Long before I bought my first adult-sized bicycle [yes, 44cm is adult-sized], I ate my first Luna bar. Sweet, crunchy, and formulated “especially for women” [I still haven’t really figured out what that means], it was a sign of a long year of packaged, processed food. Neck-deep in my first year of law school, trying to memorize cases that I hardly understood, with no time to take care of myself, I subsisted on Lean Cuisines, boxes of cereal, Pop Tarts, and bagels from Dunkin Donuts. I broke out, gained 10 pounds, and ended the year on a bicycle.
The following fall, teasing a friend in his first year of law school who was trapped in the library for the night, studying alongside a Clif bar, I understood his misery all too well when he complained:
“I haven’t eaten something that hasn’t come out of a package in three weeks...!”
Law school will make you paranoid [“Does that count as a tort? Am I being contributorily negligent?”], [slightly to extremely] fat, and an expert in processed food. Which is one reason why, when my stick-thin sister asked me to review energy/protein bars because “some of them taste like ass and I’d rather have someone else tell me that instead of finding out myself,” I sort of didn’t mind taking one for the team. Because between the Everlast, South Beach, Zone, Balance, Clif, Luna, Kind, and Larabars, I’ve figured out which stick-shaped forms of nutrition aren’t complete calorie-bombs, how to battle their respective wrappers on a bike, and which ones might result in the kind of gastronomic distress that no one should have to deal with when they’re 30 miles into a ride.
So whether you're in law school, studying for the bar, preparing for a ride, or just hungry, here are a few good standbys to have around...
Clif Bar Flavor tested: Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch Calories: 260 Carbs: 42 grams Fat: 6 grams Protein: 11 grams
Oh Clif. Like the lifelong guy friend who, if a girl is actually honest with herself, she just doesn’t want to date, there are just too many little flaws that banish Clif to the “friend ladder,” despite his bro status amongst many endurance athletes. Though boasting the use of organic oats and soybeans, and natural ingredients, there’s something about Clif that’s hard to swallow [so to speak]. Though the amount of carbs in one bar [almost as much as a bagel] is pretty well suited for a long endurance ride, and though the package is definitely bike-friendly in that it can be easily torn open with teeth and one hand [and what girl doesn’t like that?], Clif bars are really...hard [yes, that’s what she said]. I’ve run into Clif’s arms in rages of PMS-fueled carb-frenzies...and was forced to concentrate on chewing while breathing at the same time. And while that might be a good thing when your appetite is acting like a raging beast, it’s not so good when you’re trying to reduce something into a swallow-able consistency and pedal at the same time. Cutting up the bar into smaller, bite-sized pieces pre-ride helps, but you can’t really do much about the long-lasting chewiness.
If you’re into that, to each girl her own. But be forewarned: with soy protein isolate and soy flour listed as ingredients, to those with more delicate stomachs [read: me], Clif can be the cause of some gastrointestinal distress. As in, it makes me ridiculously gassy. So in the interest of saving you the sensation that your gas is the only thing propelling you forward because your gas-filled stomach has you curling up in pain when you pedal hard, if you might be sensitive to soy or soy flour, you might want to try eating one of these before you go out and munch on one mid-ride.
Luna Bar Flavor tested: Caramel Nut Brownie Calories: 180 Carbs: 27 grams Fat: 6 grams Protein: 8 grams
Luna Bar - Clif’s “women’s bar” - is like Clif’s younger sister who has a corporate job where she works at least 12 hours a day, cooks wholesome meals, goes to yoga once a week, and still finds time to spend quality time with her girlfriends. Supplemented with 24 vitamins and minerals, made with 70% organic ingredients, Luna Bar does it all, and is also formulated with calcium, folic acid, iron, and Vitamin D to “help women get more of the nutrients often lacking in their meal plans while being 100% natural and as organic as possible.” It’s a bar that’s perfectly shaped into visually appealing rectangles and just sweet enough to make the girls like her without coming off as fake.
