In Praise of Wrapper Food

Some months back I was at the top of a significant climb, sucking cool air during bites of a PowerBar. Not some variety of energy-type bar, but an actual PowerBar. A friend looked at me with the raised eyebrows generally accompanied by a statement of incredulity—Really? You didn’t? You’re kidding? No effing way.

“You still eat PowerBars?”

There was little I could say other than, “Yeah.” After all, said PowerBar was in my mouth and I was chewing and there were no guns at my head. I eat them. By choice.

He followed his question—which was, of course, entirely rhetorical—with, “I can’t do those things anymore. I have trouble even eating Clif Bars. I’ve eaten so many of them over the years, I need real food.”

I still eat them both. I still like them both. And while it seems to be in vogue to dis products that seems more like Play-Doh than your average frozen entree, I can attest to the fact that in one cupboard of my kitchen there’s an entire shelf devoted to Clif Bars, PowerBars, Clif Shots, Clif Bloks, Gus and PowerBar Gels. At this point in my life I’ve been eating PowerBars for almost 22 years. I actually miss the taste of the old Malt Nut flavor. Don’t get me started about how many discontinued flavors of Clif Bar I’d buy by the case if I could get them.

You’d think after nearly two dozen years of eating factory food I’d be as done with that stuff as my friend. On the contrary. I have dialed their use down to the same sort of science with which they are made. I know what I can eat within an hour of starting a ride. I know what I can eat on the bike. I know what I respond to quickest and what can cause stomach upset.

A ham sandwich mid-way through a gran fondo? Are you kidding? That gut-bomb will keep me from hitting anything approximating threshold for the next hour, maybe more.

But there’s more to this stuff than just what works on the bike. When I travel, I always take some Clif Bars along with me. Given the varieties of junk food I’m apt to encounter at gas stations and in airports, a Clif Bar gives me four really helpful items:

  1. It keeps the calories and fat manageable
  2. It gives me some protein that would never be found in junk food
  3. It gives me something tasty to shut my stomach up
  4. It is indestructible; put another way, it travels way better than fruit

Is a Clif Bar or its like an adequate substitute for a real meal? Of course not. It’s not meant to be. I use them as a great way to avoid a really bad choice, like the chocolate chip cookies or whatever catches my eye in a gas station. Save me from the Pop Tarts! Please!

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked in the door following a ride and been too shattered to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; instead, I’ve wolfed down some bar, grabbed a quick shower and then staggered back to the kitchen for a real meal.

I’ll admit that there are some bars out there even I can’t stomach. Some of the high-protein bars can stop my intestinal traffic like Manhattan gridlock. I don’t need protein that much.

I love that there are people out there thinking about good nutrition solutions to less than ideal situations. That said, I wish Trader Joe’s carried more of the many flavors of Clif Bar than they do. From time to time I’ll find myself walking into a grocery store and noticing a flavor I haven’t seen a while. If they are 99 cents or less, I might stock up like I’m preparing for the Big One.

Still, I don’t think the innovators behind these many products thought of them as a way to short-circuit a short-circuit. But for me, that may be their greatest value. Reaching for an energy bar as I’m driving through California’s San Joaquin Valley frees me of the guilt I’d feel from munching a Moon Pie.

So if you’re sitting behind me in the movie theater and you wonder what the sound of that wrapper is, if I’ve been a good boy, it’s a Clif Bar instead of peanut M&Ms.

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  1. josh

    i really like the Now bars, the peanut and caramel is out of control. and the raw*revolution coconut and chocolate is amazing as well.

  2. erikv

    If you eat real food, you’ll get used to it. Your stomach is soft and wimpy! You can totally eat a ham sandwich once your body stops requiring pre-digested food while you ride.

  3. MR

    Malt Nut was the only flavor Powerbar I could ever stomach.
    I stick to Fig Newtons on the bike, except when it’s super hot out and I can’t handle them. Then it’s Clif Blocks.

  4. grolby

    I’m pretty picky about the Clif bar flavors I eat, but I’ve found a couple that I really do think are pretty good (and I’m actually a big fan of the White Chocolate Macadamia bars – yum!). I’ve stayed away from other bars on the bike – I have traumatic memories of trying a chocolate PowerBar, long ago. But even though I like Clif bars well enough and will eat them on the bike, they don’t do me a whole lot of good. They’ll keep the fires stoked if I’m burning slow, but if I come anywhere near threshold, my digestive system enters near-total shutdown. I can eat all the Clif bars I want in a race, and still bonk. Too much going on with that stuff; I’ve actually had better luck with homemade chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies, but if I really want to stave off a hunger knock I have to rely the ultimate wrapper food: gels (but nothing with brown rice syrup, makes me gag and my stomach can’t process it when I’m working hard).

    In the last year and a half or so I’ve started to move in the direction of making my own nutrition mixes. That wrapper food is great, but pricey. Maltodextrin powder can be bought in bulk for a dollar or two a pound. You can easily cram 400 calories worth of the stuff into a 24 oz. water bottle without making it appreciably sweet; add some lemon and lime juice for flavor and it goes down pretty easily. Gets dicey when its over 80 degrees out, though, so I’m looking into making gels and simple oat-based energy bars. Cooking is fun!

