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Not at the Table! A Short History of Power Bars/ Meal Replacement

Would it surprise you to know that the power bar in your pocket is a byproduct of the space race?

John Cook, writing for Feed e-Magazine, discusses the politics of meal replacement in Don't Eat Me. He reminds us that Dr. Charles Bourland, subsystem manager for Space Station food, delicately describes NASA's first challenge when it came to feeding astronauts: it was, Bourland said, "reducing fecal output."

The idea was to avoid the expense of equipping spacecraft to accommodate solid waste, by engineering "foods" that supplied astronauts with all the calories and nutrients they needed without fiber or waste. Condensing bulk by eliminating roughage and augmenting nutrients, scientists invented meal replacements: "tubes and cubes". NASA eliminated everything but measurable chemical elements, including the whole social element.

Imagine... chemical nutrition without social nourishment. No more unavoidable necessity for civil interchange. As Cook observes, no more reminders that you are a wretched little mammal with teeth for grinding and an acid-filled sac for digesting and miles of absorptive guts that writhe around in your belly, yearning to be fed. You might dispense with eating to save loads of time, and the no-pooping would be a bonus.

NASA began this basic research when the scientists imagined that food could be thought of as a chemical delivery system for nutrients, like cigarettes deliver nicotine. By taking this new approach, they could try to figure out precise caloric and nutritional requirements of the human body in neat, tidy chemical form, separated from food and dining.

It didn't work as expected. Cook tells us Bourland reports without the digestive processes stimulated by chewing and regular, uncut food-type stuff (like fiber and enzymes), prospective astronauts did not "assimilate the nutrients they needed," even though the nutrients were all there in their handy engineered food. Bowel movements continued because the intestinal mucosa slough off about 1/3 of the bulk of feces in dead cells and mucus. Food or no food, it had to go somewhere. Also, according to Bourland, the space men found it "unpleasant to eat meal replacements" for an extended period of time. Dinner pills were dropped and the space program added plumbing. Modern space food menus include steak and potatoes and scientists plan for future flyers to grow and harvest a varied, vegetarian diet.

The first real beneficiaries of NASA's research were people who actually couldn't eat for medical reasons -- whose intestines don't work, or who had lost their stomachs. Pharmaceutical companies used NASA's early research to begin developing what is essentially predigested injectible nutrient packages for these patients called "hyperalimentation" or total parenteral nutrition (TPN). Susan Adams, a Seattle dietician, comments, "People have gone for decades on this stuff. They get their supplies delivered at home, and a lot of people keep the IV in overnight so they can have a normal day. You can sustain somebody for many years in reasonably good nutritional health on a replacement product."

Again chemical dining isn't perfect. The initial hunger caused by bypassing the stomach would go away relatively quickly. But, says Adams, people who use direct injection, "gradually lose some weight. Depending on how it's formulated, you'd eventually get some nutrient deficiency. And it's not a real good source of fiber. If you're not delivering some kind of food to the gut," says Adams, "the gut wall becomes porous and unhealthy. There are higher rates of infection and sepsis. But you can survive."

NASA's food wizardry also has applications you might be more familiar with; the meal replacement bar. It's supposed to be the nutritional and caloric equivalent of a meal, and you can eat it in about 30 seconds. A startling array of flavors leaning toward peanut and chocolate, and an equally varied nutritional content, are common. All appear to offer a good percentage of your daily nutrient and calorie needs. Because they often taste like paste, they become candy bars without guilt. They don't taste great, and besides the chocolate, they have vitamins/ protein/ healthy stuff, right?

Today's meal replacement bar have three parents: the current "athletic bars" are the scientific grandchildren of high-calorie fruit or chocolate bars developed for runners and bikers. Oriented toward the snack or supplement market, these tend to have things like various nuts and seeds, and are traditionally marketed to athletes and pseudo-athletes. The Clif Bar, Power Bar, etc are examples. Nutrition-minded Clif Bar management markets its product as a sort of energy-boosting snack rather than a replacement for a meal, but Clif reports that many consumers do use the bars as meal replacements.

The "nutriceutical version" was developed by drug companies who already made IV bag meals and wanted to get in on the oral food market, such as Abbott Laboratories' Ensure bar. These meal replacement bars tend toward a taffy-like texture and rarely have recognizable grains, seeds or nuts. For a nutriceutical bar example, Ensure bars from Abbott Labs market to healthy consumers as a meal that can be "tucked away in so many places when you're on the run." But among Abbot's other food products, the busy workaday consumer can find liquid Ensure, which comes with handy instructions for tube feeding, Pulmocare, and even the Flexiflo system --"a complete line of... feeding tubes and pumps." Hospital food comes home.

A recent next generation of meal replacement bar is the "scientific diet bar" such as the 40-30-30 Bar or the Myoplex protein bar. Merging the athletic snack bar and the nutriceutical bar, oriented toward the dieter or body builder, these offer extra nutrients the buyer may seek to comply with a self-selected dietary program. When people with the bar habit discover one ordinary snack bar has about as many carbohydrates as THREE pieces of toast, they often switch over to these higher price, higher protein scientific bars.

"Scientific diet bars" are on the rise. Look at the Balance Bar web site:
"Bio Foods, Inc. was founded in April 1992 when a group of four investors... obtained the rights to a moderate-carbohydrate, moderate-protein nutrition bar. The bar was originally developed for consumers with special dietary needs such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypoglycemia. However, the Company soon recognized an opportunity to attract mainstream consumers because of the product's broad appeal and re-named the bar Balance -- The Complete Nutritional Food."

Breakfast just like mom used to make? Athlete or invalid, the promise is the same: eat fast and get on with your life. All these bars tend to contain roughly either a sixth or a third of average daily caloric and nutritional needs, with diet bars having fewer calories. At a cost of $6-$10 per day, three or four bars a day might satisfy the go-getter who just can't afford to sit idly at the dinner table when life passes by.

Both dieticians and social scientists dispute the desirability of this trend. "The idea is that in a busy day you can get even more done by eating on the go," Cook quotes Mark Meskin, an associate professor of Food Nutrition and Consumer Science at California State Polytechnic University, "I don't think is a particularly healthy trend. My greatest fear is that we just have this disordered eating in general." You think, "You can basically work 24 hours a day. You get so far away from your physiologic cues for eating that you never stop and relax and enjoy a meal. You tend to totally ignore any kind of hunger signals, and eat any old time of the day or night." This impairs digestion as well as social intercourse.

So, from Ellen's Kitchen, we offer a classic collection of homemade energy bar recipes and Ellen's own recipes, with this warning: Use meal replacements cautiously! Real food- whole, fresh food in the the widest possible variety- is cheaper, better for you, and can be just as convenient if you plan ahead. Sitting down with others to eat also develops and nourishes community, that daily essential that can't be packaged as a bar or pill.