Americans are eating--and drinking--some pretty strange stuff these days. Too harried for sit-down meals or pressed to shed pounds or just carried away with the idea of a healthy snack, they're gobbling up by the millions what was once an esoteric favorite of long- distance bicycle racers, marathoners and mountain climbers: so-called energy, protein or diet bars. Even more surprising is their infatuation with flavored concoctions known variously as designer, health or fitness waters. Imaginatively bottled and labeled (Smartwater, Lizard Lightning, Magic Recovery) and laced with every sort of nutritional supplement imaginable, they're fast crowding such standbys as Perrier and Poland Spring off the shelves. But do these highly promoted products really deliver what they promise?
Some power bars are loaded with carbohydrates or caffeine for quick jolts. Others are confected with vitamins and minerals (calcium, for instance) thought to be particularly useful to women. The HeartBar even promises to improve circulation. The most popular of these meal-replacement products (total annual sales: $1 billion plus) are aimed at dieters. They offer up to 30 grams of protein per bar, usually in the form of soy--about 60% of the daily recommended allowance for a 138-lb. woman. Because of these differences, it's important to know the kind of bar you're getting. Unfortunately, you can't always count on the manufacturers for help.
Studying 30 popular bars, the White Plains, N.Y., testing firm ConsumerLab.com found only a dozen that were accurately labeled. The rest contained far more saturated fat (linked to heart disease), sodium (tied to high-blood pressure) and carbohydrates--as many as 100 calories more--than stated on the wrapper. Under Food and Drug Administration pressure, makers are promising to clean up their act. Bottom line: pick the right bar for your needs, but remember that you may do just as well with low-fat yogurt or a few turkey slices on whole wheat--and for less than the nearly $3 you will pay for the priciest bars.
The new waters are just as problematic. On their blushing labels, they offer energy and revitalization, increased alertness, even relief from the aches of premenstrual syndrome. They're like 19th century elixirs, but with a difference. In the popular bottler Glaceau's various brands, for instance, you will find such legit ingredients as vitamins, minerals, electrolytes and soy. But the drinks also contain a variety of supposedly health-boosting herbals--including ginseng, Ginkgo biloba, gotu kola, guarana and echinacea--that the FDA has never approved for consumption as food. Are they present in sufficient quantity to have any effect? Nutritionists can't say for sure. But there's at least one good thing about drinking a glass of designer water. It will help you digest those dense, nutrient-packed power bars.
--By Frederic Golden