Thursday, May 11, 2017

Nutrition? or Just Nuts?

In the next few weeks I will be reviewing/testing/comparing various “emergency food bars”. I reviewed a cheap one a while back that is available at Wal-Mart and doesn't taste too bad. This time, I bought six different brands of survival food bars and I am waiting for them to be delivered so testing can begin.

Before I start the reviews, I thought it might be helpful to look at the concept of “survival” food bars. What is their purpose? Do they accomplish that purpose, or are they just over-priced cookies, as some people (no names) tend to believe?

The idea of being able to carry three days worth of food in a pocket is nice, but since the “Rule of Threes” mentions that you can survive three weeks without food, it's more for morale than it is survival. Having something, anything, to quiet a growling stomach or make a hungry child a little more comfortable is worth more than the questionable nutritional content of some of these emergency rations. 72 hours (three days) isn't all that long; you'll get hungry because you're used to eating three or more times a day, but you're not going to die of starvation in three days unless you were well on your way beforehand.

Your body needs macronutrients like protein and fat to keep functioning, and your body can break them down into carbohydrates (calories) if need be, but fats and oils don't store very well. Your body can also convert carbohydrates into fat, but proteins are a different matter — without the correct amino acids, you can't produce your own proteins to build and repair muscles. Calories are the fuel your body will need to burn to keep up with your activity level. Sitting in a lifeboat waiting to be picked up by the Coast Guard takes a lot fewer calories than chopping wood to heat your house after a blizzard has taken out the power lines and closed the roads.

Looking through some of the ads for these things, the makers tend to hype a few characteristics:
  • Shelf-life
  • Calorie content
  • Vitamin content
  • Packaging
  • Taste or flavor
  • Dietary/cultural special needs

Shelf Life
Most sealed food packs sold as “emergency food supplies” tout a shelf-life of at least five years. This is actually a US Coast Guard mandated shelf-life for emergency rations that has carried over into civilian marketing. Read through the requirements for lifeboat rations and you'll see that they are common sense, rational requirements.

Calorie Content
Most emergency food bars are designed to provide around 1200 Calories per day. This is well below the USDA recommended 2000 Cal/day, but is enough to keep a person alive. I've seen weight-loss diets that go as low as 800 Cal/day, so 1200 isn't quite starvation. Depending on your metabolism and activity level, 1200 Cal/day could be plenty or a pittance, but it's better than nothing.

Vitamin Content
This one is more hype than help. Since vitamin-deficiency diseases take weeks or months of insufficient vitamin intake to develop, having a three day supply of “balanced” meals is meaningless. From the Merck Manual (a medical reference book that you should have on your shelf) website;
“Deficiencies of water-soluble vitamins (except vitamin B12) may develop after weeks to months of undernutrition. Deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins and of vitamin B12 take > 1 yr to develop because the body stores them in relatively large amounts. Intakes of vitamins sufficient to prevent classic vitamin deficiencies (such as scurvy or beriberi) may not be adequate for optimum health. This area remains one of controversy and active research.”
Check the website for information about minimum and maximum daily vitamin intakes; they have a lot of information laid out in a legible format.

Most of the life boat rations are vacuum-sealed and come as a single bar that is intended to last three days. This is a poor design as far as I'm concerned: once the package is opened, the leftovers can't be sealed back up and are at risk of contamination until they're eaten. In my review I'll cover how each brand addressed this issue.

Most of the ration bars I've seen are also as hard as a board, with sharp corners. This is something to watch for if you're carrying them in a thin or soft pack. Trust me, having a hard object poke you in the kidney for a 15 mile hike is beyond “no fun”.

Taste or Flavor
Flavors are subjective. I know most people would prefer sweet over sour, but once you start trying to compare apples and cinnamon to raspberry, it gets down to personal preference. I'll be looking for whether or not the bars taste anything like what is advertised. I'll also be looking for unpleasant tastes and after-tastes. If it's nasty, nobody is going to want to eat it until they get really hungry.

Dietary or Cultural Special Needs
I'm used to seeing emergency rations that are safe for vegans, but I'm starting to see some that are marked GMO-free, and I think I even saw one advertised as gluten-free. Being assured that something is free of pork or beef or meat in general is important for some folks, and I'm glad that they have options. The GMO-free claim is almost impossible to verify — I work in agriculture and know that well over 90% of all grain on the market is modified in some manner. Gluten sensitivity is a real problem for some people (I know a few), but it has become a fad for people who don't have anything else to whine about. Either way, it's nice to have options.

Other things I will be looking at are weight, shape, and cost. I'll be testing each brand individually and comparing them to the others as I go through the testing. Expect to see a few charts and maybe even a simple spreadsheet or two. All of those years of working in a chemistry lab have left me with a few bad habits, spreadsheets is one of them.

To clarify before I even start the testing: I bought these samples with my own money and none of the sellers or producers of these products are even aware that I am doing this comparison testing. Nobody is paying me to do this, so you can expect an honest review. We're strange like that here at BCP — we don't shy away from giving bad reviews when they are warranted.

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