Do It Yourself (part two – energy bars)

In part one I took a look at the trend of gaining independence from large corporations by making our own stuff. Here, I’m going to take the specific example of making your own food bars (i.e., energy bars, granola bars, fruit and nut bars, or whatever you want to call them).

Why would you want to go to the trouble to make your own bars anyway? Well, it’s a step towards independence that’s easy to take – you can make a month’s supply of bars in about an hour of prep time. You can control exactly what goes into them so that you don’t have to compromise on either nutrition or the social and environmental impact. And, even if you use higher quality ingredients, they still work out cheaper than buying commercial bars. They will also be fresher, allowing you to include ingredients like ground flax seeds* and walnuts that are not as commonly seen commercial bars for fear of rancidity (since they have to be stable enough to sit on a shelf for a year or two). I’ve found that making bars is a great way to work things like seeds, nuts, and dried berries into your diet. (By the way, whfoods.com is a great resource for checking the nutritional benefits of ingredients you might want to include, for example, sesame seeds or walnuts.) Finally, it’s a good way to use up items that are flirting with their expiration date. My chia seeds, bought during a bout of health-consciousness, had taunted me daily from their cupboard for about a year until I started making bars.

(*commercial bars sometimes contain whole flax seeds, but they should be ground before adding to your bars – otherwise they pass through your body largely undigested.)

If you’re not into this idea of making your own (or even if you are) I’ve provided scores for some of the commercial bars I’ve reviewed below – you can click a product name to bring you to the full review on Amazon. (Disclaimers: these are just my opinions; the point of the GSP is to encourage others to begin weighing in with their own opinions; and finally, apologies for the lack of more international products – send me a message if you want me to review anything, or better still, review it yourself and share the review!)

Clif Bar – Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch: 5/5 gold stars, 5/5 green stars.

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bars (various): 4/5 to 5/5 gold stars, 5/5 green stars.

Kashi Chocolate Almond and Sea Salt: 3/5 gold stars, 3/5 green stars.

Kashi Organic Blueberry Almond: 4/5 gold stars, 4/5 green stars.

Kellogg’s Nutri Grain Blueberry: 2/5 gold stars, 3/5 green stars.

Kind Cranberry Almond + Antioxidants: 5/5 gold stars, 2/5 green stars.

Kit’s Organic Fruit and Nut bar (various): 3/5 to 5/5 gold stars, 5/5 green stars.

Larabar ALT – Chocolate Chip Macaroon: 3/5 gold stars, 4/5 green stars.

Luna Protein – Chocolate Coconut Almond: 4/5 gold stars, 5/5 green stars.

As you can see, they vary quite a bit in terms of social and environmental impact (green stars) as well as quality/price (gold stars). Of the bars I reviewed, I thought Kind bars deserved the lowest score for social and environmental impact (2/5 green stars) but at the same time I gave them the highest rating for taste (5/5 gold stars). That’s sometimes the way with processed food – some of the tastiest and cheapest products have a negative social/environmental impact – and this applies to many non-food products and services too. This dissociation that sometimes exists between “quality” and social/environmental impact is one of the reasons we believe it’s important to have a separate green star rating (more on that here).

It’s worth saying a little more about Kind here. Not to single them out – I’m pretty sure there are worse options out there – but they serve to illustrate an important point about marketing versus reality. Kind bars have come to dominate food bar sales in the U.S. over the last few years, and there’s no doubt that they are well made and generally delicious. But I’m pretty sure that they owe a good portion of their success to the “Kind” image that they have carefully developed and nurtured. Much of the publicity and reputation that Kind Snacks have generated comes down to their Kind Causes program – they give out a $10K grant every month, based on whichever cause get the most votes. To put that into perspective, Kind’s sales were close to $120 million in 2012 and $200 million in 2013. They donate $10,000 per month, so that’s $120K per year, or 0.06% of their sales revenue for 2013 (probably about 0.02% of 2016 revenue, judging by their growth rate). This is a very small fraction of the amount donated by companies that have joined the 1% for the planet program, for example Clif Bar. Even to take a random example of a large multinational food company, Kellogg’s donate around 0.3% of net sales to charitable causes each year (source: their 2014 CSR report).

