Product Review: Core Foods Defender Meal Bars. Plus, Some Thoughts on Meal Replacement vs. Snacking.

by Gena on July 17, 2012

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Early in the summer, before I headed to New York for The Seed, I got an email from the folks at Core Foods, a new bar and performance food brand. Was I interested, they asked, in trying some of their 100% vegan bars? I said yes, of course. Core Foods Defender bars are 100% vegan, raw, and organic, and they’re packaged in such delectable flavors raw almond cinnamon raisin, cashew cacao, and walnut banana. (Edited to add: A reader pointed out that the “Warrior” bars, which I did not sample, are not vegan, so be mindful to select the “Defender” bars if you are vegan.)

When I arrived at the Seed, Core Foods’ hardworking intern, Matt, presented me with a sample of the walnut banana flavor (as he also presented attendees with samples).

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Matt’s shirt said “unleash your warrior,” and when I had a chance to read up on Core Foods, the message made sense within the company’s larger ethos.

Core was founded by Corey Rennell, who had trained with athletes and was fascinated by the idea of creating a portable food that was made of real food, rather than sugar and artificial ingredients. The packaging of these bars pictures Hellenic athletes in motion—evidence that the company seeks to provide busy people with sensible, real food options on the go:

Defender MealWarrior Meal

Core Foods bars are distinctive for two reasons. First, they are intended more as meal replacement than as snack food. Most of us rely on “snack bars” like Larabars and Pure Bars and the like, to tide us over between meals or when we’re on the go. These snack bars can be used as a part of a meal replacement, sure, but they average about 210-240 kcal per bar, which alone is not sufficient energy intake to serve as lunch or dinner for most people. Unfortunately, snack bars are all too commonly used to replace meals, which can result in lingering afternoon hunger pangs.

I myself eat a ton of snack bars, but unless I’m traveling, caught off-guard at an event with zero vegan food options, or otherwise unprepared, I don’t rely on them to replace meals. If I do base a meal around them, it’s always with other food: hummus and veggies, a big salad, and fruit and flax crackers are all examples of things I’ll eat with a snack bar to fill me up. In truth, I don’t love to depend on snack bars at mealtime—they’re just not interesting enough to capture my heart as lunch or dinner—but as a student and hospital volunteer, I find them incredibly useful. Between meals, I think they’re invaluable options as snacks because they’re so incredibly easy to transport.

The first time I saw a bar that was developed specifically as meal replacement, rather than snack food, was when ProBars hit the scene a few years ago. With calorie counts of approximately 350 kcal and plentiful amounts of dietary fat, these bars were suitable for light meal replacement for relatively sedentary people during busy days, and they could also double as substantial snacks for hiking and other outdoor activities. 350 kcal is still more modest than an average meal in my world—and it’s probably less than is suitable for the average person—but it would certainly sustain one if life happened to get in the way of a regular, sit-down meal.

Core Foods bars have the same concept: they have about 350-390 kcal each and an average of 18-24 grams of fat and about 35 carbs.

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This may sound like a lot to you, but consider that the bars are really intended as portable meals. They’re a food you can rely on when you’re traveling and can’t seem to find vegan breakfast options anywhere, or for when you arrive at a morning meeting and learn that pastry is the only offering. Indeed, the bars’ packaging directs you to eat the bars with water as meal replacement. The labels declare that the bars are equivalent to a bowl of oatmeal (raw oats are one of the main ingredients).

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With the “bowl of oats” equivalency idea in mind, I tested a Core Bar as breakfast in class today, along with a container of fresh berries and plenty of water:

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The flavor I brought was the cashew cacao, which was full of raw chocolate chunks, raw oats, and cashew nuts:

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The bar did tide me over from 8:30 am till my lab let out at noon. Sure, I was a little hungrier than I usually am at that time—no avoiding that, given that the bars are so much less voluminous than a bowl of oats would be—but I wasn’t uncomfortably ravenous, either. And I really liked the flavor. Who doesn’t like a little cacao with breakfast?

This brings me to the second notable feature of Core Foods bars: they’re not very sweet. In fact, they’re barely sweet at all. The cashew cacao bar only has 6 grams of sugar, and the banana walnut only 8. Almond raisin has most, at 17 grams, but even that’s not a lot by bar standards (especially given that it’s a bigger than average raw bars, which can easily have about 26 grams of sugar). They have the slightest hint of sweetness when you eat them, but you’ll be amazed at how relatively un-sweet they are compared to the bars you know and love already. I find a lot of bars to be delicious, but a little sugary, so I really liked this.

