Monday, December 28, 2009

An Experimental Month

Stevia and QuinoaHere at Element Bars we are constantly reading up on and experimenting with new and exciting ingredients to add to our already delicious and nutritious line-up! Recently, we've been baking test batches with stevia as well as quinoa.

Stevia is a natural, zero-calorie sweetener refined from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant and is several times sweeter than sugar and while being diabetic friendly.

Quinoa is an ancient grain native to South America. It is an extremely nutritionally dense grain and is considered a complete protein. Quinoa has recently become very popular, so much so that many suppliers are clean out until 2010!

While the recipes haven't been perfected, we've had some promising results and we hope to add them to our options soon. In the mean time, check out some of our current ingredients or build a bar today.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Introducing Chris

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Suggestions? They go to me, Christopher. I manage the baking operations here at Element Bars and I can answer any questions you have about our ingredients or about your order. I'll be experimenting with potential new ingredients and making sure your bars are delicious.

For example, I recently made a couple of test batches using whey protein "crisps" instead of the whey protein powder. Overall the results were promising. The real advantage to the crisps was that they behaved more like puffed rice instead of powder resulting in a much less chalky bar that had a better consistency than when using the powder.

So if you have any questions or would like to suggest a new ingredient or just want to say hello, shoot me an email at Christopher{dot}lowe[at]elementbars.com and I'll do my best to get back to you as soon as possible!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Taking on the Sharks


As many of you know, Element Bars was recently featured on the hit ABC show, Shark Tank. After months of intense build up for our team, and a hectic few weeks since the viewing, we’d like to reflect and share tidbits from the experience with you in this post.

A Company in Need of Some Friends (with money)


In the Spring of 2009, our early customers were spreading the word that they loved the taste of our bars. Tales of element bars’ deliciousness appeared on blogs, and more people built their own custom energy bars to see what the fuss was all about. This growth meant that we needed to find some funding to help fuel expansion, and Jonathan Miller went to local banks seeking a small business loan. Unfortunately, the ongoing recession made finding an investor harder than ever.

Enter Shark Tank.

We discovered the open auditions for Shark Tank and immediately decided to apply. Time was short, so we went right to work creating our audition video. To make it through auditions, we needed a strategy. Luckily, Jonathan Kelley’s neighbor, Steve Douglass, has a Masters in Media Literacy and helps his students at Lake Forest High School tell stories visually every day in his Telecom- New Media Production program. We brainstormed together the best way to express Element Bars’ premium product as well as our passion for customized nutrition. Steve shared prospective on how, depending on our creative approach, our audition tape could be viewed in very different ways. We decided to focus on Miller’s love of tinkering, how he created our original bar recipes, and how Shark Tank was the perfect opportunity for us to show the world a better way to create and enjoy their own custom energy bar. After an afternoon of Steve directing, Miller writing, pitching, re-writing and eventually nailing it, we had a video that would have made the Food Network proud. (A special thanks to Margaret Kelley – Jonathan Kelley’s wife - who had to endure the whole ordeal on her birthday)

Days later, we heard we made it to the second round…then the final round…and pretty soon, Miller was on a plane headed for LA. We were excited and nervous. We are passionate about helping our customers eat well and control what they put into their bodies. We also might have a few wacky ideas about how to do it – and this combination could be our Achilles’ heel. The same thought kept coming back: “What if they just want to make a mockery of us?” We knew there was a chance that Miller could give a great performance, but the editing could still portray us as a couple of clueless health nuts. Our only hope was to do our homework and present Element Bars as the budding business it is. We know many of you are tired of being stuck with the same old energy bars filled with unnatural ingredients – but how could we convince the sharks?

Taking on the Sharks


Jonathan Miller came with bars custom tailored for each judge. Kevin Harrington was given a Chewy based “As Seen on TV Bar” while Kevin O’Leary got a Datey based “Mr. Wonderful Bar” – an ode to his performances in the pilot episodes we saw in our research.

Arriving on set was a completely surreal experience. Next door, on the Sony Pictures lot, they were shooting the new Iron Man movie. After he got out of the golf cart, Jonathan Miller was shown a trailer, and to his surprise, it had his “Jonathan Miller, Element Bars” on it. Jonathan pulled out a folding chair, cracked open an Element Bar for breakfast, and chatted with the Shark Tank crew. Jonathan also had the opportunity to meet a number of other contestants who had unique ideas ranging from refillable ink toner cartridges to real estate deals. Within an hour of arriving on set, Jonathan was called in to start his pitch. While the final TV segment was cut down to 15 minutes, the actual negotiations were closer to an hour. Not shown in the episode, he was given the opportunity to call his wife, Jennie, to help with the negotiations. Her advice: "Remember there is a world outside of Shark Tank".

