The complete story behind why we decided to create an energy bar. It wasn't the easy way. But for us, it was the only way.
When Chef Biju Thomas and Dr. Allen Lim wrote The Feed Zone Cookbook and Feed Zone Portables - full of portable real food recipes intended for activity, travel, and life on the go - one of their major goals was to give people alternatives to prepackaged energy bars. For years, the professional athletes that Dr. Lim worked with, who relied heavily on energy bars to fuel themselves in training and racing, complained that the bars they ate were too dry, too hard to chew, sat in their bellies and guts like bricks, and just didn’t taste good. But, the convenience and their energy density made the bars a necessary evil until he started taking the time to make fresh “portables” from scratch.
The effort, however, wasn’t easy. He started traveling the Pro Cycling Tour with a rice cooker and tiny kitchen that he managed to stuff in his baggage. All so he could make little sushi-style rice cakes to fuel and nourish the riders he cared for. Despite his commitment and the immense pride he took in what he was doing, he almost always cursed the process. “It was a major pain in the butt and I endured endless taunting from Pro-Tour staffers who liked to zero in on the awkwardness and perhaps absurdity of an Asian scientist fumbling around the world with a rice cooker as his secret weapon”, said Lim. Fortunately, the absurd worked. The rice cakes put a halt to the complaints riders had about energy bars and elevated everyone’s performance, including the directors and mechanics who snacked on portables, intended for the athletes, while they sat in the team cars following the race.
What that experience taught him was not to be afraid of questioning the norm or the hard work that the answers might bring. While pre-packaged energy bars were and still are the norm, he questioned whether energy bars were truly something better or just a convenience. When we buy pre-packaged energy bars we are primarily purchasing convenience. More broadly, it’s been his experience that from a taste, nutritional, and performance standpoint, if you chose the right recipes and practice some patience, home-cooked portables are almost always better than pre-packaged energy bars. That said, regardless of format, it’s still about making the right choice for the context or goal at hand.
It was from this perspective that we began making thousands of cookie bars for the peloton at the Tour of California and then later began selling a home cookie mix as yet another, slightly more convenient, alternative to prepackaged energy bars. We were initially just responding to what athletes were asking them for. In addition to rice cakes, they wanted cookies. So we made them. And it reaffirmed what everyone already knew - that a freshly made cookie is amazing, especially when you’re starving and working your butt off. Less apparent is the fact that when examining the macronutrient profile of our cookies, they weren’t too far off from a lot of mainstream energy bars. The combination of a lot of energy density in a small yet delicious form factor isn’t mere indulgence. It’s also what’s needed when staying fueled is an imperative. But, fresh cookies take work. They take some planning. They take time.
Admittedly, the harsh reality that Allen learned working with athletes and from living a fairly manic lifestyle is that there’s little space or time for anything extra. If something requires extra work, extra planning, and extra time, odds are it just isn’t going to happen. For most of our customers, this has made utilizing the recipes from the Feed Zone Cookbooks and our Cookie Mix more of a coveted treat than a regular staple in their lives. This means that energy bars are still a part of many of our pantries because having a prepackaged energy bar to eat when you need fuel and nourishment - when you are starting to lose it from hanger - is always better than having nothing at all. We wanted to use that experience and knowledge to make an energy bar that was actually better.
Despite that experience and knowledge, however, we started this process by simply asking. We got a hold of every energy bar currently on the market and we invited our community in to begin tasting them - to critique them, to chew, to deconstruct, and to scratch their heads with us about what they liked and what they didn’t like. From there, we headed out to the field with our favorite chefs and began experimenting with all manner of different bar recipes at a training camp in early February with a group of professional cyclists preparing for the upcoming World Tour season. Those experiments ranged the gamut from modified rice cakes, different baked foods, steamed foods, pressed foods, and even mixed foods like marshmallows and puffed rice.
Between the feedback that we had about existing energy bars and our trials in the field, we gathered a lot of information and began to clearly define our goals. We knew we wanted a bar that was first and foremost delicious. That was always primary before any other factor. From there it had to be easy to eat when on the go. The texture needed to be soft yet still interesting. We didn’t want an overly sweet bar. More importantly, we didn’t want a bar that left a sticky film or aftertaste in one’s mouth. At the same time, it had to be relatively dry for shelf life. All of this had to be done while still creating a balanced nutrient profile and enough energy density to ensure that the best athletes in the world could perform at their highest while eating this bar. Finally, we wanted to keep the bar as simple as possible, using the fewest number of whole food ingredients. We knew that if we could do all that, this bar would ultimately be a bar that was powerful enough for endurance workouts and one that’s tasty enough to eat any time of day.
