Tired of running on sugar? A review of some alternative energy bars: James Lewis Foods and UGoBars
Sure, gels and gummy bears might work for shorter races. But most of us have experienced that nauseous feeling of oops-too-much-sugar a few hours into an ultramarathon. While a lot of people still run on gels, many ultrarunners and endurance athletes are turning away from sugar for energy, and moving towards either slower-burning complex carbs (the starches) or to going low-carb and training the body to run on fats.
There’s an increasing array of alternatives to the mainstream high-sugar products, and we’ve decided to test a couple of them. The two brands of energy bars we tried are not specifically low-carb (unlike some of the newer nut butter products that are out there), but they contain a very balanced blend of the macronutrients (yes, carbs – but also fat and protein), and they have a pretty good dose of fibre, too.
We selected two brands of energy bars: James Lewis Foods made in Squamish, BC, Canada, and UgoBars from Bloomington, Indiana, USA. Both are made by small companies that pride themselves on creating a thoughtfully designed product – with values strong on quality ingredients, delicious taste, and no preservatives. (Therefore both brands have a shorter shelf life than the mass-produced stuff, of around 3 months). Both come in clear packaging, so you know what you are getting before you make your decision to purchase – and both are available to order online (within their respective countries).
Dave Gilbert and I conducted taste tests on the total of seven bars, each making notes on the aspects that matter to each of us (such as flavour, sweetness, texture, how hard they are to bite and to swallow). I also compiled the nutritional information of the bars – both in terms of macronutrient content/ratios, and comparing them to one another percent-wise.
UGoBars: Anutter, Cool, Ultra and Wanderlust bars
I first heard of UGoBars at the Patagonia International Marathon and UltraTrail last year, from American runner Matt Flaherty – who won the 67k there! (Matt was also the US 50 mile road champion in 2013, and he’s currently in the Netherlands for the IAU 100 km world champs, racing this weekend). He’s also sponsored by UGoBar, so he sent me a selection of samples.
UGoBar founders Rebecca Walter and Tracy Gates are both runners. Back in 2013, when Rebecca was frequently on the road as a distance coach, the pair realized there was a need for a healthy snack bar that was balanced in its macronutrients, so they set about experimenting with recipes and ended up founding UGoBar.
UGoBar’s four flavours are surprisingly different – both in terms of macronutrient make-up and in flavour and texture. My two favourites were Anutter and Cool (not surprising for me, since they are the two higher-fat lower-sugar flavours, which is where my tastes lie). Anutter is pretty much a nut bar, based on peanuts and almonds, with a crunchy texture and a slight salty taste. Cool has almost the same nutritional make-up, but is quite
different – soft and chewy, based on dates, cashews, walnuts and coconut. Their other two bars, the sticky chewy Ultra and crispy crunchy Wanderlust were tasty too, but I liked the lower sugar content of the first two more. Dave found the Wanderlust a bit hard to chew and swallow – I didn’t have any problems there, though.
Like Matt, I appreciated UGoBars’ simple and natural ingredient list. As Matt says of the big-name brands: “Just look at the lengthy ingredient-list of most of these products!—full of soy isolates and oil and “spray-on” vitamins that don’t come from the food itself.”
Matt uses UGoBars for recovery after a long run, for snacks when travelling, and for long days such as big days in the mountains or very long runs. For use during long races, his preferred flavour is the Cool – the soft coconut-date one – since the dates conver to glucose quickly and break down easily.
All four bars are a bit on the small side, at 51 grams, and between 215 and 240 calories each – but they are a good size for eating on the go, and the right amount of calories to sustain you for an hour or so on the trail.
James Lewis Foods: TrailBlazer, DayTripper and PuddleJumper bars
Company founder and owner James Lewis is a trained chef who believes in using quality ingredients, and that foods made from such ingredients can be both tasty and healthy. Now based in Squamish, British Columbia, he saw a need in the mountain biking community for a whole-food energy bar, and set about designing one. (And of course, mountain bikers’ nutritional needs overlap with those of us ultrarunners!)
