Roll, devour, be energised?: Swetha Sivakumar on snack bars

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Snack bars and energy bars are basically rectangular versions of the ladoo, sometimes upgraded, other times hyped-up. Hear me out. We turn to ladoos for casual snacking (rava ladoos, ragi ladoos), for healthy fats (coconut, mixed-nuts or sesame ladoos), for protein (besan or urad dal ladoos), just as we do with bars. Both ladoos and bars are compressed energy snacks that use fats and sugars to bind their ingredients, with grains or nuts added for texture.

The methods are similar. Both use a no-added-water approach to cook their starches. The base ingredients (pulses or oats) are either baked or pan-roasted. Anyone who’s ever made them knows that water is kryptonite to a ladoo and shrinks its shelf life.

Food scientists track the shelf life of packaged foods, in fact, using a metric called Water Activity. Extremely low water activity is what gives milk powder and peanut butter their long shelf lives too. Keep in mind that water activity is not the same thing as moisture level. For example, a bar may feel moist but if the moisture is due to salt, sugar or oils, that means there is not enough free water for microbes to grow on.

When it comes to protein, bars can pack in much more than a homemade ladoo. Where ladoos use roasted chana dal or urad dal, modern-day bars use ingredients such as whey or plant-based protein isolates, concentrates or hydrolysates. A regular besan or urad dal powder is 22% to 25% protein, the rest being carbohydrates, fiber, minerals etc. Refined protein products, on the other hand, extract protein from the base material. So whey protein isolate is nearly 90% protein, and whey protein concentrates and hydrolysates are 80% protein.

Hydrolysates are proteins that are further broken down using an enzyme or acid, which is why they are also called pre-digested proteins. Since hydrolysates do not draw moisture from nearby ingredients, they are often mixed with isolates to help a bar maintain its soft texture over time. All these processing costs add up. Protein bars are among the more expensive bars on the market. And some can still feel dry, mealy or have a heavy protein-powder aftertaste. This is an unfortunate side-effect of packing in too much protein, paired with too little fat. As anyone who has eaten a dal-based ladoo can attest, they get really really dry, especially if they’re a low-fat version with little to no ghee.

Snack bars and energy bars are basically rectangular versions of the ladoo, sometimes upgraded, other times hyped-up. Hear me out. We turn to ladoos for casual snacking (rava ladoos, ragi ladoos), for healthy fats (coconut, mixed-nuts or sesame ladoos), for protein (besan or urad dal ladoos), just as we do with bars. Both ladoos and bars are compressed energy snacks that use fats and sugars to bind their ingredients, with grains or nuts added for texture.

The methods are similar. Both use a no-added-water approach to cook their starches. The base ingredients (pulses or oats) are either baked or pan-roasted. Anyone who’s ever made them knows that water is kryptonite to a ladoo and shrinks its shelf life.

Food scientists track the shelf life of packaged foods, in fact, using a metric called Water Activity. Extremely low water activity is what gives milk powder and peanut butter their long shelf lives too. Keep in mind that water activity is not the same thing as moisture level. For example, a bar may feel moist but if the moisture is due to salt, sugar or oils, that means there is not enough free water for microbes to grow on.

When it comes to protein, bars can pack in much more than a homemade ladoo. Where ladoos use roasted chana dal or urad dal, modern-day bars use ingredients such as whey or plant-based protein isolates, concentrates or hydrolysates. A regular besan or urad dal powder is 22% to 25% protein, the rest being carbohydrates, fiber, minerals etc. Refined protein products, on the other hand, extract protein from the base material. So whey protein isolate is nearly 90% protein, and whey protein concentrates and hydrolysates are 80% protein.

Hydrolysates are proteins that are further broken down using an enzyme or acid, which is why they are also called pre-digested proteins. Since hydrolysates do not draw moisture from nearby ingredients, they are often mixed with isolates to help a bar maintain its soft texture over time. All these processing costs add up. Protein bars are among the more expensive bars on the market. And some can still feel dry, mealy or have a heavy protein-powder aftertaste. This is an unfortunate side-effect of packing in too much protein, paired with too little fat. As anyone who has eaten a dal-based ladoo can attest, they get really really dry, especially if they’re a low-fat version with little to no ghee.

Now to the fats. Most homemade ladoos use a saturated fat like ghee to improve texture and flavour and increase shelf life. Mass-manufactured bars use a wide range of fats and oils. Make sure to read the labels here. Pick bars that use good fats such as nut butter and avoid those with ultra-refined ones such as hydrogenated oils.

Ladoos often contain ghee-fried cashew nuts and raisins added for taste and texture. Many mass-manufactured bars use rice crisps or whey crisps as a way to add crunch while increasing protein content. For binding materials, ladoos typically use sugar syrup (chashni), honey or dates. Modern-day manufacturers use these as well as less-sweet syrups of brown rice, tapioca, glycerine or maltitol. These humectants help keep the bar soft while keeping water activity levels low.

Still, we equate ladoos with dessert, and too many of us put a health halo around snack bars. Want to know if your bar is a dessert? Check the sugar content. Some can reach an astounding 20 gm or 5 tsp of sugar per bar!

And the next time your grandmother hands you a fragrant, delicious ladoo, take the time to savour it. In another life, she might have been a Daniel Lubetzky (founder of Kind Snacks), Suhasini Sampath (of Yogabar) or Lara Merriken (of Larabar).

(To reach Swetha Sivakumar with questions or feedback, email [email protected])

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