Then again, my mother has accused me of never making anything sweet enough (cookies, muffins, cakes), so I may have a taste for food that is less sweet. If you try Core bars yourself, I can’t promise you that you’ll love the lack of sweetness at first, but I do promise that you’ll get use to the very moderate sweetening over time. Of the three flavors I tried, the cashew cacao was definitely my favorite, and it was the least sweet; banana walnut was my next favorite, and that was next to least sweet; the sweetest bar, the almond raisin, was actually the one I liked least (though I thought it was fine). So that’s proof that I didn’t miss the sweet flavor I’m used to in other brands at all!

Other features of Core Foods Defender bars:

  • 100% vegan
  • Raw
  • Organic
  • Gluten Free Certified

If you’re looking for a very hearty bar option on the go, I think these bars are a clear winner. I can’t promise that they’ll be the most stimulating or fun bars you’ve eaten—leave that to the sweeter and more complicated bars—but I do assure you that they’ll provide you with solid, lasting energy, healthy fats, protein, and carbohydrates, and 20% of your RDA of iron (which is no small feat). For nutrient density and good sense, these bars get two thumbs up from me!

How do you distinguish between meal replacement and snacking? What are some of your portable meal replacement ideas? As a busy student, I’d love to know!

xo

Disclosures: The Core Foods company contacted me and offered me samples to review for the purposes of this dedicated post. I was not compensated for this review.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Janae @ Bring-Joy July 17, 2012 at 2:59 pm

I’m not a fan of meal replacement shakes or bars, simply because, like you, they don’t quite “capture my heart.” I like the texture, appearance, & experience of eating real, whole, chewable food (part of the reason why I can’t ever seem to latch onto the green smoothie every day for breakfast idea).

That said, do I need options for when I have ZERO time? Yes! Do I need options for when I’m at the airport or elsewhere & have to chose between a meal replacement bar & donuts? Yes. I think these bars sound great for those times. I’ll be on the look out for them.

(Do you know where they sell them?)

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Gena July 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm

I totally hear you on wanting something to chew. I had a hard time with smoothies for ages for that very reason!

They’re mostly in West Coast stores right now, but there are a few East Coast locations (MD, MI, MA, NH…). You can look on the site, or you can order online.

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Lisa @ The raw Serenity July 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm

I don’t like the idea of a meal replacement.
I like to have meals with fresh produce, but for a snack these would be perfect.
Its confusing that Core markets them for active people, but the bars don’t have enough energy to support a full meal for someone who does a lot of exercise.
On the run trial mix is my best friend, also salads in containers and fresh fruit.
For a breakfast a great portable option is a healthy muffin and fruit. x

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Janae @ Bring-Joy July 17, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I agree with Lisa that it’s interesting that these are targeted as a meal replacement for active people but they aren’t enough calories. I’d definitely have to do something like what you did Gena, & add a side of fresh fruit or vegetables to make it filling enough (350 calories doesn’t quite cut it for lunch). Definitely much better than the alternative of going hungry or eating something less ideal :).

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Gena July 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Hi Ladies,

I agree, which is why I said they were OK for a meal replacement on a very busy day if you’re sedentary (think, a meeting that runs way over) or as a snack for very active people. If I were hiking or something, I’d definitely eat one of these as a snack, and if it were breakfast, I’d eat with fruit.

So yes, the “defender meal” idea is a little questionable if you ask me, though I do still appreciate that these are in the 300-400kcal range, rather than the 180-280 range, which is where a lot of snack bars fall. At the end of the day, though, I’d still be supplementing these with something if I were using them to get through the morning or afternoon!

G

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Christine Wind November 9, 2012 at 7:38 am

I like the amount of calories in them as they are. I wonder if there is a way to make them slightly larger with packaging that allows re-closing. Other options for those who could use more calories may be to carry a bar and an apple, or have 1.5 – 2 bars. Just a thought.

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Christine Wind November 9, 2012 at 7:44 am

These bars have been a life-savor for me to keep on hand. I am a type one diabetic and attempt to consume zero sugar. This is the only product out there that meets my needs. I buy them by the box. All diabetics could really use the low-glycemic aspect of these.