Another way of looking at it is that Kind Snacks donation of $120K represents 0.2% of 2012 pre-tax earnings (calculated at $47.6 million) while the average U.S. company donates 0.8% of pre-tax profits to charitable causes. You could say it’s great that they are donating anything at all, even if it less than the average U.S. company, but the fact is that donations are more or less the icing on the cake, the cake being a company that’s socially and environmentally responsible. In comparison to many of the other companies I’ve reviewed, there is little evidence that Kind Snacks rate well for social and environmental responsibility (ingredient sourcing, certifications, energy use, etc.). Hopefully that will change – they need to improve transparency on their corporate practices for one thing.

Another reason for making your own bars is to avoid the issue of packaging waste. Food bar sales are projected to reach $8.3 billion by 2016 in the U.S. alone, which translates to around 8.3 billion bar wrappers going to landfill every year (about 26 per person). I calculated how far a year’s worth of wrappers in the U.S. would stretch if placed end to end and was shocked to find that it works out at almost a million miles!! That’s enough to build four strings of wrappers to the moon every year! If a year’s worth of wrappers were laid out side by side they would completely cover four lanes of highway stretching from San Francisco to New York.

Highway
Imagine this highway entirely covered with plastic wrappers and stretching from San Francisco to New York. That’s how many energy bar wrappers we generate every year in the U.S. alone.

You can actually collect and send your wrappers to Terracycle where they will be recycled (or upcycled) into anything from a backpack to a park bench, and over 30 million wrappers have been processed in this way. But the vast majority go to landfill – at best – some will end up in our parks and oceans and along the sides of highways from SF to NY :/  It’s also worth mentioning that the plastic wrap is made from oil as are most of the inks used to print packaging labels. I won’t get into the inks here but many of the solvents and inks used to print packaging labels pose environmental threats and are also under study for risk of potential interactions with the food itself. It’s likely that this might change – Mule Bars in the UK are packaged in compostable wrappers – but whether or not a company will switch to biodegradable wrappers depends almost entirely on consumer demand.

So, finally, here’s a quick guide to making your own energy bars at home. For some of the ingredients and materials, I’ve added links to green star reviews that are posted on Amazon. It’s actually quite simple: basically, you combine 4 ½ cups of a selection of nuts/seeds/grain/dried fruit with up to one cup of your preferred sweetener (I would suggest 1 cup of sugar syrup such as brown rice syrup or ¾ cup honey, which is sweeter). Then you pack this mixture into baking tray, lined with parchment paper. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight, and then cut into bars. I’ve found that the easiest way to start is to use solid honey as a sweetener (the kind that’s completely solid and opaque at room temperature, for example this one) since you only need to heat it enough to melt it and then it will naturally return to a solid state after you mix with the other ingredients and refrigerate. For other sweeteners, see the instructions below the recipe. So here’s one example:

Almond Cranberry Coconut bars.

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups almonds,

1 cup dried cranberries,

1 cup coconut flakes (toasted, preferably),

¾ cup rice puffs

3 tbsp ground flax seeds

¾ cup of solid honey

½ teaspoon salt

One teaspoon of vanilla extract (optional)

¾ teaspoon of almond extract (optional)

Method:

  1. Line a baking dish that’s around 8” square (or the equivalent area) with parchment paper.
  2. In a large glass or metal bowl, combine 4.5 cups of whatever mixture of dry ingredients you want to use. In this case it’s 1 ½ cup almonds, 1 cup dried cranberries, 1 cup coconut flakes (toasted, preferably), ¾ cup rice puffs, 3 tbsp ground flax seeds (or some variation on this).
  3. In a small saucepan combine ¾ cup of solid honey and ½ teaspoon salt and heat this until it just melts. I have metal measuring cups, so I just melted the honey in the cup itself. I also added a teaspoon of vanilla and ¾ teaspoon of almond extract, but these are optional. You can also reduce or omit the salt if desired.
  4. When the honey is melted, pour it over the dry ingredients and use a metal spoon or fork to quickly toss everything together so that the honey is distributed evenly. Continue to mix for a couple of minutes to ensure everything is well coated.
  5. Transfer the mixture into the lined baking dish and spread it out using the spoon or fork. Now begin to press it down firmly into the pan – this is a key step. Use the flat bottom of mug or bottle to tamp it down as much as possible, and continue to do this for a few minutes. If you don’t pack it firmly the bars will not hold together.
  6. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight in the baking pan. You can pack it down a little more after it has been refrigerated for an hour, if you wish. After refrigeration, carefully grasp the parchment paper on both sides and carefully pull the solid block out of the pan and transfer the whole thing (including paper) to a chopping board.
  7. Use a very sharp knife (I sharpen mine on the day) to cut the bars into fingers. If your block is 8’ square then I usually cut this down the middle into two 4” wide rectangles and then slice these into fingers around 1” wide.
  8. You can store the bars either in containers, re-using the parchment paper to separate layers, or wrap them in wax paper either individually or in pairs. Store in the fridge for several months (you will eat them before a month is up).
IMAG1517
Almond cranberry coconut bars

