Sometimes wild mixes make good.

A new vegan, ultra-low carb energy bar named after a Greek philosopher and brought to the market by two diabetic entrepreneurs with zero prior food industry experience is aiming to become the ultimate low-carb snack. ZenoBars claim between only 2 and 4 grams of "net carbs" after the subtraction of fiber (more on that in a moment).

Company founders Sue Papuga and Russell Long discovered each other by chance when they were both pre-diabetic despite being active, healthy, and diet conscientious. They were also both vegans.

"We both regularly followed the latest commentary from a vegan nutrition website and bumped into each other on the forum,” Papuga and Long told DiabetesMine. “A small group of us on the forum who were pre-diabetic couldn’t understand why the advice was to eat carbs (whole grains and beans of course) and shun fat when carbs caused our glucose to go waaay too high. We broke away from the pack armed with our glucose meters and discovered the low-carb and keto universe where we happily reside with our low A1Cs.”

 

The ZenoBar Story

In January of 2015, Long proposed trying to make their own low-carb, vegan energy bar to the online group. Papuga, a lifelong nature lover and nutrition buff from the Midwest, joked that she was the only one “foolhardy enough to take on the challenge.”

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Three years and 2,000 variations of ingredient combinations later, ZenoBars were born. The bars rely on a mix of simple ingredients: almonds, allulose, organic soluble tapioca fiber, hemp seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, hazelnuts, cocoa powder, and strawberries for their base. None of the ingredients used are genetically modified. As for the name, Zeno was a Greek philosopher whose paradoxes pointed out that senses can be deceiving and what we think of as real can be an illusion. Papuga and Long said that such is the case with standard dietary dogma, with the status quo being built on misconceptions and bad science.

“When we ditched high carbs and embraced healthy fats it reminded us of Zeno going against the grain,” they said. “The fact that both of us are now diabetic (type 1 for Long and type 2 for Papuga) despite our best efforts has helped us in evaluating all our prototype bars to make sure they really are low-carb. Our diabetic friends have been our willing and tireless testers along with any other friends or family we could corral.”

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The company advertises that its bars are “delicious by design.” The bars come in three flavors—almond hemp, cocoa hemp, and strawberry hemp—and they are indeed quite tasty. Several objective parties tried the bars for this story, and all enjoyed them and found them to be a flavorful and fairly filing snack on-the-go or mealtime accompaniment (although some did note that the cocoa flavor was not particularly chocolatey).

 

Tasty Vegan Bars without the Sugar Spike

To successfully crack the market of health conscious consumers, one can’t ignore flavor anymore. With more and more natural, healthy, and flavorful natural food options out there, companies have to prioritize taste alongside health benefits. But what about PWDs (people with diabetes), and furthermore, what about vegan PWDs?

Whole food-based health and energy bars have for years normally come with high carb counts and whey powder, which is a by-product of cheese production, for additional protein.

“We have been vegan for years,” the Zeno founders say. “The few vegan bars we tried caused a BG spike or tasted bad. Creating ZenoBars was a matter of necessity.”

Too often people with diabetes try out new low-carb bars only to watch their BGs go airborne. So how do ZenoBars avoid the same problem?

In searching for low net-carb ingredients, the two entrepreneurs turned to what they call their “Three Omigos” – hemp, flax, and chia seeds. All three seeds are high in ALA omega-3 fats, but also have a high fiber content and low glycemic index, the relative ranking of carbohydrates in foods based on how they affect blood glucose levels.

"Through much experimenting, we found a balance between the three to maintain good taste and texture,” they said. “Almonds are the backbone of the bars and add their delightful flavor while maintaining a low GI."

 

The Net Carb Question

There’s no question that the bars are healthy, natural, flavorful, and a seemingly good option for those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes -- in that they're less sugary than so many other snack options. But what about the whole "net carbohydrate" debate? Is there any validity to the claim that high fiber really lowers the carb effect of any foods?

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According to the ingredients and packaging, ZenoBars claim between 2 and 4 grams of net carbs, based on subtracting the fiber content. The creators claim these bars manage to keep their carb and sugar count low by using allulose, a low-calorie sweetener that nutritionists and dietitians seem split on, but that has shown some evidence of lowering blood glucose and insulin levels in small studies.   

