If energy bars are a polarising food, this is a consequence of their modern manifestation. Today’s bars provide an energy jolt, but this energy relies upon sugar and chemically formulated protein sources. Historically, energy-dense food provided nutrition but required hunger to be palatable. Regardless of their alienating nature, energy bars now own prime real estate in every drugstore, deli and vending machine; they’ve created a niche in the processed food market. This niche improved upon the foods people previously turned to for energy. Energy dense fuels have always existed, but the industrialised world altered how they’re used and who they’re used by. No longer do Union and Confederate soldiers dunk hardtack in their coffee to soften the cement-like cracker. Pemmican and Hudson Bay Bread are no longer boy-scout projects. Instead, on-the-go business people, teenagers and athletes chew on protein bars while running for the bus. Energy dense foods have transformed from second-rate fuel to an elite proclamation of a hectic schedule. Fittingly, the modern bar began in an epicentre of alternative America: Berkeley, California. Brian Maxwell, former marathoner, created the Powerbar to fuel the fitness and bicycle aficionados who raced around the city. The original customers’ reactions are irrelevant; Powerbar quickly gained popularity. Berkeley’s culinary tradition helped Maxwell’s product. The granola bar had gained popularity meaning that customers already understood how a packaged snack fit into their lives and diets. Pemmican, hardtack and the like provided context for enjoying a granola bar.
Yet the class difference between fitness junkies with their Powerbars and the Civil War soldiers with their hardtack means that a cultural shift needed to occur for such foodstuffs to enter the modern culinary lexicon. The process of eating energy bars, hardtack and similar products unifies the people who eat them. If food is a shared gastronomic language, then participating in a taste experience can bridge the gap between rich and poor, past and modern, serving and served. There’s little difference between chewing on hardtack mush and chewing on a soy-sugar-vitamin paste. When eating either product, pleasure gives way to utility as the individual munches through a food with little textural contrast. Just as monks wanted to avoid thinking about food to liberate themselves from earthly thoughts and desire, these energy foodstuffs remove reflection and contemplation from our interaction with food. They allow the individual to focus their mind on the duty facing them: battle. Hardtack ensured the nineteenth-century soldier stayed focused on war. Energy bars let their consumers concentrate on their battle with contemporary society. In a world that prizes a crazy schedule, a food product that allows us to remove our mind from distracting thoughts about food fits in seamlessly. Both the ultra-marathon runner and the CEO (and CEO wannabe) need a food that allows them to remain in perpetual motion, while keeping their running kit or white shirt nice for the tasks ahead of them. Society’s changing battles have turned the soldier into the business warrior and change hardtack into an expensive, high profile product.
Old manias have given way to modern ones, encouraging the continued consumption of energy-dense fuels. The current obsession for decoding the energy bar’s true health value can be seen as revising outdated survival instincts. Whereas people once ate pemmican and hardtack when fresh food was unavailable, energy bars help us endure the contemporary equivalent. The customer without time for proper food reaches for an energy bar to persevere until they find themselves at the table once again. Since consumers are constantly presented with high-sugar foods that are devoid of nutrients, the modern survival food must not only fill you up, it must also support good health, helping you survive in a world where fast-food is the opposing army. As the battles society faces changes, so does the position of the energy-rich food. The energy bar’s future success seems assured. As Powerbar, Balance Bar and those new ones keep on marketing themselves to time-pressed warriors, they’ll continue on in good health, developing products that help us survive contemporary society’s battles. But to what end? At some point there will be another shift in which the energy bar no longer reflects the concerns and desires of the contemporary soldier. Just as available ingredients have changed from flour and water to soy crispies and brown rice syrup, what we have at our disposal will change once again. There are already signs this is occurring. Recently protein bars boasting crickets, bison and chia have been released. Customers possess a growing awareness about the processed ingredients that go into these bars and are demonstrating desire for an alternative. Yet this new bar will not be able to gain a stronghold until it discovers its own warrior. Will the starving entrepreneur be the next target? Or will it be the people living in food deserts? Until companies uncover the next group fighting for survival, the energy bar will reign as the twenty-first century’s answer to hardtack. Only this time, you probably won’t break your teeth. —  Montanari, M., (2006). Food Is Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.  Montanari, M., (2012). Let the Meatballs Rest and Other Stories about Food and Culture. Translated by Brombert, B.A. New York: Columbia University Press.