Unlike her brother Clif, Luna is easier to break apart and savor, too. And with only 180 calories a pop, she’s a lot more versatile, making appearances as both bike energy food and as a quick afternoon snack. With the women-centric marketing and emphasis on all-natural ingredients, Luna’s girlfriends will always feel good about making a “healthier” choice, and one that is apparently tailor-made just for them.
With Luna’s support of women and women’s cycling, I want to like her, too. I want to believe in her, that she’s as healthy and wholesome as she claims. That she’s not really digging into pizza after yoga or living off bad Chinese take-out. But one bite, and the wholesome image crumbles a bit. Halfway into the bar, I stop lying to myself; Luna doesn’t taste any better than bars that aren’t “all-natural.” There’s a heavily processed, almost metallic taste to it, which makes the act of eating one only slightly more pleasant than chewing on a multi-vitamin [and I’m not talking about the kid’s chewables]. By the end, I’m questioning if the “chocolate” base was actually real chocolate or simply “chocolate-flavored.” And then there’s that whole soy flour and soy protein isolate gas problem that she shares with her brother Clif. I guess siblings are never that different, huh?
For those still willing to give Luna a chance, the bar does tend to shower crumbs. If you’re eating half and sticking the rest in a jersey pocket, you might want to shake out said jersey pocket post-ride.
Larabar Flavor tested: Apple Pie Calories: 190 Carbs: 24 grams Fat: 10 grams Protein: 4 grams
In contrast to Clif and Luna, Larabar is the ethical, trendy vegan friend you have that you sort of wish wasn't bi so you can have him all to yourself. Often confused with Luna, Larabars are as man-friendly as they come, and for those who refuse to consume anything that comes out of a package, Larabar's list of ingredients you can count on one hand and recognize will make them the exception to your rule.
Actually, like anything that is delicious, wholesome, and good-looking, Larabar might become your new, go-to, add-to-speed-dial crush. Larabar's honesty about what he's made of: dried fruit, nuts, and spices like cinnamon, and his complete lack of added sugar, gluten, or preservatives makes him both unique and addictive. He's a regular in the Pedal-Strike Household, sneaks into my bags as quick snacks, and is likely to be found in my jersey pocket. Sure I sometimes end up picking out dried apple and tiny bits of almonds out of my molars with my finger but let's be honest: I've done far more disgusting things. And Larabar - bless him - doesn't judge.
Kind Bar Flavor tested: Walnut and Date Calories: 170 Carbs: 22 grams Fat: 9 grams Protein: 3 grams
And finally, Kind bar. He's a gluten-free veg-head, too, though not vegan because he still likes his honey. A mix of nuts, dried fruit, and puffed rice, just like Sram's shifting, Kind bar has taken the best of both energy bar worlds, combining natural ingredients with some moderately processed ones to produce something pretty frickin' delicious. Like Larabar, Kind bar is comfortable enough with himself to be upfront about what's under that wrapper: the transparent packaging lets you see that you're buying something you can recognize as hunks of buttery-tasting walnuts mixed with dates, honey, and raisins. To add to his appeal, Kind bar even actively supports doing kind acts. So if you're in the market for a guy that doesn't just front about what he's about, Kind bar is your man.
Kind bar's only downside is that the clever, attractive packaging plastic is thick and sturdy, making on the bike consumption a bit more difficult. The thinness of the individual bars also means that cutting them up pre-ride isn't so much of an option. But the chewy yet kinda crispy texture can't be beat, and if you're looking for a wider range of bars - like those drizzled with chocolate or yogurt or supplemented with calcium - yet still want to keep it as natural as possible, Kind delivers, without any chemical aftertaste.
I know I mentioned I'm an expert in the field of energy bar eating, so it would be irresponsible of me to say that this is any kind of exhaustive list. These four - whatever your goal - should cover the bases. But if you have a favorite that you're pretty sure I definitely have to try, let me know. I'm always up for eating more things that come in small packages.