Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from the first chapter of Camilla V. Saulsbury’s ‘Power Hungry: The Ultimate Energy Bar Cookbook.’
For runners, the food pyramid is something like this: a base of bars, a middle layer of chews and goos and a top of beer. When we’re wanting something easy and quick, there is a way to make ourselves perfectly packable, portable, convenient energy before, during and after our runs.
The shelves of every running store—as well as supermarket and convenience store—showcase the ever-expanding options (or, at least, the triumph of innovative packaging).
Despite the plethora of bars on the market, something seemingly counter-intuitive is occurring: people are opting to make power bars at home and scouring the internet to find recipes for doing so.
Hence the conundrum: if daily life feels more time-crunched than ever, why on earth make homemade versions of a readily available convenience food?
While there are idiosyncratic reasons contributing to the trend, two key issues are driving it: cost and ingredient control.
Power bars retail for anywhere between one and four dollars apiece, depending on the type of bar (for example, high protein bars and raw bars can cost far more than basic energy bars) and where it’s purchased (for example, bars cost far less at warehouse club stores than at health food stores or gyms). While a single bar won’t break the bank, the cost of eating multiple power bars in a week’s time—typical for trail runners—can quickly become prohibitive.
(2) Ingredient Control
The second reason is ingredient control, which I contend is an even more compelling argument than cost. The demand for all-natural, high-quality food is fast becoming the rule rather than the exception and people of all stripes and sorts are seeking greater control over the food they eat, and that includes power bars.
Junky Ingredients: Ironically, a large percentage of power bars on the market are loaded with a range of unhealthy ingredients such as synthetic flavorings, artificial sweeteners, soy protein isolate, sugar alcohols, hydrogenated oils, chemical colorants and high- fructose corn syrup.
Additional ingredient-control factors driving consumers towards DIY power bars include the following:
Poor Taste: “Poor” taste is putting it nicely. A consistent complaint about ready-to-eat power bars is the flavor—that they are too sweet, cloying or have a peculiar aftertaste from the protein ingredients.
Repetitive Flavors: Further, despite hundreds of brands on the market, the same tastes and textures are employed again and again (think peanut butter and chocolate, double chocolate fudge, chocolate and peanut butter, etc.), inevitably leading to power bar palate fatigue.
Artificial Preservatives: The majority of power bars on the market—even many of the bars touting “natural” labels—contain synthetic, artificial preservatives to ensure a long shelf life and create a more visually appealing product. Part of the problem is that, while labels such as “organic” are federally regulated, wording such as “natural” and “all-natural” are not; manufacturers are able to define the terms as they choose. Homemade bars require no such artificial wording, ingredients, or anything.
Low-Quality Protein: The protein in power bars is a large part of their appeal. However, the protein used in ready-made bars is typically very low quality options, such as hydrolyzed animal collagen, hydrolyzed gelatin, and soy protein isolate, a waste product gleaned from the processing of primary soy products, such as tofu.
High-Allergen Ingredients: An estimated 25 million Americans suffer from food allergies and several of the top food allergens—soy, gluten, corn, egg, dairy, and nuts—are principal ingredients in manufactured power bars. Even if the bars do not contain one or more of these ingredients, they are typically manufactured in plants that process such foods, which raises concerns of cross contamination and eliminates them as an option.
But take heart—all-natural, affordable power bars are possible. My book, Power Hungry: The Ultimate Energy Bar Cookbook, has a simple premise: do-it-yourself power bar recipes that emphasize taste, maximize nutrition, minimize cost and eliminate the junk can be made at home with ease and flair. They are endlessly customizable, too, so you can always hit the trail in delicious style!
Seeds of Power Bars
Who knew that sowing the seeds of power was as simple as whipping up a batch of no-bake power bars? OK, I did. Seeds really are packed with power—think of any seed as a concentrated dose of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and essential fatty acids. They are a perfect alternative to nuts, but these bars demonstrate that they are far more than understudies.
MAKES 20 BARS
- 1 1/2 cups quinoa flakes or quick- cooking rolled oats
- 1/4 cup sesame seeds
- 1/4 cup millet or hemp hearts
- 1/4 cup chia seeds or poppy seeds
- 1/4 cup flaxseed meal
- 3/4 cup plain nondairy milk or low- fat dairy milk
- 3/4 cup uncooked multigrain hot cereal
- 3/4 cup natural, unsweetened sunflower seed butter or tahini
- 1/2 cup agave nectar or honey
- 1 tablespoon finely grated orange or lemon zest
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 cup dried cherries or dried cranberries, roughly chopped
1. Line a 9-inch square baking pan with foil or parchment paper and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Preheat oven to 350°F.
3. Spread the quinoa flakes, sesame seeds, and millet on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven for 6 to 8 minutes, shaking halfway through, until golden and fragrant. Transfer to a large bowl; stir in the chia seeds and flaxseed meal.
4. Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cereal; cover and let stand for 2 minutes. Add the sunflower seed butter, agave nectar, orange zest, and salt. Cook and stir the mixture over low heat for 7 minutes, until thickened and all of the liquid is absorbed.
5. Immediately add the cereal mixture and the cherries to the quinoa mixture, mixing with a spatula until coated.
6. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan. Place a large piece of parchment paper, wax paper, or plastic wrap (coated with nonstick cooking spray) atop the bar mixture and use it to spread, flatten, and very firmly compact the mixture evenly in the pan. Refrigerate at least 2 hours until firmly set.
7. Using the liner, lift the mixture from the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 20 bars.
- Seeds of all varieties can become rancid quickly due to their high oil content. To keep them fresh as long as possible, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer.
- Vary the type and amounts of the different seeds as much as you like so long as the total amount equals 3/4 cup.
Tightly wrap the bars individually in plastic wrap.
- Room Temperature: 2 days
- Refrigerator: 1 week
- Freezer: 3 months in airtight container; thaw 1 hour
- Serving size: 1 bar
- Calories: 199
- Fat: 9.2 g (Saturated 3 g)
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 37 mg
- Carbs: 24.8 g (Fiber 3.3 g; Sugars 12.6 g)
- Protein: 6.1g
- Sesame Cashew Bars
Prepare as directed, but replace the millet and chia seeds with 1/2 cup finely chopped raw cashews and replace the sunflower seed butter with an equal amount of natural, unsweetened cashew butter. Replace the orange zest with 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and add 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger along with the salt.
- Sunflower-Fig Bars
Prepare as directed, but replace the sesame seeds, millet, and chia seeds with 3/4 cup raw sunflower seeds. Use lemon zest, not orange zest.