Homer Simpson wants to get in shape. His son was ashamed of his performance at the church capture the flag game, so he starts a workout regimen, hoping to regain his pride. One night at the Kwik-E-Mart, he discovers what he thinks will be his secret weapon: Powersauce bars. Advertised as allowing consumers to “unleash the power of apples,” the bars are marketed as the ultimate in athletic fuel. Soon, they are the only thing Homer will eat, convinced that without them he’ll lose his strength. Eventually, during an attempt to climb the town’s highest mountain, Homer is told they’re nothing but “apple cores and old Chinese newspapers.”

This is not to say all energy, protein and meal-replacement bars are marketing ruses like this fictional one from The Simpsons, but they are all variations on a theme. Whatever you want, they not only provide but provide in its entirety. Want to bulk up? They have all the protein you need. Want to lose weight? Eat one instead of a meal. Want to eat clean? They have no additives, and are basically just fruit. Bars are a mirror: They reflect all of our cultural obsessions and anxieties around food. They pack all of our nutritional hopes and fears into a single serving.

Like memory foam and Tang, the first energy bars were made for astronauts. Pillsbury created Space Food Sticks in the 1960s “to be able to take into space, to have long shelf life, to not have to be refrigerated,” says Natalia Petrzela, a postwar historian at the New School and the author of an upcoming book about fitness culture in America. In 1970, Pillsbury filed a trademark for Space Food Sticks, then repackaged and advertised them to consumers as a “nutritionally balanced between-meal snack.”

“What I think is really interesting is that it was a moment in American food history when there was an incredible fascination with space and laboratory-created food,” says Petrzela. Canned goods were seen as clean, sterile alternatives to fresh vegetables. The convenience of prepackaged foods meant women were less tied to the kitchen. “In those days, there was a big marketing plus to say, ‘This was made in a lab by scientists.’ That was seen as the cutting edge of foodie culture.”

It’s like yogurt was 30 years ago — something only health nuts would eat.

Space Food Sticks faded from the market as the space program faded from government focus, and according to Petrzela, the energy bar as we know it today didn’t come around until 1986, when Canadian marathoner Brian Maxwell founded PowerBar. “I’m creating the perfect energy bar, to help athletes survive long-distance events without running out of glycogen,” Maxwell said of the product, which he and his wife handed out to marathoners after races to garner interest. He eventually sold to Nestlé in 2000 for $375 million.

When PowerBar emerged in the late 1980s, Petrzela says, the bars were marketed as fuel for athletes, but they soon crossed into the mainstream food and snack culture. You didn’t have to be a marathoner to eat a PowerBar, but doing so let you emulate one in your everyday life. Paddy Spence, president of Spence Information Services, told the New York Times in 1997, ”It’s like yogurt was 30 years ago — something only health nuts would eat. And now it’s a staple in mainstream diets.”

Soon, competitors like Clif Bar, Balance Bar and bars from Muscle Milk entered the space and marketed themselves as healthy and/or energizing to a population that wasn’t sure what they were looking for aside from a general sense of “health.” In a 1997 interview with the New York Times, Maxwell scoffed at the Clif Bar as “basically the nutritional equivalent of a graham cracker” (which itself was the health food craze of its day). He also came for Balance Bar, which he accused of preying “upon gullible people looking for quick fixes.”

By the late ’90s and early 2000s, the energy bar’s infiltration into mainstream diets marked a shift toward greater diversification of who they are marketed to and how. And that began to happen along gendered lines, with bars like Clif Bar and Quest Nutrition marketed to men as fuel for workouts and bars like ThinkThin and those created for the Weight Watchers and Zone diets marketed to women as a means to shed weight. Petrzela cites some common marketing phrases such as “It’ll make you feel full” or “It has exactly the number of calories and fat that you need” or “The portions are premade so there’s no guesswork or temptation.” “That’s part of the diet culture framing for women, and it’s important [to note] that’s actually not the framing for men.”

The quick fix: That’s what the energy bar is all about, then and now.

