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Bar None: All protein bars are not created equal

By H.K. Jones

Bars are HOT. Since the launch of the original PowerBar in 1987, many savvy marketers have entered the bar race producing a plethora of pocket-size products for bar-hungry consumers.

There are literally hundreds of portable, pre-wrapped bars competing for shelf space at gyms, health-food stores, drug stores and supermarkets. While bars can be a convenient source of calories on the run and are a better choice than say, a high calorie, fatty, salty fast-food meal or snack, all bars are not created equal. In fact, some aren’t much better for you than a candy bar.

With so many different types of bars on the market, choosing one that's healthy and suits your goals can be confusing. Here’s what you need to know.

Energy bars are packed with carbohydrates and were originally designed with endurance athletes in mind. Nowadays anyone who feels the need for a boost may keep a few stashed in a gym bag or a briefcase. Just keep in mind that "energy" only means "calories." Oranges give energy, Twinkies give energy and turkey sandwiches give energy, simply because they all provide calories. Same goes for energy bars. They supply calories and only calories—not the ability to run faster than a speeding bullet or the power to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Protein bars are loaded with, you guessed it, protein. Some even have as many as 30 grams per bar. The thing is, only men undergoing intense endurance training increase their protein needs. For men performing regular resistance exercises or weight lifting the Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein (around 0.36 grams per pound of body weight) is adequate.

In fact, the only way to build muscle is through exercise and bodies need only a modest amount of protein to function well. Extra protein doesn't give you extra strength or muscle, so extra protein bars won’t either. Consider your protein needs and your overall diet before you take the protein bar plunge.

Meal replacement bars are essentially "diet" bars as they are meant to replace a meal for dieters. Opting for a "meal in a bar" on occasion won’t hurt, but making a habit out of it will. While they’re portable and convenient regular use doesn’t provide all the benefits of a varied diet and there are ingredients in foods that are missing from bars.

• Lose the fat: Many bars are full of artery-clogging saturated and/or trans fat. Look for a bar that's low (less than 2 grams) in saturated and/or trans fat. [20 grams is the daily limit for saturated and trans fats]

• Check the calories: Bar calories range from 150 all the way to 300 and more. Check the calories listed on the label and plan the rest of your day accordingly.

• Find the fiber: Look for a bar with at least 3 grams of good-for-you fiber.

• Shake the sugar: The problem with virtually all bars is their loaded with sugar. Look for a bar with no more than 14 grams of sugar—the less sugar, the better.

• Bottom line: Bars are fine in a pinch, but they're far from ideal whole foods (think fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, beans, etc.). What you're buying is convenience, and if you not careful you could end up buying a fortified candy bar with added vitamins and minerals that have no value if you’re already eating a healthy diet. Before buying a bar flip it over and investigate, keeping your personal health and diet goals in mind. If you can help it, skip the bar and grab some real food instead.

PowerBar Performance
Type: Energy bar
Nutritional information: The Oatmeal Raisin flavor contains 230 calories, 10 grams of protein, 0.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 3 grams of fiber and 20 grams of sugar.

Pure Protein
Type: Protein bar
Nutritional information: The Chocolate Deluxe flavor contains 170 calories, 20 grams of protein, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 2 grams of fiber and 0 grams of sugar.

Zone Perfect
Type: Protein bar
Nutritional information: The Apple Cinnamon flavor contains 210 calories, 15 grams of protein, 3 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 1 gram of fiber and 14 grams of sugar.

Kashi GoLean
Type: Energy Bar
Nutritional information: The Crunchy Chocolate Caramel flavor contains 150 calories, 8 grams of protein, 2 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 6 grams of fiber and 14 grams of sugar.

Atkins Advantage
Type: Meal Replacement/Diet Bar
Nutritional information: The Chocolate Peanut Butter flavor contains 240 calories, 19 grams of protein, 6 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 10 grams of fiber and 1 gram of sugar.