Initially, it felt like we had given ourselves so many boundaries and requirements that we were going to either stifle our own creativity or simply stymy the process by being too unrealistic. But, we were also emboldened by the fact that we weren’t going to settle. That it was worth trying to create something that we would be really proud of. So we kept on working, enlisting food scientists, more chefs, and potential manufacturing partners. The process was part science, part art, and all craft.
By the time the Tour of California came around we tested a number of prototypes with a handful of trusted riders and knew we had something. Besides the rice cakes that the team staff were making fresh each morning, the only other food that was never left over at the end of each race day were our bars. And while a lot had gone into the process, the best sign we could ever have for moving forward with an actual product was seeing that our bars were good enough to result in the proverbial “clean plate.”
What gave us that clean plate was a nut butter blend created from a combination of either cashew and tahini or cashew and almond that was blended with sorghum flakes, quinoa crisps, and brown rice crisps as well as some oats and oat flour. That gave us a base that was airy yet still substantial and that had great structure but was still soft and easy to chew and break apart. For some sweetness, we added a little bit of tapioca syrup and coconut nectar. From that point, we created different flavor combinations by adding different fruits and nuts for taste, texture, and their nutrient profile.
It was through these different combinations of fruits and nuts that we came up with two of our initial flavors. The first was a “Chocolate Chips & Almonds” bar made with chunky vegan chocolate, crushed almonds, and dried cranberries. The second was a “Cherries & Pistachios” bar made with crushed pistachios and dried cherries. Both were on the slightly to the somewhat sweet side, with the Chocolate Chips & Almonds being a little sweeter than the Cherries & Pistachios.
But, we also knew that we wanted to try something completely different - something that was savory and salty as opposed to sweet. So we took our base and created a completely different bar by adding red miso, candied ginger, shiitake powder, soy sauce, red pepper, golden berries, a tiny bit of garlic powder, and maple. The result was a savory-sweet umami bar that was more of an ode to the savory rice cakes we’ve been cooking for years than to any bar currently on the market. While potentially polarizing for those not expecting such a departure in an energy bar, by the time the pro cycling season was wrapping up, this “Ginger & Miso” bar became the clear favorite for the teams we were supporting.
Nutritionally, we opted for a balanced macronutrient profile and a mid-size bar. The nutritional facts for each of our three flavors are listed below, but briefly for each 50-gram bar, our Chocolate Chips& Almonds, Cherries & Pistachios, and Ginger & Miso contain 200, 210, and 210 Calories, respectively. The carbohydrate content ranges from 27 grams for our Cherry Pistachio and Ginger & Miso (50% carbohydrate) to 30 grams for our Chocolate Chips & Almonds (58% carbohydrate). The fat content, derived from our nuts and nut butters ranges from 8 grams of fat in our Chocolate Chips & Almonds (34% fat) to 10 grams of fat in our Cherries & Pistachios and Ginger & Miso (40% fat). Finally, the protein content ranges from 4 grams in our Chocolate Chips & Almonds (8% protein) to 5 grams in our Cherries & Pistachios and Ginger & Miso (10% protein). Of note, the overall sugar profile sits on the low side compared to other bars with 7 grams of sugar in our Chocolate Chips & Almonds (14% of total Calories), 4 grams for our Cherries & Pistachios (8% of total Calories), and 3 grams for our Ginger & Miso (6% of total Calories).
This nutritional profile makes this bar suitable for use anytime one is hungry and needs a mixed macronutrient profile. Thus, we ended up calling this line of bars our “Anytime Energy Bar.” While it’s a great piece of the fueling strategy in the middle of an endurance event or race, it’s also appropriate as a snack while hungry at the office or on the way to a workout. Bigger picture, just like all of our products, we only include ingredients that have a functional purpose and focus on using only natural whole foods. There’s nothing synthetic or artificial in any of our bars, making them clean and suitable for both kids and active adults. They’re also gluten free, dairy free, vegan, and made with only non-GMO ingredients.
We knew that our efforts to create alternatives to energy bars were never going to usurp energy bars and their convenience. So we committed ourselves to make them better as a way to fulfill our mission of helping others to become better. We are truly proud of the ultimate result and hope that you’ll agree -- that you’ll use these bars as you continue to do all you can to be your best and to help others do the same.