If energy bars reflect the food trends and anxieties of their times, then it’s no surprise that the “it” bars of the modern moment are marketed as whole, unpackaged, “real” foods — a positioning that subverts the entire notion of a packaged, shelf-stable bar that’s ready for you on the go.

Petrzela mentions the currently popular RxBar, a “whole-food protein bar,” which lists its ingredients in bold white lettering on the front of its plastic package: “3 egg whites, 6 almonds, 4 cashews, 2 dates, NO BS.” Larabar, a competitor, similarly emphasizes its “minimal, pure ingredients,” which tend to be nothing more than dates and cashews with some cinnamon or peanut butter mixed in. “Minimally processed, and as close to their natural state as possible,” Larabar assures customers on its website. The popular KIND Bar’s mission statement says the people behind the brand “believe if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it shouldn’t go into your body,” the kind of wording that signals pure, “natural” ingredients but also assumes customers can’t pronounce words longer than four syllables. All three brands’ ingredients are a far cry from the maltodextrin and powdered proteins of PowerBar.

“You check off all the foodie boxes,” Petrzela says of these modern spins, “but you also get your quick fix that has been a staple for the demand for bars since the 1960s.”

The quick fix: That’s what the energy bar is all about, then and now. As far as modern problems go, it’s not an unreasonable solution. Sometimes consumers do need a nutritious snack between meals. Sometimes buying a bar at the bodega affords one time for more pressing pursuits. And for the many people for whom a real lunch break is not provided, a prepackaged snack may be the best economical option.

Lisa Moskovitz, CEO of the NY Nutrition Group, notes that energy bars can be good for someone who does not have time for healthy meals or access to healthy meals outside the home. “Some protein bars can be a smart addition to your diet, especially if you struggle with getting in enough protein through whole foods like chicken, fish, eggs and dairy,” she says. However, not all protein bars are created equal. “I always believe in food first, and not all protein bars are a smart option,” she says. “Some are just vitamin-infused candy bars, so you want to be careful and always read the labels carefully.”

The promises of energy bars are seemingly limitless.

But energy bar brands want to offer more than a quick fix. They want to make you stronger or thinner, whichever you prefer. They want to replace your meals, make you feel healthy, help you look good, absolve you of all your dietary sins. The promises of energy bars are seemingly limitless.

No matter our relationship to food, whether we want lab-certified nutrition or “whole” nuts and fruits, the lingering influence of the energy bar’s space-age roots is palpable. The specifics of the branding are ever-changing, but they’re all selling us a world in which we won’t have to think about food at all — one capsule and you’re done. Which raises the question: Is that what we really want? Or is it merely a flashy marketing promise we’re continually willing to buy into?

Jaya Saxena is a freelancer writer whose work has appeared in ELLE, GQ, Racked, The Daily Dot, and more. She is based in Queens, NY. Follow her on Twitter.

Photos by Edith Young. 

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  • Adrianna

    I posted a loooong list of restaurant recommendations on an earlier Man Repeller post, so one might be surprised that I frequently crave a capsule to fulfill a meal. Particularly lunch. (I work in an office. I rarely microwave at home. I reheat or cook all my meals “to order” on the stove.) I’m not even that busy. Sometimes I’m just lazy and “don’t feel like” anything specific.

    I don’t think protein bars and Soylent are a sign that we are headed towards a cultural demise. We’re all multi-faceted people. I can eat my weight in smoked brisket, but I browse vegan food blogs for inspiration. I clearly love to eat, but I also spend a lot of time trying to figure out a healthful meal supplement or replacement.

    I never came across a protein bar I enjoyed, though I haven’t tried the current offerings such as RxBar. There’s a lot of effort to make protein bars taste like candy bars, which I’m not a fan of to begin with. My “life hack” is just to take advantage of the free hardboiled eggs at work and eat 1-2 in the afternoon.

    • Rosemary

      Try Wella Bars! They’re high in protein and really satisfying because the protein is from nuts and egg whites- they basically just taste like peanut butter or almond butter, depending on what kind you get. The consistency is like peanut butter but thicker/more solid, not like a lot of others that are more crunchy or sticky. I really like the ethos of the company, too!

