake for 25 minutes at 180 degrees, or until brown.
  • Allow to cool and slice into blocks.

Healthy Gourmet is a weekly column by private chef Andrea Oschetti