As far as dry ingredients go, you can really use anything you like. I’ve made a few varieties, using various mixtures of nuts, rice or millet puffs, seeds, coconut flakes, and dried fruit. Next, I want to experiment with spices and herbs. Even using organic / sustainable / socially responsible ingredients, each 40 gram bar worked out a lot cheaper than a store-bought bar with lower nutritional value and a poor social and environmental impact. (Total cost of ingredients: $11.85, if all of them are organic. Final weight was around 600g = 15 x 40g bars. Cost per bar: $0.79).

As far as the sweetener goes, I’ve used honey, brown rice syrup, simple syrup (sugar and water), and also mixtures such as brown rice syrup combined with maple syrup or date syrup. If you’re using a sweetener that’s not solid at room temperature (i.e. anything except solid honey) then you need to boil it for a few minutes so that crystals will form and it’ll solidify once cooled. If you happen to have a sugar thermometer, then you are aiming for just over 250 °F (121 °C) – known as the hard ball stage. I don’t have a thermometer so I just winged it by bringing to a boil and then keeping it on a full boil for 3-5 minutes.  To check for the hard ball stage without a thermometer, follow the instructions in this video. Basically, you sample a little of the boiling sugar in a metal spoon, and pour it into a bowl of cold water (it should be thick and ropy when you pour it) and then, after allowing it to cool for a few seconds, scoop it from the bottom of the bowl with your fingers (if you can’t scoop it up, then the sugar not ready yet) and see it will form a ball that doesn’t collapse, but which you can change the shape of if you squish it between your fingers. You can read more about the different stages of sugar here.

If you want to make bars with chocolate then add small pieces of chocolate to the top of the block after you tamp it down in the pan, or drizzle with melted chocolate. Don’t mix the chocolate in with the dry ingredients – the hot sugar will partially melt it and you’ll end up with a hot mess – I know this from experience! However, even if something goes wrong and your bars don’t hold together, you can still eat it as a trail mix or granola.

A final note about a couple of the main ingredients used here – honey and almonds. Did you know that California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds, and pollination of the trees requires 60% of the managed honeybees in the US? Having read about possible reasons for the widespread colony collapse disorder (CCD), I’m making an effort to use only organic almonds and organic honey. I’ll hopefully write a separate article about CCD later, but very briefly, modern practices have put several stresses on honeybees and it’s most likely that several factors are contributing to the phenomenon. For example:

  1. Large honey suppliers typically remove all of the honey from the hives, and give the bees sugar syrup (such as high fructose corn syrup) to survive over the winter. Bees depend on many of the more complex nutrients in honey / propolis / pollen for their health and also upkeep of the hive. Removing all of the honey can increase susceptibility of the bees to pathogens and reduce their ability to detoxify pesticides. Organic honey producers are required to leave some of the honey in the hive to get them through the winter and they are happy to do this since they care about the bees.
  2. Many studies have looked at the impact of the pesticides (such as neonicotinoids) and adjuvants on bee immune systems and also their learning ability. Adjuvants are additives that (in this case) increase absorption of the pesticides by the plant, and since they are considered trade secrets they are not disclosed by companies that make the pesticides. To take one example of the huge amount of research that has gone into CCD, researchers from Penn State University demonstrated that some adjuvants, particularly the newer, more potent organosilicones, have a significant negative impact on olfactory learning (the older plant oil adjuvants did not have a negative affect). Bees, of course, depend upon smell and navigation skills to forage for nectar and also to find their way back to the hive. Hives affected by CCD are not full of dead bees – they are usually devoid of bees – suggesting that impairment of navigation skills may be a factor in CCD.

When people talk about organic products (honey, veggies, nuts, etc.) it’s assumed that the main feature is the restriction of chemical pesticides. That is a big factor, and one that carries a huge impact. But organic farming also goes beyond this, and truly sustainable farming is carried out in harmony with the soil, our water, and the creatures such as the bees that we depend on – often more than we know.

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