Miller returned to the stage emboldened and, with a fresh perspective, stood firm in his negotiating range. Kevin agreed to bring down his offer and the rest is history. We have the good fortune to work with Kevin – and are excited to report soon on what this means for the future of element bars.

A Day of Reckoning


Miller returned from the filming and immediately began preparing the business for the possibility that the Element Bars episode would see the light of day. The problem: our website was designed to handle a few thousand visitors a day...not 25,000 in an hour. We had only weeks to prepare, so we worked night and day and found a few great ways to speed up the site. But would it be enough?

Because time was short, we had to work right until the airing - at 7:30 PM CST (30 min before the show began), we made our “final” changes... and then entire site stopped working. Our overeager attempts to make it a little faster broke the entire site. We worked furiously until the moment Miller appeared on the screen, when, miraculously, it began working. We were back in action.

Moments later, the rush began. Within seconds of the Element Bars logo appearing on the screen behind Miller, the site was hit by tens of thousands of viewers. Our system was brought to a painful crawl – and, frankly, we don’t know how so many orders made it through. For the lucky ones who completed your orders –your patience is unbelievable! The sheer volume of activity caused parts of the site to break that we had never considered fragile. Both Jonathans worked quickly at their respective computers to diagnose the errors – and found solutions as quickly as possible. By the night’s end, we felt like both the world’s biggest failures and the world’s luckiest food geeks.

The next morning, we started baking and noticed how rapidly our ingredient supplies diminished. Our preoccupation with the website caused us to neglect the critical job of planning ingredient orders. A few ingredient rush orders and many interesting custom bars later, the orders started shipping.

Here's to the Future


When it comes down to it, the Element Bars team is all about great tasting nutrition – the way you want it. The computer is merely the medium that allows us to share. We feel awful that so many of you found a slow or even unresponsive experience on your first visit to our site. Please come back to see us – things are moving along much better now.

Now that the Shark Tank mania has calmed down, we’ve been able to reflect on what this has meant for us. We’re thrilled that so many of you have ordered your own bars. We were shocked ourselves when we realized that an entire year’s worth of orders were baked in the first two weeks after the show. Thank you for believing in our idea and for trying our bars (well...they’re really yours). We hope to have more opportunities to share with you in the future.

If you have any thoughts on how we can improve or delicious options we should carry – we’d love to hear from you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A busy summer - The story of an intern

(This month's post is written by Tom Valentin, a summer intern from the Kellogg School of Management.)

Coming into the summer as an intern at Element Bars, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I had been warned that working for a small company - even for just a couple months - could be risky. However I wanted to work for someone whose passion for great tasting natural foods matched my own and Element Bars certainly fit the bill.

Within a week I was thrust into the mix when Element Bars exhibited at the Organic Food Trade Show right here in Chicago. Before I'd had a chance to even design my own bar I was answering questions about our ingredients and our plans moving forward. In two days at the trade show I quickly realized what Element Bars could mean to people - an energy bar that truly meets each and every users specific needs - be it nutritional or otherwise.

I also had a chance to try my hand at baking a few bars as well. Here at Element Bars, we're always testing new ingredients and combinations to produce great tasting bars. In the last couple of months I've tested chia seeds, specialty nut mixes, new cores, low-calorie bars, and much more! Working in the kitchen has been a lot of fun and has allowed me to see firsthand how natural these bars really are.

I've also had the opportunity to interact directly with customers at the Farmer's Markets and trade shows we've attended. Those who sample the bars seem to agree - our bars really do taste better and fresher than our competitors. Of course this isn't too surprising since our bars are freshly baked and chock-full of tasty ingredients. Overall I've learned a lot and have had a great time while working on this tremendous product!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Food allergies - A founder's story

(This month's post is written by Jonathan Kelley, a co-founder of Element Bars. Recently, Jonathan Kelley was diagnosed with food allergies and thought he would share his experience.)

After centuries of agricultural and technological progress, you would think we’d have a simple way to control what goes into our bodies. After all, how hard can it be to find natural foods that provide sustained energy without jeopardizing health? I recently found out just how difficult it is, when the doctor forced me to cut out a broad part (the tastiest part) of my normal diet. As a co-founder of ElementBars.com, I was pleasantly surprised when ElementBars came to the rescue through my latest custom energy bar recipe.