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Christa @ Edible Balance July 17, 2012 at 3:44 pm

I rely on snack bars/meal replacements mostly when traveling. Finding gluten free vegan food at an airport that’s healthy?? Not an easy task, certainly not tasty enough either. These look great, I hope to find them in Canada!

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Averie @ Averie Cooks July 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Meal replacement bars are handy – but I always find myself wanting a real meal afterward! Or they are fine for a bit but if I can follow up with a small salad or some sort of fresh/raw veggies or fruit later on, I am much more satisfied and balanced-feeling than just a bar. But for those times you need them, they’re a salvation.

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Gena July 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Totally agree!

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Marissa July 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Meal replacement bars have never left me satisfied enough to use as intended, though they are nice to have when in a bind. That’s fantastic about the sugar content, too. It really is difficult to find lower sugar options, so I appreciate that they aren’t loading their product with sugar. I’m not a fan of the super sweet bars either.

I noticed in the picture above that the Warrior Meal uses whey protein. While the Defender Meal is used as a meal replacement, the Warrior Meal is used to build strength. It’s unfortunate that their “strength” product is not vegan. It appears they are a raw company with vegan options and not a completely vegan and raw company.

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Vicki July 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Just wanted to point out that the Almond Raisin flavor says it has whey protein – so not vegan.

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Gena July 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Hey Vicki!

I think you’re looking at the Warrior meals, not the Defender meals (I only had the latter, which are vegan).

G

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Gena July 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm

However, I appreciate your noting this, because it’s important for my readers to know the difference!

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Amanda July 17, 2012 at 4:44 pm

I’m not a huge fan of meal replacement bars (I prefer more voluminous meals like salads, or even a big smoothie if I can manage it), but they definitely serve a purpose. For example, if I know I’m going to be in back-to-back meetings for most of the day, it’s really nice to have a bar that I can discreetly eat, rather than trying to sneak in an actual meal and cause a major distraction.

I hadn’t heard of these bars, but I will be on the look out for them! 20% of the RDA of iron is really impressive.

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megan July 17, 2012 at 7:45 pm

I like that these sound like they are less sweet, but I really wish a company would come out with a savory bar. I have to be careful about dried fruits and nuts, especially if I’m in a situation where I’m feeling really hungry. And the best easy-carry foods are already sweet (apple, banana, pear) so I would typically prefer one of those. I’ve been too busy to try again, but for a while I was experimenting with sundried tomatoes, spinach, and chickpeas / garbanzo flour. I would really love to have a bar with a bean/seed protein and a couple of veggies. There are baked falafels and hummus chips, so it seems do-able. When I’m too busy to eat, I’m usually walking down the street, on the subway, or between teaching classes so I need something contained, concealed, and easy.

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Stefania @ Revitalize with Stefania July 17, 2012 at 8:18 pm

good to know of another bar option!

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Kat July 17, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Hi! The oatmeal comparison reminded me of a question I thought you might know the answer to: I just found out rolled oats are steamed in order to be pressed. This would indicate they aren’t raw, yet so many of us have “raw” soaked oats as a breakfast staple. Do you know if rolled oats are raw or not? Many thanks!

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Claire July 18, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Nope, they are not considered raw. In fact, it would be very hard to buy raw oats in any form, rolled or cut. The deal with oats is explained here: http://prettysmartrawfoodideas.wordpress.com/2009/04/09/are-the-oats-you-are-buying-raw/

This was posted in the comment section:

From Bob’s Red Mill Customer Service:
None of our oat products are raw. They are all stabilized at 200°F for 4-5 hours to stabilize the enzyme. A raw oat will only live for about 72 hours, which is why it’s unlikely that you’ll find raw oats on the market unless you purchase them directly from a farmer.

Please let me know if you have any further questions.

Kind regards,

Elizabeth

Customer Service

Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, Inc.

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Chaya July 18, 2012 at 1:22 am

I like these bars, and agree that the Cashew Cacao is the best. There are vegan Defender Bars, and Warrior Bars contain Whey, I didn’t realize it until looking closely! It is nice to find something so simple. I tried to replicate them at home with no success. They are found in the refrigerated section, important to note. The only sweetener is raisins or banana, which is amazing. I would like to see a bar without sweetener. Like another commenter said, what about a savory bar. I’m a diabetic, and I have been eating mostly low glycemic raw, something very hard to find, premade!

