The trends that led to food bars—those portable meal substitutes that pack energy and nutrition into a few inches of pressed granola—are something de Tocqueville would have relished: busier lifestyles and the importance of convenience; the blurring of meals and snacks; an emphasis on portion control amid an obesity epidemic; and a shift to urban dwelling, which means smaller kitchens and less cooking. The guys at Soylent think the tech world runs on chalky sludge shakes. But really, it’s food bars that fuel the Valley’s code slaves.
A quality bar made with real food. The well-balanced nutritional profile won’t trigger a sugar spike and insulin coma. Reasonably priced compared to other fancy protein bars.
The inverse relationship between healthy and tasty has not been disrupted. Tiny bits stick to teeth like epoxy; check the mirror before that PowerPoint presentation.
Supermarket aisles teem with the damn things, with one industry report noting more than 2,000 brands to choose from. One of the latest, Rxbar, comes from a Chicago startup by the same name that prides itself on selling a healthy comestible made with only a handful of high-quality ingredients. The minimalist ingredient list and protein-forward composition make Rxbars a favorite among workaholics and workout-types. The taste? Not so much.
The first thing you notice about Rxbar is the packaging. Unlike every other food substitute clogging the shelves at Whole Foods, these things stick out like a goth in a snowstorm. The packaging defines “bare bones.” If the Amish made food bars, the wrappers might look like this. The small and inconspicuous logo eschews the usual nut-n-berry-meets-rainforest motif in favor of an ingredient list featuring sans-serif type on a monochromatic matte background. Rxbar makes no claims that its product is a “superfood,” but dutifully lists the same final ingredient in each of its eight products: “No B.S.” A marketing gimmick, yes, but a good one.
The company makes a big deal about all the things you won’t find in an Rxbar. No added sugar. No dairy. No soy. No gluten. No GMOs. No preservatives. They aren’t organic, but they are Kosher. Paleo and Whole30-compliant, too. Rxbar uses egg whites instead of whey to jack up the protein quotient, making these suitable for the lactose intolerant. Vegans are out of luck, though.
Peel back the wrapper and these things look like something cooked up in someone’s kitchen and sliced with a pizza cutter. Actually… Back in 2013, the company founders whipped them up with a five-quart mixer at home. They marketed the bars to the CrossFit crowd (as in: “Rx the WOD, bro!”). The business expanded as college students, health food enthusiasts, and suburban moms embraced RXbars, but the product retains the garage startup vibe.
The wrapper of each bar lists just four ingredients, a combination of egg whites, nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans) or peanuts, and dates. Flip that bar over, though, and you realize that’s disingenuous. The back side of the label lists additional ingredients. The coffee chocolate bar, for example, includes cacao, coffee, sea salt, and natural coffee flavor. So much for “No B.S.”
Still, Melissa Wdowik, director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center at Colorado State University, gives the Rxbar marketing department a pass. For something made with so few ingredients, the nutritional data ticks all the right boxes: In 200 calories, you get 12 grams of protein, 8 grams of fat, 13 grams of sugar, and 4 grams of fiber. “This bar will satisfy,” Wdowik says, “but without the usual rise and fall in blood sugar.” She also praises Rxbar for not scrimping on the ingredients, and for using egg whites—“the gold standard for protein.”
Cheap bars use cheap ingredients. If you see soy protein isolate and chicory root listed first, the manufacturer boosted the protein and fiber numbers with junk. And beware of bars packed with vitamins. That typically camouflages cut-rate ingredients. Zero grams of sugar raises another red flag. It often means bars use sugar alcohols like erythritol (virtually calorie-free) and malitol (about half the calories of sugar). The first is poorly metabolized, the second is poorly digested and can trigger flatulence. Rxbars skip such consumer chicanery. And at just over two bucks a pop, they offer outstanding value.
Rxbars come in eight flavors. Chocolate sea salt is the best-seller, but the others enjoy loyal followings. The company plans to introduce three more next week: chocolate peanut butter, mixed berry, and chocolate chip. Grazers craving a tasting menu can order the Variety Pack of 12 bars for $27.
Despite the variety, these things taste remarkably similar. You can tell them apart, but the differences are nuanced—more like sniffing vapors than inhaling smoke—because the “natural flavors” come from the essential oils in the ingredients, not a laboratory somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike. Rxbar pours those flavor oils into the same matrix of egg whites (for speedy absorption by the body), nuts and peanuts (for healthy fat and mouth feel), and dates and figs (for natural sweetening and binding), so everything ends up tasting more or less the same.
As a result, Rxbars rate no better than OK on the tasty spectrum. A Kind Plus bar would crush them in a blind tasting, but offers just 4 grams of protein compared to the robust 12 grams in Rxbars. One Rxbar will quell hunger pangs on a long flight or bolster the standard yogurt-and-banana lunch.
Without all the preservatives and stabilizers, the chocolate peanut butter bar sheds oil like Gouda in the Sahara, chocolate chip tends to stick to your teeth, and mixed berry is exceptionally chewy. In fact, every Rxbar provides a mandible workout. When it comes to ingesting calories, though, chewing is good. It triggers the digestive process and sends a satiety signal to the brain that prevents overeating. If you can’t be bothered, fine—slurp down another chalky Soylent and keep coding until the singularity arrives.
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