Fuel for Thought: Energy Bar Basics

August 18, 2014
Energy Bar
iStockThe energy bar market is saturated with flavors ranging from bland to eccentric.

Astronauts select specially formulated foods that meet their nutritional needs and hold up to the rigors of space travel. Their food is nutritionally balanced and easy to store, consume, and digest.

Energy bars also come in specialized formulas, giving hikers—and other athletes—access to their own version of space food. Energy bars are portable, easily digestible, and have a long shelf life. They pack a nutritional punch and come in flavors like cherry pie, ginger cookie, and blueberry bliss.

Though not as rigorous as space travel, hiking can be demanding, and fueling up before, during, and after activity is important for building sufficient energy stores and strength. Depending on several factors, a hiker can burn 400 to 800 calories per hour. Energy bars are a great on-the-go option for meeting some of this caloric need, and hikers have an increasing variety of options to choose from in today’s burgeoning nutritional supplement market. Here are a few tips on what and what not to buy.

The Best Ingredients
Rhode Island-based dietician and nutritionist Corinne Goff, RD, spends time outdoors running, hiking, and cycling. She says, “Whole grains like oats, dried fruits, nuts and nut butters, and seeds are all ingredients to look for in an energy bar. These ingredients will provide a blend of carbohydrates, protein, and fat that will give your body energy, satisfy your hunger, and supply necessary vitamins and minerals.”

Look for bars with natural sweeteners like dates or other dried fruit, maple syrup, molasses, brown rice syrup, and agave. These ingredients contain complex sugars that maintain stable energy levels.

Nancy Clark, a Boston-area sports nutritionist and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, has been on the support crew for an expedition in the Himalaya and biked across the United States. Clark says a hiker needs carbohydrates to fuel muscles and protein to repair them and build strength. Carbohydrates and protein together in an energy bar are ideal, and there is an optimal ratio, Clark says: “Energy bars should have three times more grams of carbohydrates than protein.” Bars with this approximate ratio and the best ingredients include Clif Mojo, Luna Bar, Bumble Bar, Health Warrior Chia Bar, and Vega Berry Whole Food Energy Bar.

Energy bars can also be vegan or dairy-, soy-, or gluten-free, or be free of genetically modified organisms. Hikers can search the product database on the Non-GMO Project website to find specific brands.

What to Avoid
Avoid bars with refined sugars, which cause energy crashes. These sugars can go by many names, such as corn syrup or, says Goff, “anything ending in –ose, like glucose, maltose, or fructose.” Also avoid hydrogenated oil, otherwise known as trans-fat, which has been linked to health problems. Artificial ingredients like preservatives and colors are no good either. “If you see a strange word or a number in the ingredient list, it’s probably something artificial,” says Goff.

The Future of Energy Bars?
Insects, including crickets and moth larvae, are a new trend for energy bars. The thought of eating insects might seem gross, but these ingredients provide more protein by weight than chicken or steak, and are a more sustainable food source, which many countries already exploit. The insects are commonly ground into flour but may also be whole and are typically mixed with traditional ingredients such as chocolate and peanut butter. Of course, insects are not typically found in energy bars, so hikers should seek out up-and-coming brands like Chapul and Exo, and visit the advocacy organization Little Herds.

Hitting the Trail
Thankfully, a hiker’s options for fuel and nutrition are more diverse than an astronaut’s, and energy bars are a great option. While there is not a specific recommendation for daily intake, it is wise to use bars as supplements to sandwiches, jerky, trail mix, fruit, and, a favorite among trail-goers, chocolate. For those who don’t like the “space food” approach, good old raisins and peanuts will do the trick.


  • Energy bars are best digested when eaten with fresh fruit and plenty of water. Both accompaniments aid digestion and speed the transfer of fuel to your muscles.
  • Looking for high-octane meals minus the high price? Get more bang for your buck with these recipes.


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Sarah Galbraith

Sarah Galbraith is a backpacker and cyclist who recently started putting the two together on bikepacking trips with her young daughter. She lives in northeastern Vermont.