  5. grolby

    erikv, you can definitely become better adapted to real food, and I eat the stuff whenever possible (see above, my using cookies as race food), but it’s physiologically inevitable that you’ll be able to process simplified foods much more easily when working hard. Maltodextrin is the major carbohydrate ingredient in gels and drink mixes not based on brown rice syrup (the stuff that makes most Clif products useless to me), and is nothing more than glucose molecules in long chains. Your body doesn’t need to put any effort into starting to make that stuff available for immediate energy production or longer-term storage as glycogen. It just chops up those alpha 1-4 bonds and starts going to town. There’s a lot more work involved in breaking down that ham sandwich before you can even start getting energy out of it.

  6. DLD

    Central Valley? My neck of the woods. I also wish Trader Joe’s would carry more flavors of Clif Bar. That said, I can eat the apricot flavored bars all day long.
    @grolby: I make up my own gels with a mixture of malto and fructose in an approximately 85/15% ratio with some sea salt and salt substitute added in. For flavoring, I add baking cocoa(?) and mix with hot water to a desired level of consistency. It tastes very much like GU chocolate outrage flavor.

  7. randomactsofcycling

    Gee, I wish we had the variety of ‘sportsfood’ you guys have. There’s not much readily available down here in Sydney: Powerbars are the most common and some of the bike shops carry various bits and pieces. Some of my club-mates have taken a real shine to Endura Optimiser. You mix it into your bidons with water. That’s one thing I don’t really like – sportsdrinks. Water most of the time for me.

  8. Robot

    Years ago I was doing a charity 50 with a friend who was a former pro. We rolled up to the start, and she pulled three PowerBars out of her pocket, unwrapped them and then molded them to her handlebars, up by the stem. I looked at her like she was nuts. She said, “That’s where I always put them when I raced,” and shrugged.

    I haven’t eaten PowerBars since then.

  9. ben

    I haven’t eaten an old-school powerbar in forever…probably since Clif bars came out. But I did like the malt-nut as well..the chocolate was (is?) gross.

    I like that Clif bars have come out w/ a half-size version that I can down a bit quicker w/out stuffing half back in the jersey for later. Though the small versions only come in a few flavors.

  10. Mike

    I was deeply saddened when Malt Nut went away. I would pick right back up with them if they ever surfaced again.

  11. Steve

    Always been a fan of Clif Bars…since the beginning. However I seem to like the flavors not many people stock..except REI occasionally. Don’t care for chcolate,penut butter, etc. I like all the fruit flavors, Blueberry, Apricot, Apple Cherry and also Carrot Cake…wish they had more flavors like these.
    Also..a few years ago the bar got smaller but the packaging stayed the same…kinda feels like bait and switch and I expected more from the Clif folks.

  12. Erik

    I laughed out loud when I read the Malt Nut PB bit – people still look at me funny when I mention those. I never bothered to figure what a malt nut is, but if they came back on the market, I’d still buy those things.
    I couldn’t eat clif bars for about 5 years after a backpacking trip shortly after they came out – the weather sucked for cooking and I ate my weight in those things. Still, I’m back on loving most of them.
    For me it’s a mixture of “real” food and better living through chemistry when riding. Especially on long rides, a PBJ or piece of fruit sitting in the jersey pocket alongside some blocks or bars is just fine.

  13. DavidA

    I like clif bars..cherry and White choc. mac and only eat cookies and cream or vanilla crisp powerbars. I cut the powerbars in half with the wrapper opening on one end, easy to get to. Now im going to go OLD SCHOOL on everyone I eat rasberry jam and cream cheese or apricot jam and cream cheese sandwiches on a good white bread cut into 4 bite size pieces wrapped in foil also nutella sandwiches done the same way. banana slices and whipped honey sandwiches are good too. I like sliced peaches on cream cheese as well the cream cheese forms a base to keep the bread from getting too soaked. All cut into bite size and foil wrapped. I also make something could rijstevela or rice tarts that you find in any Bakery in Belgium. Rice krispies treat are found at Costco 50 for 10.00 and already to stuff in you jersey. Canned peach halves in a zip lock bag are good if you can stop and its not 80 to 90 degrees outside…..

  14. Steve

    Fig newtons are also easy to carry and eat and fairly nutritious. I used it love raspberry newtons but can’t find those anymore. Guess I was the only one?

  15. Dan O

    I’m a big Clif Bar fan, we go through a box a week at our house – any flavor with chocolate. I could live on the Chocolate Mint flavor. I also use ’em as snacks and for traveling. My kids also dig ’em.

    Besides the bars, I’m a fan of the company as well. They seem to sponsor everything and anything cycling related. First Clif Bar I ever ate was during a trail work party with my mountain bike club many years ago. Donated bars and a new customer.

    Check out Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business: The Story of Clif Bar & Company. By Gary Erickson, the founder of Clif Bar. It’s worth a read.

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