“A Mediterranean diet in a bar” is what two Oakland doctors were aiming for when they created the CHORI-bar, a nutrition bar designed to fight the effects of poor eating habits by delivering needed nutrients to the body and targeting early indicators of disease.
Loaded with nutrients and packaged in shiny aluminum foil bags like space food, a prototype of the nutrition bar has been tasted by nearly 200 people in trials led by the two doctors, Bruce Ames and Mark Shigenaga, at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI).
A typical Mediterranean diet, credited with reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer while boosting overall metabolic function, emphasizes the consumption of plant-based foods, healthy fats like olive and canola oil, fruits and whole grains.
Ames and Shigenaga say their tests have shown that when consumed over a period of two weeks, the CHORI-bar improves antioxidant defenses and lowers metabolic biomarkers linked to future risk of heart disease, diabetes and cognitive decline, while making consumers generally “feel better.”
Research and development of the CHORI-bar was motivated by the two doctors’ desire to provide an economical, low calorie food supplement for people with no access to balanced diets, as well as provide an option for people who take multiple pills for various health conditions.
“The idea is to provide all of the nutrients that the cell needs to perform at optimal levels,” said Shigenaga, a gut and obesity expert. “We combined nutritional elements in a way that benefits the whole body and provides nutrients while also improving gut health.”
Shigenaga and Ames found a nutrition bar to be the only option that allowed them to combine micronutrients and the medicinal qualities of multiple pills that some patients have to take at the same time.
Once trials are complete, the bar will be sold at low cost to poor populations, according to a statement released by the doctors, and manufacturing costs would be subsidized by market value distribution to more advantaged populations.
The doctors’ response to poor diets will join a long list of other “nutrition bars” on the market. But, said Shigenaga, “This bar is different from other bars because it is engineered through an informed lens of what everything does.”
Asked what message the introduction of a nutrition bar would send at a time when many doctors are encouraging the consumption of whole foods, Shigenaga said the bar is not meant to replace traditional foods, but lead consumers back to balanced diets.
For now, the exact recipe of the bar is kept under wraps in an effort to prevent it from becoming “bastardized” by processed food manufacturers who might try to replicate it, said Dr. Joyce McCann. McCann, a researcher at CHORI’s Nutrition and Metabolism Center who contributed to the making of the bar, said although CHORI is not yet actively seeking a license for the bar, a patent application is pending.
“It might be licensed by a company that will sell it for profit and dedicate part of the proceeds to communities,” said McCann. “We hope somebody comes up and licenses it, but for now we are working on refining the three bars [prototype Bar 1, and modified Bar 2 and Bar 3] and combining them into one.”
The instantly-filling 110 calorie bars currently come in fruit cinnamon, blueberry, sweet and sour and mint flavors. The blueberry and cinnamon flavors smell a lot like cereal. “You need to drink water with that,” McCann cautioned as I tried the blueberry version, which tasted like an oatmeal brownie with a rich blueberry flavor and a mild chocolate aftertaste.
Most of the early tasters at the research institute included adolescents struggling with dietary problems, immediate family members of the doctors and members of staff at the CHORI laboratories.
“I liked the sweet and sour flavor and the mint flavor, but not the others,” said Mary Creedon, an intern who works as a lab assistant for Dr. Ames. Like Creedon, many of the early tasters found the bar unpalatable during trials, after which the doctors consulted dieticians in the Processed Foods Unit at the Richmond Field Station of the United States Department of Agriculture for help with making the bar taste better.
“In our trials, there are always a few people who don’t like it, and a few that really love it,” said Teresa Klask, a CHORI staffer. “There is the middle group that is willing to eat it because they know it’s good for them. Most people like it more at the end of the trial than at the beginning.”
Shigenaga said the research institute conducted 11 tests, each with between 11 and 20 adolescents and their parents, to ascertain the health effects of the bar. The participants were given two bars each day for eight weeks, accompanied with physical exercise and lessons on nutrition.
“Many of them told us that they felt better on the bar, including those who already had good diets,” Shigenaga said, “Their metabolism was getting better and we hope that this motivates people to change their diets.”