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That energy boost may be loaded with sugar, fat and artificial sweeteners

You've heard it before: Eat a midafternoon snack to boost flagging energy and keep hunger at bay. But with jam-packed, hectic schedules, who has time for fruits and almonds, veggies and dip, or a homemade smoothie?

Judging by the displays at health food and convenience stores, pharmacies and gas stations, the solution is an energy bar - a portable snack for time-starved people to chew in the midafternoon, before and after workouts, or even at mealtime.

Energy bars may be convenient, but are they good for you? It depends on several factors - you need to read labels to know which one is right for you.

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Some bars contain a hefty dose of artery-clogging saturated fat. For instance, Atkins Advantage Chocolate Coconut protein bar delivers 8 grams of saturated fat - the same amount as a McDonald's Quarter Pounder.

Others are packed with so much sugar you may as well be eating a Snickers bar. Thanks to the addition of chicory syrup, organic brown rice syrup and organic cane juice (a.k.a. sugar, sugar, sugar), Clif Builder's protein bar packs 20 grams - or five teaspoons worth - of sugar.

And some energy bars harbour artificial sweeteners that can wreak havoc on your gastrointestinal tract. When consumed in excess, the sugar alcohols (such as maltitol, xylitol and sorbitol) added to certain low-carb and low-calorie bars can cause bloating and gas.

Fortunately, the energy bar market has expanded considerably in recent years - and some are packed with plenty of nutrition.

You can choose low-carb, high-carb or high-protein bars in dozens of flavours such as chocolate peanut butter, fudge brownie, cookies 'n' cream, natural blueberry and lemon zest. Energy bars fortified with folic acid and calcium (Luna, Pria) are aimed at women; others are supplemented with soy protein (SoyOne, Genisoy) to help lower cholesterol.

A handful of energy bars boast higher fibre contents thanks to the addition of prunes, dates, oat fibre and/or inulin, a type of soluble fibre that promotes calcium absorption and the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Genuine Health's Satisfibre+ Express bar packs 7 grams of fibre - nearly one-third of a day's requirement for women.

The newest nutrition bars to dominate store shelves have no more in common with traditional energy bars than their small shiny packages. These "whole-food" bars are made from natural ingredients such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouted grains.

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They're sweetened naturally with fruit or honey. Many are organic and some are even vegan (containing no ingredients derived from animals).

To help narrow your choice to a healthier energy bar,

here's how they differ.

High-carbohydrate bars

You know them as Clif Bar, PowerBar Sport and PowerBar Harvest. Unless you're very physically active or training for a marathon, you probably don't need the 45 grams of carbohydrates most of these bars deliver (the same amount found in three slices of bread). Some pack as much as 5 to 8 teaspoons of sugar per bar from cane juice, syrup, glucose-fructose and fruit juice concentrates.

High-protein bars

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With names such as IsoFlex, PowerBar ProteinPlus and Detour, these bars are marketed to people hoping for bigger muscles from eating more protein - along with more calories and fat. (Exercise - especially weight training - boosts protein requirements, yet most people meet their needs by eating a mixed diet.)

High-protein bars usually contain 300 to more than

400 calories and 25 to 30 grams of protein per bar,

the amount of protein in 4 ounces (113 grams) of meat. Thanks to their chocolate

coating, most of these bars contain 4 to 8 grams of saturated fat, more than what's good for you.

Moderate-carbohydrate bars

Most provide 180 to 250 calories, 20 to 25 grams of carbohydrates and 10 to 15 grams of protein. If you're looking for a pre-workout snack, research suggests that moderate-carbohydrate bars - such as Zone Perfect, Rexall Energy, President's Choice FasTrack and Genuine Health's Proteins+ Express - do a better job of boosting endurance during exercise than high-carbohydrate bars.

Low-carbohydrate bars

Even though Atkins-style diets are passé, low-carb bars such as President's Choice CarbWatch, Doctor's CarbRite Diet and Atkins Advantage are still available in health-food stores. Most have 200 to 250 calories and are artificially sweetened with sugar alcohols or sucralose. Some are high in saturated fat.

Food bars

Larabar, Elev8Me!, Simply Bar, ReBar and Nature's Path are only a few of the many bars made from whole foods such as fruits, nuts, seeds and sprouted grains - my favourite energy bars by a long shot. Some, such as Garden of Life's fruit and seed bars, even contain live probiotic bacteria (although the label doesn't tell you how much).

Whole food bars vary in taste and calories, so you may need to try a few to find one you like. For a midafternoon snack, look for bars with 150 to 200 calories for women and 200 to 250 calories for men.

Raising the energy bar

Choose bars that contain minimally processed natural ingredients such as dried fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

Look for 20 to 45 grams of carbohydrates. If you're sedentary, choose a bar with 20 to 25 grams of carbohydrates.

Look for bars that provide at least 3 to 4 grams of fibre.

Pick a bar with no more than 2 grams of saturated fat, the type that raises LDL (bad) blood cholesterol.

Go easy. While most energy bars are better for you than junk food, if your gym bag or purse is full of empty energy bar wrappers, chances are you're short-changing your diet on nutrients and disease-fighting phytochemicals.

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