Energy Bars Tell the Story of a Nation Obsessed With Food

Homer Simpson wants to get in shape. His son was ashamed of his performance at the church capture the flag game, so he starts a workout regimen, hoping to regain his pride. One night at the Kwik-E-Mart, he discovers what he thinks will be his secret weapon: Powersauce bars. Advertised as allowing consumers to “unleash the power of apples,” the bars are marketed as the ultimate in athletic fuel. Soon, they are the only thing Homer will eat, convinced that without them he’ll lose his strength. Eventually, during an attempt to climb the town’s highest mountain, Homer is told they’re nothing but “apple cores and old Chinese newspapers.”

This is not to say all energy, protein and meal-replacement bars are marketing ruses like this fictional one from The Simpsons, but they are all variations on a theme. Whatever you want, they not only provide but provide in its entirety. Want to bulk up? They have all the protein you need. Want to lose weight? Eat one instead of a meal. Want to eat clean? They have no additives, and are basically just fruit. Bars are a mirror: They reflect all of our cultural obsessions and anxieties around food. They pack all of our nutritional hopes and fears into a single serving.

Like memory foam and Tang, the first energy bars were made for astronauts. Pillsbury created Space Food Sticks in the 1960s “to be able to take into space, to have long shelf life, to not have to be refrigerated,” says Natalia Petrzela, a postwar historian at the New School and the author of an upcoming book about fitness culture in America. In 1970, Pillsbury filed a trademark for Space Food Sticks, then repackaged and advertised them to consumers as a “nutritionally balanced between-meal snack.”

“What I think is really interesting is that it was a moment in American food history when there was an incredible fascination with space and laboratory-created food,” says Petrzela. Canned goods were seen as clean, sterile alternatives to fresh vegetables. The convenience of prepackaged foods meant women were less tied to the kitchen. “In those days, there was a big marketing plus to say, ‘This was made in a lab by scientists.’ That was seen as the cutting edge of foodie culture.”

It’s like yogurt was 30 years ago — something only health nuts would eat.

Space Food Sticks faded from the market as the space program faded from government focus, and according to Petrzela, the energy bar as we know it today didn’t come around until 1986, when Canadian marathoner Brian Maxwell founded PowerBar. “I’m creating the perfect energy bar, to help athletes survive long-distance events without running out of glycogen,” Maxwell said of the product, which he and his wife handed out to marathoners after races to garner interest. He eventually sold to Nestlé in 2000 for $375 million.

When PowerBar emerged in the late 1980s, Petrzela says, the bars were marketed as fuel for athletes, but they soon crossed into the mainstream food and snack culture. You didn’t have to be a marathoner to eat a PowerBar, but doing so let you emulate one in your everyday life. Paddy Spence, president of Spence Information Services, told the New York Times in 1997, ”It’s like yogurt was 30 years ago — something only health nuts would eat. And now it’s a staple in mainstream diets.”

Soon, competitors like Clif Bar, Balance Bar and bars from Muscle Milk entered the space and marketed themselves as healthy and/or energizing to a population that wasn’t sure what they were looking for aside from a general sense of “health.” In a 1997 interview with the New York Times, Maxwell scoffed at the Clif Bar as “basically the nutritional equivalent of a graham cracker” (which itself was the health food craze of its day). He also came for Balance Bar, which he accused of preying “upon gullible people looking for quick fixes.”

By the late ’90s and early 2000s, the energy bar’s infiltration into mainstream diets marked a shift toward greater diversification of who they are marketed to and how. And that began to happen along gendered lines, with bars like Clif Bar and Quest Nutrition marketed to men as fuel for workouts and bars like ThinkThin and those created for the Weight Watchers and Zone diets marketed to women as a means to shed weight. Petrzela cites some common marketing phrases such as “It’ll make you feel full” or “It has exactly the number of calories and fat that you need” or “The portions are premade so there’s no guesswork or temptation.” “That’s part of the diet culture framing for women, and it’s important [to note] that’s actually not the framing for men.”

The quick fix: That’s what the energy bar is all about, then and now.

If energy bars reflect the food trends and anxieties of their times, then it’s no surprise that the “it” bars of the modern moment are marketed as whole, unpackaged, “real” foods — a positioning that subverts the entire notion of a packaged, shelf-stable bar that’s ready for you on the go.

Petrzela mentions the currently popular RxBar, a “whole-food protein bar,” which lists its ingredients in bold white lettering on the front of its plastic package: “3 egg whites, 6 almonds, 4 cashews, 2 dates, NO BS.” Larabar, a competitor, similarly emphasizes its “minimal, pure ingredients,” which tend to be nothing more than dates and cashews with some cinnamon or peanut butter mixed in. “Minimally processed, and as close to their natural state as possible,” Larabar assures customers on its website. The popular KIND Bar’s mission statement says the people behind the brand “believe if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it shouldn’t go into your body,” the kind of wording that signals pure, “natural” ingredients but also assumes customers can’t pronounce words longer than four syllables. All three brands’ ingredients are a far cry from the maltodextrin and powdered proteins of PowerBar.

“You check off all the foodie boxes,” Petrzela says of these modern spins, “but you also get your quick fix that has been a staple for the demand for bars since the 1960s.”

The quick fix: That’s what the energy bar is all about, then and now. As far as modern problems go, it’s not an unreasonable solution. Sometimes consumers do need a nutritious snack between meals. Sometimes buying a bar at the bodega affords one time for more pressing pursuits. And for the many people for whom a real lunch break is not provided, a prepackaged snack may be the best economical option.

Lisa Moskovitz, CEO of the NY Nutrition Group, notes that energy bars can be good for someone who does not have time for healthy meals or access to healthy meals outside the home. “Some protein bars can be a smart addition to your diet, especially if you struggle with getting in enough protein through whole foods like chicken, fish, eggs and dairy,” she says. However, not all protein bars are created equal. “I always believe in food first, and not all protein bars are a smart option,” she says. “Some are just vitamin-infused candy bars, so you want to be careful and always read the labels carefully.”

The promises of energy bars are seemingly limitless.

But energy bar brands want to offer more than a quick fix. They want to make you stronger or thinner, whichever you prefer. They want to replace your meals, make you feel healthy, help you look good, absolve you of all your dietary sins. The promises of energy bars are seemingly limitless.

No matter our relationship to food, whether we want lab-certified nutrition or “whole” nuts and fruits, the lingering influence of the energy bar’s space-age roots is palpable. The specifics of the branding are ever-changing, but they’re all selling us a world in which we won’t have to think about food at all — one capsule and you’re done. Which raises the question: Is that what we really want? Or is it merely a flashy marketing promise we’re continually willing to buy into?

Jaya Saxena is a freelancer writer whose work has appeared in ELLE, GQ, Racked, The Daily Dot, and more. She is based in Queens, NY. Follow her on Twitter.

Photos by Edith Young. 

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