  • Anni

    I think this is just one of those different strokes for different folks things – there are lots of things I do think about and put a lot of effort into (dressing myself, cooking a different homemade meal from scratch atleast 5 days of the week) and things I just auto-repeat everyday like working out to the same routine because I don’t feel like I need to LIVE working out, I just need to do it.

    While it’s crazy to me, a home cook enthusiasts and lover of trying new edible shit to imagine reducing that world of flavor into easy forgettable capsules….there are plenty of people who eat to live rather than living to eat.

    • Preach!!!

    • Cristina

      I can’t imaging eating to live. I’m def in the camp sugar is sugar, despite how many guru’s want to tout the digestions benefits and carb glycemic load something or other. In no way will a peanut butter Larabar curb my taste for a Reese’s. But that’s the world we live in, where we are so ingrained to be worried about our weight, we are willing to eat the dates not the Reese’s. I don’t. I also hate dates, so the choice is super easy haha! Also, I’m pretty run of the mill healthy across the board!

  • Personally, I never find these bars satisfying as a meal replacement, and too high calorie for a snack. I like to have a couple in my backpack if I’m gonna go on a hike but other than that if I’m in a bodega I’d rather grab a cup of yogurt and some fruit (probably cheaper than an RxBar) and call it breakfast.

    • Is 210 a lot of calories? I think it’s more about what’s in the calories that counts. Rx bars are $1.99 at Trader Joe’s– certainly not cheap, but for a snack, it’s on par with (probably cheaper) than a yogurt with fruit. They’re also packed with protein (12g a pop), are dairy-free (who wants to be bloated after an 11 AM snack?), are sweetened with dates (all-natural!) and come in every flavor you’d ever want. Don’t knock it ’til you try it. 😉

      • Emma

        yes it is a lot calories : a half French baguette has 260 calories, and you fill much more filled with 2/3 of a baguette than by a small bar, and cale sugar, beet sugar is also natural, no less natural than dates. Just cheaper.

  • As a person with a 3 hour round trip commute that includes 3 trains and a bus, a KIND bar can make or break my day. Sometimes you just need something small, discreet, and packaged.
    I cook 90% of my meals at home though, so with most things, balance in all things is the key right?

    • pamb

      That is a heck of a commute! Whatever you do to get through it works!

    • autillicautnullibi

      Girl I feel this. Sometimes that bar is the difference between me getting home and feeling like the world is ending/gotta break up with my boyfriend/everything is the worst and me getting home acting like a normal human adult.

  • Abby

    The only protein bars I can tolerate are the Go Macro ones, and even then only certain flavors. I love food and would rather consume something that actually feels like eating, so I rarely bother with bars.

    • Jessica White

      I too love GoMacro bars (pb chocolate chip) but have recently found a new love, Perfect Bars. They are in the refrigerated section. Definitely my favorite right now. They are pretty high calorie/fat but I find them very satisfying and so good I don’t mind. I can’t get them at my local stores but G2G bars are also really yummy.

      • Abby

        I don’t like the texture of Perfect bars all that much, although I think they taste just fine and will eat them sometimes. I’ve personally found that the recipe below is a very good dupe for them, and Perfect bars are expensive so I occasionally make my own:


      • Lauryn P.C

        YES! Perfect bars are the BEST! Was waiting for someone to mention. I may or may not have had a streak where I ate one everyday for 3 years…

        They have the most REAL ingredients out of all that packaged crap out there!

  • I love Larabars for when I’m traveling and/or doing field work, but otherwise, prefer my leftovers from dinner the night before.

  • Cristina

    I have to concur with the latter, flashy marketing. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means, because frankly if I let myself go down that hole you’d probably have to check me into an institution lol!!! But if you stop to think about the biiiiig picture.. we’re a bunch of health food dieting robots and eat what people tell us to eat. It’s creeeepyyyyy

  • When I was younger/fitter/more ambitious athletically, I cycled competitively and damn, clif bars really really help when you legit need to FUEL.

