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September 2, 2008

Not Your Father's Power Bar

Lady Astor: “How dare you, sir! What kind of woman do you think I am?”

Winston Churchill: “Madam, we have already established that. Now we are merely haggling over the price.”

(I’m aware that the above exchange may very well be an urban legend … but that doesn’t make it any less funny. Or any less appropriate for this post.)

Hopefully, if there’s one thing I’ve made perfectly clear over the past several months, it’s this: I’m always available for the right price.

The cost doesn’t even have to be remarkably high; in most cases, all it takes is a few samples of something for me to try out a product, and post a review here for all the blogosphere to see. Unfortunately, when my ultra season was unexpectedly extended an additional six weeks, I fell a bit behind with the most recent review, which I’ll rectify with today’s post.

By the end of this month, I hope to have four product reviews online, which seems like enough to justify a separate heading on my sidebar at right. If I were really talented, I’d figure out a way to make the links into little picture icons – but at this point, that seems entirely too time consuming for me to bother with.

Also, if you scroll down slightly further on the same sidebar, you’ll see my recent flirtation with the devil: a sampling of Google Ads. If you happen to be feeling bored and generous, feel free to send a few clicks my way. As I said, I’ll never be one to haggle you over a price.


Back in June, I was contacted by a rep from Power Bar, asking if I’d like to review some of their new product line.

Power Bar is to sports nutrition what the Nike waffle iron is to running shoes: a revolutionary product that gave rise to an entire industry. However, if you’re old enough to remember those initial Power Bar products, your memories may be something less than nostalgic – for the concept was far more advanced than the application.

First-generation Power Bars were more of a novelty than a food item: depending on the temperature, they were either hard as a rock or soft as pudding; they often took longer to digest than most folks took to run a marathon; and the taste of any flavor left much to be desired.

And yet, the company clearly tapped into an enormous demand for performance-related nutrition products; within the next several years, countless competitors flooded the market with variations on bars - not to mention gels and blocks and tablets and other concoctions aimed at endurance athletes, or anybody who just wanted to look like one (the vanity factor was a very big one in the late 1980s). All the while, Power Bar continued to tinker with its product line, frequently introducing new goods to keep pace with its competitors.

However, no matter what new formulations they came up with, Power Bar never entirely shook that old school reputation as the bars that don’t taste very good. To steal a phrase from the auto industry: they were your father’s energy bar. And that’s the image the most recent products are attempting to dispel.

You’ve probably seen the ads already; for example, this image took up a full page of my most recent Triathlete magazine:

That guy at the bottom would be Michael Phelps; you may have heard something about him lately. He’s a pretty decent swimmer, and apparently he’s been a Power Bar user since 2000. What he lacks, however, is a blog – and that’s where folks like me come in.

(This may be an appropriate time to mention to PR people out there – what’s a more affordable marketing strategy: paying top dollar for Phelps, or spreading the wealth among a handful of overly verbose bloggers who collectively get thousands of page views per month from aspiring athletes? It’s something interesting to think about. Remember, I’m here to help.)

A couple of months ago, I received the following shipment at my house:

Included were samples of three new products: “Energize” Fruit Smoothie Bars, Gel Blasts, and electrolyte packets. According to the website, the bars and gel blasts each feature something called a C2 Max carbohydrate blend, which is supposed to speed more energy to your muscles (and this where I insert my standard disclaimer: I don’t claim to know what the heck these various nutritional concoctions are, let alone vouch for their scientific accuracy). The electrolyte packets are a low calorie way to replenish sodium and potassium (among other things) during exercise. Let’s go through all three:

1. Energize Bars. Before you even open the packet, the first thing you’ll notice about these is their texture. They’re slightly soft to the touch, but still hold their shape well.

Remember when I said that the old Power Bars were always either too hard or too mushy? Well, there was also a very narrow “sweet spot” temperature range where the bars would be the perfect consistency for chewing, but solid enough to not be messy. Whenever you were lucky enough to accidentally discover it, those old bars actually went down pretty well.

I was pleased to find that the new Energize bars broaden that temperature range by a factor of about 100 – in other words, the bar is always at the right consistency for eating. So they’ve clearly made some progress in this regard over the past 20 years.

The bars come in three flavors: Berry Blast, Tangy Tropical, and Creamy Citrus. I sampled all three, and they all tasted great. In fact, since I used them this summer as a post-exercise snack following swim workouts, I found myself having flashbacks to my childhood, where I spent an unthinkable amount of money on Tangy Taffy from the Sugar Shack at our neighborhood pool - the taste and consistency of the Energize bars is (to my grown-up brain, at least) very similar. Anything that triggers memories of long, carefree summer swimming days is always going to earn high marks in my book.

2. Gel Blasts: These are comparable to Clif Blocks, and I used them on a couple of long training runs in place of my customary Sport Beans. They come in lemon or cola flavors, and their texture reminded me of biting into a jumbo marshmallow that had been left on the counter overnight: slightly firm to break through the surface, but chewy on the inside. And they didn’t taste as good as Sport Beans.

These were my least favorite of the three product types - but I suspect some of my dissatisfaction might just be a personal thing. During triathlons, I tend to use gels instead of chewy blocks, and during ultras, I prefer “normal” food like potatoes or PB&J sandwiches to replenish my fuel supply. The block-type products are a middle ground that I’ve never really embraced – that’s why the Sport Beans were such a revelation when I discovered them last year.

3. Electrolyte mix: This isn’t marketed as an energy drink (they have a separate sport drink for that), but a means to help replace fluids and electrolytes during exercise.

They are similar to the Nuun products I reviewed this spring – but with 10 calories per packet, they can add a bit of flavor (berry or lemon) that makes these taste much better (in my opinion) than the Nuun tablets. The taste is really nice – it’s flavorful, without being too sweet. Another huge advantage is that the Power Bar electrolytes are not carbonated, which addresses my biggest pet peeve about Nuun – namely, their tendency to explode out of the bottle after bouncing around in a waist pack for a few miles.

Each packet is intended to be mixed with 17oz of water, but I typically used them in my 20oz bottle, and they still tasted great. The packets are small enough that you can stuff a few in your pocket to use at water fountains later in your run or ride, so you don’t have to worry about carrying bulkier drink mixes if you’re primarily worried about replenishing electrolytes instead of calories – which in my world is any workout less than two hours.

So here’s my quick recap of the new Power Bar products: The Energize bars and electrolyte packets are awesome; the gel blasts, not so much. Of course, your opinion may vary. I’ll definitely continue using the items I enjoyed here, and it’s certainly worth a few of your dollars to do some sampling of your own if you get the opportunity.


stronger 9/2/08, 12:36 PM  

I read that "20 years ago" part and thought "crap, has it already been 20 years?!" I remember trying a powerbar for the first time at a western zones swim meet in CA. Yuck! It seemed like chewing up mashed up, stuck together coffee grounds. Chocolate?! I think not.

They HAVE come a long way in 20 years...or maybe it was me.

triguyjt 9/2/08, 4:35 PM  

I am gonna go the electrolyte route with those guys and see what they do...
I have be wrestling with doing the product review stuff too... company with skin products contacted me and I am wrestling with it.....
Too bad Churchill is dead to consult on this issue.....

Downhillnut 9/16/08, 7:03 AM  

One thing I like about the Nuuns is the carbonation - it adds a little zip to the drink when I'm feeling all hot and icky. You're right about it making the water bottle explode, though. I've been using the Nuuns in a water bottle with kind of a rubber pop-up nipple (shh. no giggling). It's great for letting the extra air out before I take a sip.

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