Long and Papuga are well aware that they need to be diligent in making these low net-carb claims. "We’ve learned to be cautious with net-carb declarations on food items because they’ve burned us with glucose spikes in the past... It takes a good look at the list of ingredients and understanding of them to estimate what glycemic effect a food product will have. That’s why we tested our blood glucose thoroughly with allulose when we first discovered it a few years ago and were amazed that our post prandial glucose showed no increase and could actually decrease," they tell us.

ZenoBars aim to meet their net carb claim with the controversial ingredient allulose, which supposedly has zero net carbs and is completely deducted from the total carb count. Interestingly, a citizen petition to remove allulose from the Nutrition Facts category of carb, sugar, and added sugar and give it its own separate line entry was sent to the FDA in 2015 and has been under review since then. Long and Papuga point out that Mexico and South Korea have already taken that step, and the FDA is expected to make that move by the end of this year.

“Through trial and error and word-of-mouth we’ve found that not all fibers are created equal, with some having a high glycemic effect,” Long and Papuga said. “Sugar is an excellent binder for bars but without that we turned to soluble fibers for binding. How the added fibers are processed and their chemical bonds makes a huge difference in how they are metabolized; some act just like a carb. We chose an organic soluble tapioca fiber syrup because it caused little glucose rise, was organic, and non-GMO. Several soluble corn fiber syrups also had a lower glycemic effect, but the non-GMO brands were scarce and expensive. The chicory inulin we trialed was good yet the digestive tolerance for it is very low.”

Here's the nutritional equation for ZenoBars broken out in detail:

  • Almond Hemp ZenoBar:  23g carbs – 10g fiber – 11g allulose = 2g net carbs
  • Cocoa Hemp ZenoBar: 25g carbs – 10g fiber – 13g allulose = 2g net carbs
  • Strawberry Hemp ZenoBar: 26g carbs – 10g fiber – 12g allulose = 4g net carbs

“You don’t know whether to trust the net carbs unless you’re familiar with the ingredients (which doesn’t help when the label just says “tapioca syrup”) and have tested on yourself,” Long and Papuga said. “We think a glucose meter is a great aid for testing the glycemic impact of foods and we rely on ours daily.”

We reached out to a few D-community to get their opinion on the net carbs debate. First, we spoke with Christel Oerum, a fitness trainer, diabetes coach, and nutritionist who has been living with T1D since 1997 and runs the website DiabetesStrong. She warns that consumers need to be careful when it comes to net carb claims.

"Net carbs is a concept used heavily by the marketing machines of most food and snack manufacturers,” she says. “It’s a concept coined to indicate how many of the carbs in a given product are actually converted to energy in the body, which for people living with diabetes means how much it will impact blood sugars. It’s not a term that is endorsed by FDA or the American Diabetes Association (ADA), and as an insulin-dependent person living with diabetes, you should be careful about trusting the net carb numbers.”

Oerum, who has not yet tried ZenoBars, cautions that subtracting fibers, sugar alcohols and glycerin from the total carb count doesn’t guarantee that the carbs contained in a food item will stop having an effect on blood sugars to some degree.

Mary Toscano, a nutrition educator who focuses on blood sugar management and the author of Sweet Fire: Sugar, Diabetes & Your Health, advises caution as well. She agrees that relying on the net carb numbers without evidence and experience with the product is risky -- as most people with type 1 say that any food containing 25 grams of carb before net subtractions is going to likely raise their blood sugar, regardless of how much fiber it contains.

 

Verdict on ZenoBars?

How ZenoBars are perceived and received among the diabetes and health community remains to be seen. But the company has with its initial entrepreneurial entry succeeded in making an energy bar that is vegan, non-GMO, based on simple whole foods, tasty, digestible, and incredibly low GI on paper. And its creators sure are enthusiastic.

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“We have zero food industry experience, lots of chutzpah and gumption, and are passionate about our mission,” Long and Papuga said. “We are a small operation with big ideals to make a difference in peoples’ health. ZenoBars keep us grounded. And we’ve seen the incredible difference low carb/high fat/moderate protein has made in our lives.”

The bars cost $2.50 each, or $30 for a 12-bar variety pack. They can be purchased at Zenobar.com or on Amazon, and may soon be available at San Francisco-area retail stores.

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Greg Brown is a freelance writer living in western Maine. He has written for Consumer Reports Magazine, Consumer Reports Online, The New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. He can be found online at Yellow Barn Creative.