His bars are BIG – coming in at 110 grams, or between 510 and 520 calories each. That’s around twice as many calories as most other energy bars or granola bars, and at times too much to eat at once if you are on the move – but James came up with an innovative package design, where the label unsticks and can be used like tape to reseal the package of a partly eaten bar. Very crafty, James!
The three flavours all have peanut butter, whole oats, and quick oat flakes as their first three ingredients. Unlike UGoBars, these three bars are fairly similar to one another in both taste and texture: TrailBlazer and DayTripper especially. James uses different spices (with ingredients ranging from nutmeg to cinnamon to Chinese five-spice) to flavour them. PuddleJumper is the highest-sugar one of the three; even though it doesn’t actually taste much sweeter than the others. It does have more of an oaty granola-bar texture than the other two.
Dave and I were both in agreement on our favourite flavour here – we both love the TrailBlazer. (In fact, I relied on it to save my butt heading up the big mountain at Patagonia Ultrafiord – and it was our nutrition of choice at the Sun Mountain 50 miler in Washington state as well). The TrailBlazer boasts a high content of both fat and protein, which I think are great for getting you through a long race, especially in the cold (and, as I learned at Ultrafiord, you can’t get nut butters out of their pouch if they are cold – but you can still eat your Trailblazer).
My only complaint about these bars is that they are crumbly – a bit hard to eat if you are on the move. I mentioned this to James, and he educated me a bit on the trade-offs of bar design! He wants to keep ingredients as natural and wholesome as possible. He could use
ingredients such as corn syrup, protein powders, hydrogenated oil or added sugars – all typical of mass-produced commercial bars – which would help the bars stick together more, but these are the types of ingredients he wants to avoid. Also, he said he could bake them to a hotter temperature, but then they would get harder faster and the shelf-life would be shorter. So, given that info, I’m OK with putting up with a bit of crumbling in order to know that what I am eating is real food!
Both brands of bars – James Lewis Foods and UGoBars – represent much more of a “real-food” make-up than many so-called traditional trail foods, which are either based mainly on sugar (such as gels, which are almost entirely sugar, or many other brands of bars which are very high in sugar). These bars also have decent amounts of protein, fat and fibre – much more akin to the nutrient balance of a regular meal.
Since these two bars are so very different in size (James Lewis Foods bars are more than twice the weight and calorie content of the UGoBars), as a final comparison I put together a table comparing their ingredients as a percentage (in other words, the weight of the macronutrients as a percentage of the total weight of the bar). I also threw in a Chocolate Chip Clif Bar for comparison. I was surprised to see that the Clif Bar, although lower in fat than these artesanal bars, was not that much higher in sugar (even though I find them sickenly sweet). But if you look at the Clif Bar ingredient list, you’ll see why – it’s loaded with lots of soy-based processed protein products, as well as numerous types of added sugars.
So when would you use them?
Well, let me start that by answering when would you not use them. I think that, for elite runners who are really pushing at their max in a race for five or eight hours, these bars would probably be too slow to eat (chewing and swallowing) and probably a bit hard to digest. But for almost any other purpose, I think these bars make a great choice for any of:
– races that will last in excess of eight to ten hours, for elite runners who need to fuel on something more substantial than just sugar
– any ultramarathon race for mid-pack to back-of-the pack runners who will be on the course for eight hours or more
– hikes and long training runs
– snack foods while travelling
-and, especially, for multi-day staged ultramarathons – where you must fuel your body on the course not just for that day, but for the coming days as well (I’ve already ordered my Trailblazers for my upcoming races – the 3-day Golden Ultra next week, and the 7-day Kalahari Augrabies Endurance Marathon next month!).
If you can get your hands on either of these natural bars, I really recommend them – a much better option than running on sugars, and also a really well balanced blend of healthy ingredients that are good for you at any time – not just on the trails. You can order UGoBars from the USA ($US2.50 each), and the bars from James Lewis Foods if you are in Canada ($CAD3.50 each, which is currently around $US2.65). And if you are not in North America, I’m sure you can find a small-scale local manufacturer making a similar type of natural energy bar where you live – look around!