    Otherwise I kind of feel like it’s a Regina George situation – those Kalteen bars are full of calories and carbs, and not much else.

    • Lindsay Smith

      ! I always think of Regina and the Kalteen bars when I see people chowing down on (most of) these kinds of things. Glad I’m not the only one 🙂

  • Daniel Szilagyi

    Because these bars are promoted to be what everyone wants ideally, fast, easy and healthy but that’s not really how it works.
    I don’t think they’re bad for you per se, but like anything else moderation is key.

  • Kattigans

    What does it say about me that the only energy bar I really like is a Power Bar? My dad would give them to me after swim practice when I was a kid and I still really like them, albeit never buy them. I guess I’m stuck in the late 90’s.

    I’ve tried other protein bars like Kind Bars and Clif bars and just think they taste gross. I really don’t like chocolate and a peanut butter flavored bar just sounds so rich to me. Also not interested in eating a lemon flavored bar either. Its hard to find one that doesn’t fall into those flavor categories. I’ll just stick to eating an apple if I really want a healthy snack or a handful of blueberries. Actually one really great snack thats protein related is jerky! Its more expensive than a bar but I find it to be pretty tasty.

  • Zoe Speidel

    I really love this article! Thank you so much for writing. Yes, there are merits to the-healthiest-we-can-get-on-the-go, but I think it is SO important to look at the values behind the advertising for these bars and the actual nutritional content of the bars themselves.

  • Kay Nguyen

    I love RX Bar! I don’t care so much for their health related hypes but energy bars can be life saver in college <3


  • pamb

    I am old enough to have eaten Space Food Sticks! I vaguely remember two rolls in a package, chalky chocolate flavor. I am big on the convenience factor: I have a bag of energy bars in my pantry, several in the car glove compartment and a few in my purse. I don’t like to eat breakfast, so I ‘ll eat one on the way to work, with coffee. Or have one on the way home from work, to tide me over until dinner. I tend to do Luna/Kind/Larabar, mostly under 200 calories. The Kind and Larabar especially I feel decent about, as you can see and taste real ingredients vs. Luna’s more processed. But I don’t get bogged down by the ‘good for you’ hype. They’re simply a convenient snack.

  • Delaney

    I never thought the history of energy bars could be so interesting! In high school, I got lazy about packing lunches so they often consisted of three granola bars/trail mix packs and a piece of fruit. Looking back, I really under appreciated the value of food (especially in the context of education).

  • mags

    “…but they’re all selling us a world in which we won’t have to think about food at all — one capsule and you’re done. Which raises the question: Is that what we really want?”

    Honestly? Sometimes that is exactly what I want. I love making my own breakfast and dinner (to the point where I eat out *maybe* once a month), but lunch? I hate lunch. Nothing ever sounds appealing in the middle of the day. It just seems to get in the way, slow me down, etc. In the summer I’ll usually make a smoothie, but I’m cold enough in the winter that I don’t need to feel like my insides are freezing, too. Lately I’ve just been eating a Kind bar for lunch…not because I think it’s particularly healthy (I just try to find one with more protein than sugar), or even a suitable meal replacement, but because it’s the only thing that seems remotely palatable during the day.

    There’s so much to be wary of and so many things to consider when buying ANY pre-packaged/processed food. Sometimes it’s nice to stop analyzing and just eat a power pellet.

    • nelgracev

      Same. Except I guess I just end up intermittent fasting over lunch (haha cuz that’s a “thing” now too)- lunch is never that necessary imo. I don’t get all blood sugar crashing and needing a full meal. .like ever. Also- can I say i DESPISE the break room food /reheating lunch ..smelling other people’s food. Just- ugh. Lots of times I just drink tea and hydrate over lunch. Sometimes an apple or pb on a rye crisp if I need a bite.

      • coffeebee

        I like snack lunches, too. It’s weird to think of eating a full-on meal in the middle of the day. Apple, sharp cheddar, almonds = my go to. Or, if I’m feeling fancy, a can of oil packed tuna with the apple.

