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

Snack bars and energy bars are basically rectangular versions of the ladoo, sometimes enhanced, other times trendy. Listen to me. We turn to ladoos for casual snacks (rava ladoos, ragi ladoos), for healthy fats (coconut, mixed nuts or sesame ladoos), for protein (besan or urad dal ladoos), just like we do with the bars. Ladoos and bars are compressed energy snacks that use fats and sugars to bind their ingredients, with added grains or nuts for texture.

The methods are similar. Both use a no-water-added approach to cooking their starches. The basic ingredients (legumes or oats) are baked or roasted in a pan. Anyone who has ever made them knows that water is kryptonite for a ladoo and reduces 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 also what gives powdered milk and peanut butter their long shelf life. Keep in mind that water activity is not the same as humidity level. For example, a bar may look damp, but if the dampness is from salt, sugar, or oils, that means there isn’t enough free water for microbes to grow.

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

Hydrolysates are proteins that are then broken down using an enzyme or acid, which is why they are also called predigested proteins. Since hydrolysates don’t draw moisture from nearby ingredients, they’re often blended with isolates to help a bar retain its smooth texture over time. All of these processing fees add up. Protein bars are some of the most expensive bars on the market. And some may still feel dry, mealy, or have a heavy protein powder aftertaste. It’s an unfortunate side effect of having too much protein, coupled with too little fat. As anyone who has eaten a ladoo made with dal can attest, it gets really, really dry, especially if it’s a low-fat version with little or no ghee.

Snack bars and energy bars are basically rectangular versions of the ladoo, sometimes enhanced, other times trendy. Listen to me. We turn to ladoos for casual snacks (rava ladoos, ragi ladoos), for healthy fats (coconut, mixed nuts or sesame ladoos), for protein (besan or urad dal ladoos), just like we do with the bars. Ladoos and bars are compressed energy snacks that use fats and sugars to bind their ingredients, with added grains or nuts for texture.

The methods are similar. Both use a no-water-added approach to cooking their starches. The basic ingredients (legumes or oats) are baked or roasted in a pan. Anyone who has ever made them knows that water is kryptonite for a ladoo and reduces 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 also what gives powdered milk and peanut butter their long shelf life. Keep in mind that water activity is not the same as humidity level. For example, a bar may look damp, but if the dampness is from salt, sugar, or oils, that means there isn’t enough free water for microbes to grow.

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

Hydrolysates are proteins that are then broken down using an enzyme or acid, which is why they are also called predigested proteins. Since hydrolysates don’t draw moisture from nearby ingredients, they’re often blended with isolates to help a bar retain its smooth texture over time. All of these processing fees add up. Protein bars are some of the most expensive bars on the market. And some may still feel dry, mealy, or have a heavy protein powder aftertaste. It’s an unfortunate side effect of having too much protein, coupled with too little fat. As anyone who has eaten a ladoo made with dal can attest, it gets really, really dry, especially if it’s a low-fat version with little or no ghee.

Now let’s move on to fats. Most homemade ladoos use a saturated fat like ghee to improve texture and flavor and increase shelf life. Mass-produced bars use a wide range of fats and oils. Be sure to read the labels here. Choose bars that use good fats like nut butter and avoid those that contain ultra-refined fats like hydrogenated oils.

Ladoos often contain ghee-fried cashews and added raisins for taste and texture. Many mass-produced bars use rice crisps or whey crisps to add crunch while boosting protein content. For binders, ladoos usually use sugar syrup (chashni), honey or dates. Modern manufacturers use them along with less sweet brown rice, tapioca, glycerin, or maltitol syrups. These humectants help keep the bar soft while keeping water activity levels low.

Yet 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 20g or 5 teaspoons of sugar per bar!

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

(To contact Swetha Sivakumar with questions or comments, email [email protected])

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