When Lara Merriken dumped some nuts, dates and dried fruit into an old Cuisinart eight years ago, she had no idea she was pureeing her way into history. All Merriken wanted to do was create an energy bar that was more nutritious than the Snickers knockoffs she kept finding on supermarket shelves. What she ended up with was a prototype bar so simple, so virginal, so, well, raw, that it found a niche in the bloated, oversaturated energy-bar market.
Since the first Larabar hit the shelves in April 2003, a handful of other companies have introduced natural or organic, raw energy bars. Their basic belief is the same: Raw is good; cooked is bad. Or as Merriken puts it: "Food in its more whole, natural state is probably going to have more nutrients than food that is processed. It's like spokes of a bicycle wheel —when we remove them, we're taking away components that were meant to be." But is that really true? Or are your customers getting a raw deal, nutrient-wise, when they eat a raw bar?
The basic nutrition theory behind raw foods dates back to the 1930s when Dr. Edward Howell, began conducting research on various food components. He discovered that whole foods have 22 enzymes that aid digestion and detoxify the body, but if the food is heated to 118 degrees or higher, those enzymes are seared away. Howell's research is still cited today by raw foodists, but there haven't been many recent follow-up studies.
"There's just not enough overall research to really know how good raw foods truly are for you," says Tara Gidus, R.D., an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman based in Orlando, Fla. New studies have been inconclusive on the benefits of a raw diet. A German study published in the October 2005 Journal of Nutrition found that 201 people who ate a 70 percent to 100 percent raw-food diet had low LDL (bad) cholesterol levels but also low HDL (good) cholesterol. In addition, 38 percent were deficient in vitamin B12. Another study, published in the November 2007 edition of the British Journal of Nutrition, found that out of 198 men and women who followed a strict raw-food diet, 63 percent had high beta-carotene levels but 77 percent had low lycopene levels.
On the plus side, eating a raw-food bar is like munching on a handful of fruits and nuts, with no preservatives or additives, Gidus says. Even natural and organic, cooked bars can have potentially problematic fillers like soy protein nuggets, flour, palm-kernel oil, pectin and tapioca starch. On the minus side, raw bars don't have added nutrients like some processed bars. "Some of the cooked bars are fortified with 30 percent of the recommended daily amount of calcium," she says. "That's significant."
Raw-bar manufacturers argue that their bars don't need to be fortified because the vitamins and minerals aren't cooked out in the first place. "A raw energy bar is just more alive," says Paul Mamakos, founder of Los Angeles-based Everything Raw energy bars. Mamakos says his company's bars contain natural sweeteners like agave nectar, which is low-glycemic when uncooked. "Cooked bars often use rice syrup as a sweetener, which is high on the glycemic index."
Still, energy-bar giants like Clif are resistant to going raw. "While Clif Bar supports the concept of the raw-food diet, we also understand some of the concerns around eating raw food," according to the Clif Web site. Clif, along with ADA spokeswoman Gidus, points out that raw seeds and nuts contain enzyme inhibitors, which make them hard to digest. So eating a raw bar can create a tortoise-and-hare scenario, using your intestines as a racetrack. The fruit nutrients gallivant through your gut while the nut nutrients painstakingly plod.
Another minus to raw bars: They rot. "There's some evidence that shows that roasting nuts might help stabilize the oils in them that go rancid," says Gidus, who recently found a year-old, moldy Larabar in the back of one of her cupboards. Most raw bars have a shelf life of six months or so, compared to a couple years for processed bars with preservatives.
So which energy bar should your customers choose: raw or cooked? It's a toss-up. "Nutrient-wise, both types of bars have something to recommend," Gidus says.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p.