Updated: Dec 21, 2018
Jill here - I make most of the performance bars we use on the bike. That's mainly about quality control but it's also about cost because, when you go further in endurance you really do eat a lot!
Trust me, it gets time consuming and even following all my own tips of making double batches and freezing it's easy to get caught out so it makes sense to have other options.
The goal of a performance nutrition bar is simple - it's an adjunct to fuel supply. You have whatever carbohydrate bottle mix you use which probably supplies between 30 and 50g carbohydrate per 640-750 ml.
Depending on your body weight, you're likely aiming for upwards of 60g of total carbohydrate per hour so a performance bar essentially supplies the additional calorie need. (There are of course other ways to supplement fuel needs - gels, blocks, real food, etc - this blog is purely about bars.)
There are so many different options out there, some good, some great, some not so great. Here are 3 things to think about when choosing your performance bar.
Taste and texture - seems obvious to go with the one that tastes good but your taste changes over time, especially when you're eating and drinking the same thing hour over hour. After 24 hours you may get 'sweet' overload so have a couple of different bar options to change it up.
Texture is actually more important. Granola type bars or anything flaky can be a problem. Have you ever gotten one of those wee flakes caught in the back of your throat as you are trying to eat and breath at the same time? Nasty and annoying.
I'd go for more moist options that also tend to be easier to chew and don't require as much saliva. Small things like this add up over time. At the end of a long race, you don't have a whole lot of extra time or energy for chewing so make sure your bars go down the hatch easily.
Macronutrient ratios - this is an interesting topic. You've heard me say that endurance is the art of managing nutritional depletion over time. Because you go for so long it's impossible to match your energy output with input so every single thing on the input side has to make a nutritional difference.
Your two primary fuels are carbohydrate, the end product of which is glucose and fat...
(yes, you can convert protein to glucose but it's not as efficient. Yes, you can convert your own body fat to fatty acids and ketones for fuel too and yes, you can eat and train in ways that encourages said body fat conversion. That's my next blog.)
OK, back to this blog.....
Protein doesn't have a primary role in actual performance, it comes into it's own in preparation and recovery phases. So when you train or race endurance, why take up valuable nutrition volume with a high protein bar?
Look for a bar with minimal protein, at least under 5 grams. Eat your high protein bar post training or racing.
Carbohydrate supplies 4 calories per gram, fat offers 9, making it a higher value fuel source. You already have a good carbohydrate source in your bottle mix and there will be at least 20-25 grams of carb in your bar so look for a bar that has a higher fat content, anything upwards of 6 grams is great.
Those extra grams of fat all add up over time leaving your fuel tank in as best shape as possible.
Having a higher fat content will also slow down overall absorption which provides a good counterbalance to all that fast absorbing carb.
Ingredients - it's easier to talk about what ingredients to avoid and there are two at the top of my list.
Polyols - (also known as sugar alcohols) are used to replace sugar in foods. I see them appearing more and more in performance bars as a response to the low-carb marketplace.
Polyols such as Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol, etc provide fewer calories per gram than carbohydrates because they are not efficiently absorbed and metabolized by humans. So they take up space without being absorbed. Not at all useful for endurance cycling. We need quality performance calories.
In addition, they attract and bind water in the gut making your gut hyper mobile. This may mean bathroom breaks and the kind you don't want. These digestive effects can occur with a serving of just 10 grams of polyols. There's a very popular bar in supermarkets right now with 12grams per serving.
Just don't do it!
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) - high fructose corn syrup is an industrial food product extracted from corn stalks.
Regular sugar is made up of two molecules, glucose and fructose, bound together in equal proportions. Your gut easily breaks the bond and absorbs each molecule.
The process of making HFCS both changes the ratio of fructose and glucose (more fructose to glucose) and leaves them in an unbound form meaning their absorption rate is abnormally high. The body responds to this sugar spike with a high dose of insulin which, rapidly clears the excess sugars from your blood. Your energy soars and then dives. Rapid absorption is not necessarily a good thing even though the sports product marketers might have you think so.
I rest my case!
With so many options out there it might be helpful to consider these 3 simple rules so that you can narrow down what bar might work for you. If it helps even more, when I'm behind on my own bar production, the bar we use is made by ZipVit, their Zv8. Joe finds it easy to take and it meets all the criteria I'm looking for.
I'd be really interested to hear what options work for you?