    • Sarah

      Interesting, I’ve ready about a couple people on here saying they don’t need lunch but typically that’s when I’m most hungry! Lunch is my largest meal of the day, but typically I need very little to eat at dinner time.

    • Woods

      I am always starving come lunchtime, but I agree it does slow me down for a bit when I am trying to work… I think this is less a bad thing about eating in the middle of the day, but more of an issue with how my day is structured. I need to slow down for a bit in the afternoon but usually my work won’t allow it.

    • Ana

      Damn this comment gave me a surprising amount of feelings. I would give my left arm to be the kind of person who doesn’t find food appealing during the day. I basically spend all day at work thinking about food and feeling hungry and counting down the minutes until lunch, and it’s been that way since… forever? No matter what I eat for breakfast or pack for lunch, my brain is like “eaaaaaat” all the time. Food and portion control and maintaining a healthy weight are the biggest struggles of my life and it’s hard to imagine a life where I have to talk myself into a Kind bar for lunch (as opposed to talk myself out of eating 3 kind bars after I ate the healthy lunch I packed and already ate…)

      • mags

        Ahhh no! Please don’t think too much of it. Honestly I’m on medication that kills my appetite for most of the day, so it’s not like this is “me” (not sure if this matters all that much, though, considering if someone had told me this before I started taking said medication, my reaction probably would have been, “I’ll have what she’s having”). Looking back over my comment, it seems like my original intention was probably lost. I set out wanting to say, “I’ve spent my entire life over-analyzing what I eat, stressing out about food, either eating too much or too little, etc., let me eat my damn kind bar in peace.” And instead I ended up trying to justify what I eat, which is exactly what I’m sick of doing in the first place.

        Anyway, I don’t know if that was at all helpful or relevant or just tmi, but I don’t want to cause any negative feelings by conveying the message that there’s some woman out there who’s so flippant about food that she like…deigns to choke down a kind bar once in awhile lol. I mean that person might exist somewhere, but she is not me.

  • Kristin

    I also think it is a popularization of the idea that you shouldn’t let yourself be too hungry (lest you eat too much at mealtime). Snacking was definitely frowned upon when I was growing up. Whenever I eat any bars I always feel I’m ruining my lunch or dinner for something that, at best, tastes just ok.

    • coffeebee

      I’ve tried to hold off on snacks between meals, but it’s not for me. I get full after a kid’s size portion of food, then I’m ready to eat again a couple hours later. I also struggle with “ugh, I’m going to ruin dinner” – but it’s better than melting into a puddle of hungry anger.

  • coffeebee

    I don’t fool myself thinking I’m being healthy eating these kinds of bars, but I do rely on them to help me stave off hangry meltdowns. Sometimes I make snack bags of almonds/dried fruit/cereal to have ready, too. I have fast metabolism and get full from eating then hungry again within a couple hours. It’s nice to have something filling and convenient that doesn’t require washing when I’m on the go sometimes.

    • Sarah

      exactly. if you have a high metabolism, and low blood sugar, having a protein bar in your bag at all times is CRITICAL.

  • kay

    throwing this in here- a while ago MR had a post about snacking vs/as meals, and i got to thinking that that trend (and now im thinking the bar trend) may have something to do with how women’s roles have changed- it used to be that every dwelling came with a woman who provided food. whatever house or apartment or shed, it was a set with a woman who dished out food. women were always attached to a particular house (fathers or husbands) and didn’t drift. now women are transient among dwellings and are not assumed to be responsible for the food in the house or the care of all under its roof (they have jobs and worldly interests). nothing has really stepped into this breach, and you could say one popular answer to “how do people get fed if a woman isn’t doing it” is apparently snacks and bars that take almost no work, or at least almost no non-commercial work. other attempts to answer the question of “how are people supposed to get fed” might be blue apron and the restaurant boom. no idea if this is right, just theorizing.