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Laura C July 18, 2012 at 2:10 am

I often eat energy bars or granola bars, homemade or otherwise, for breakfast, along with fruit. I have always preferred lighter breakfasts, so this looks like a very sufficient breakfast option to me, if it is sweet enough for my taste :) Worth a try. I don’t like “meal replacements” at lunch or dinner- I’d much rather “spend” my calories on a variety of tasty food items with more volume and more calories. If I’m trying to decrease my intake I opt for high-volume plant-based foods like blended soups and smoothies. The low sugar and high protein and iron in these bars is appealing at least numerically.

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kate July 18, 2012 at 3:50 am

I am not a huge fan of meal replacement bars, as, for me, they are never able to fulfill the full palate range requirement of sweet and savoury. I am always left feeling that I need to eat something savoury to balance out the inherent sweetness of these bars. So, yes, as a dessert option, with a salad, veggies, hummus etc, but not alone. That said, they are invaluable on flights, when, despite the vegan meal option requested, one is inevitably faced with cheese, egg and more cheese sandwich options. I would happily pack these in my handbag along with a banana or a bag of kale chips/ Noritos for more sustenance for travel.

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Alex in Leeds July 18, 2012 at 7:03 am

So this ‘meal replacement’ range seems to have half the sugar but double the fat of most lower calorie snack options, that’s really interesting. Between 19-24g of fat (depending on the flavour of the bar) seems really high to me and more than I’d be comfortable with. Still nice to know there is a less sweet tasting option in the US now, I always found Lara bars etc way sweeter than the UK alternatives I am used to. :)

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Lauren July 18, 2012 at 7:50 am

I love those bars, they sent me samples a few months back, and I know Kristen loves them as well. We call them “Mommy Food” because they are quick, easy and have lots of breastfeeding calories! Haha! There needs to be more food like that! Moms, students, anyone with little time to eat needs something like this! ;)

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Amanda July 18, 2012 at 8:36 am

I went to their website expecting agave to be one of the ingredients. I’m glad it isn’t! I can’t stand “raw” bars with agave. I’ll have to give it a try!

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Johanna GGG July 18, 2012 at 9:04 am

was interesting to hear your views on bars as meal replacements – I always find the idea odd because it is a sweet bar – I was glad at the end of your post to hear you say that it is barely sweet but I still want a savoury meal – sweet food is just the icing on the cake not the whole kit and kaboodle

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Social Eater July 18, 2012 at 9:05 am

I just ordered some of these for a road trip I’m about to take. I love everything about Core Foods bars. I love the thought and care behind the product in where they source ingredients from and what they put into a bar. I’m so glad you got to try and review these!

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Lexi @ You, Me, & A World to See July 18, 2012 at 10:43 am

Super interesting thoughts on the whole concept of a “bar.” I personally don’t eat bars (snack or meal) that often, but I think that may be largely a personally preference. I just find other snacks (e.g. fruit, veggies, crackers, hummus, etc) a lot tastier and satisfying :)

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Rachele July 18, 2012 at 11:34 am

I’ve tried these things and think they’re gross. I’ve only tried the vegan options so can only speak to those, but I found them to be bland bars with a weird texture — almost like they’d been pre-chewed and then dehydrated. Not worth the money when making your own granola bars are easier, tastier, and cheaper.

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Cat July 18, 2012 at 12:08 pm

These sound perfect for traveling. I would have accepted a sample from intern Matt, too! ;)

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Caralyn @ glutenfreehappytummy July 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm

looks delicious! definitely a great “emergency” bar to have on hand

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Kathryn July 19, 2012 at 1:01 am

I’ve had these before. I like to break them in half and freeze them for a snack bar. I like the simple ingredient list.

I love food so much it is tough to replace a meal with a bar. Breakfast is the only meal I’m willing to “replace” with a smoothie or bar.

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Megan O July 19, 2012 at 11:12 am

I’m not big on meal replacement bars. I always feel like I’m lacking something when I’m finished. Normally I’m needing a snack in a couple hours of eating them. I’ll have to give these a try. The Cashew Cacao looks yummy. I’m not very good about think ahead to snacks . I usually throw a couple of carrot sticks in a baggie or a few crackers.

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