    • RealityTeaLover

      Interesting point of view. I grew up with a working mother and she was always buying a substitute for home cooking… fast food, frozen food, snack bars, packaged snacks, etc. It was all a substitute for the fact that she herself was not preparing the food/meals. I remember growing up and spending a lot of time with a friend who had a retired grandmother that spent EVERY SINGLE DAY cooking. You could show up at the grandmother’s home anytime of day and there was always warmed food on the stove, fresh baked cakes/cookies and NO PACKAGED FOODS. It really all depends on the lifestyle of the woman living in the house she is attached to.

      • Emma

        Well, there is also the solution of sharing meal preparation with the 2 parents, and asking kids to help, so that there is no need for industrial food, or at least seriously reduce te use of industrial food.

        • RealityTeaLover

          Growing up I played soccer, softball, basketball, sang in the school chorus, acted in the theater club and also had an after school job for 3 hours a day Monday-Friday. And then on top of all of that I had homework and friends. My dad was the breadwinner and didn’t get home until 7 or 8 pm a lot of nights. This is why in most households food prep/cooking is the responsibility of the woman. A woman can have a full schedule and still find time to do chores around the house and cook/buy food. Most men are not willing to contribute anything more to their household than financial benefits.

  • erinsux

    when I was a food runner at a restaurant larabars were a godsend, I needed a lot of calories as quick as possible, and with all the nuts and fiber they actually kept me full long enough to do anything
    I’m also diabetic tho so finding a snack I can keep in my backpack that also won’t make my blood sugar go nuts is super tricky

  • I can’t possibly comment as I’ve never had an energy bar in my life however, I see the attraction for people with enormously busy lives, or small handbags!

    Having said that, if I were craving for a fruit bar filled with apples, cherries, and pears, I’d rather go for the actual apple, cherries and pears as (hopefully), nothing more would have been added!

  • Jeanie

    I have a lot of bars stocked up. I think the key is to know what you’re getting yourself into. The marketing doesn’t give you the best information. The basic Kind bars are true to their simple ingredients, but the Kind Plus bars have added crap in them. So, skip the Plus bars. The date bars are also filled with sugar from the dates. Having the dates whole with it’s natural sugar is better than a candy bar thought. But I still make sure to try to not have sugar in other meals in that day if I’m going to eat one. However, I can’t really get behind eating bars regularly as a meal replacement unless it’s absolutely necessary due to work schedules or other specific circumstances.

  • Some are healthier for you than others, certainly. I like LARA bars for the simple raw ingredients, but reach for the mint Clif Builder bars when I need a higher protein meal on the go. I adore cooking healthy meals at home, but some weeks I don’t have the time or money for that, or need something quick that won’t be reheated, and an energy bar seems perfect.
    I have friends who choose chips as their late afternoon/after work snack, and I’m silently concerned because there is nothing energy-sustaining in those choices.

  • Sarah

    I’ve experienced both helpful and harmful effects from these type of bars.

    While I don’t use these bars for meal replacements, I recently started eating a ThinkThin bar with my fruit for breakfast, otherwise I’m not keeps me satisfied. I’m also gluten sensitive and feel sick when I eat a lot of meat , so my options for protein are limited. These bars have helped me get the protein I needed in my diet and so far I’ve been feeling great.

    However, many other energy bars, like Luna Bars, gave me acid reflux and I started suddenly throwing up after eating them while just sitting at my desk or running an errand.

    Like with all foods, it’s important to listen to your body and judge how you feel after eating to determine whether or not a food is right for you.

  • Gigi

    Im glad of their mention of the marked delineation between how it’s marketed for women & men. As always, the label encourages men to purchase the item to Gain something (muscle, women, success, power, hair), and the food label for women attempts to prey upon existing anxieties or create new ones centered around Losing something (weight, cellulite, dark hair, wrinkles, ugliness/whatever makes you undesirable to men). My face whenever I see an ad trying to entice me & my disordered brain with buzzword phrases like LOSE WEIGHT FAST/LOSE 10LBS IN 2 WEEKS: 🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔

    • Gigi

      Having said that, KIND bars are too good