I’ve always had a problem eating. It’s nothing as serious as major allergies, but food and pills have always taken the scenic route down my throat. I was such a slow eater that my siblings always managed to gobble down the lion’s share of the family dinner while I was counting my chewing. To this day, I remain a little underweight, and if you ask my wife, she’ll tell you I eat as slow as ever.

Upon a recent routine endoscopy, I was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis (EE). Basically, white blood cells flock to the esophagus in response to some sort of intrusion. Doctors have begun diagnosing this more and more, and they still don’t know why. Some of the leading researchers, at Northwestern University in Chicago, suggest that the “intrusion” is food allergies. There isn’t a gentle treatment for EE, other than lifelong use of steroids or regular stretching of the esophagus. I’m not keen on either of these, so my doctor recommended a crash course elimination diet, followed by gradual reintroduction of possible offenders. Ideally, this stops the white blood cell overreaction, so you can reintroduce foods while gradually looking for complications.

My elimination diet consists of removing the following:
• Eggs
• Dairy (lactose)
• Soy
• Wheat and gluten
• Corn
• Seafood
• Peanuts and all other nuts

You’d think after centuries of agricultural and technological progress, it would be easy to control the specific foods you eat. You’d be wrong. Aside from home cooked meals, I was basically out of luck. We’ve always focused on all natural foods and high quality ingredients at element bars, but didn’t understand how rare this is in the food industry.

This was a total wake up call.

Pick up your favorite packaged food and check out the label. You’ll probably see much of what I’ve been looking at the last three months. Derivative foods and additives abound. Corn is everywhere - Syrups, sweeteners, oils, meal, even fuel. Soy is much the same way – tocepherols, oils, sauces, beans, nuts, flavorings. Beyond that, there are all sorts of preservatives, hydrogenated oils and fats, artificial sweeteners, and a general mixing of ingredients in the final product.

Don’t even get me started on restaurants… I love a great meal out, when I can just forget about the amount of butter on the vegetables or cream in the dessert, but the elimination diet changed all that for now. Here’s a recent encounter:
Me: “Could I have the New York Strip with the potatoes” (a safe bet I hoped)
Waiter: “What kind of crust and sauce would you like on it?”
Me: “Does the blackened crust have any butter?”
Waiter: Yes, sorry
Me: “What about the au poivre?”
Waiter: I don’t think so.
Me: “What type of oil is used in it”
Waiter: Vegetable oil.
Me: “Oh, what kind of vegetables are used?”
Waiter: I don’t know-I’ll have to check.
Me: “Thanks, well, I can’t have any butter, peanut oil or soy oil. If either of those are used, can you request that it is cooked in some other way?”
Waiter: Certainly
Me: “Oh, and one last thing, can you make sure no flour or egg is used in the crust? Actually, don’t worry about the crust, can I just have it plain?”

As you can see, the process is a bit tiring. Twenty minutes later, my order came out with a side of asparagus instead of potatoes, as they are normally cooked with butter. I hope the grilled asparagus was coated in olive oil, because I didn’t have the heart to ask. Everyone has their breaking point.

Luckily, my wife and I love to cook, so dinner at home continues as usual (with a little more attention to the oil used, a lot less bread and cheese, and a few new foods like quinoa). At home we’re eating healthier and better than ever, but work is far from home, so making home cooked lunches every day is a big challenge. Locally, the best quick options are sliced deli meat, sunflower seeds, or a bag of natural potato chips. Beyond that it’s all fruit and rice milk. Everything else includes one hundred ingredients, tons of unnatural stuff, or some forbidden substance.

This elimination diet was cutting down my calorie intake, and my doctor commanded that I keep a healthy weight. I needed convenient food that met these crazy restrictions, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice food quality. So I took matters into my own hands, and turned to my business partner Jonathan Miller at ElementBars.

I knew the ingredients we use at ElementBars are of the highest quality. One of our earliest decisions to only use the best sweeteners – agave syrup and brown rice syrup – had a nice unintended benefit that they aren’t associated with normal allergies. Knowing how much control you can have over the ingredients, I went onto the website and designed my own custom energy bar. It’s called “JK’s Elimination Bar” if you want to try it out. I selected my favorite ingredients, cherries, apricots, and blueberries in a Datey base. Sadly, my favorite base, Chewy, has peanuts. I added pumpkin seeds to get extra protein. In the end, I grab a bar or two each morning on the way to work, and it gives me the energy to get through the day without breaking my diet. Once the doctor lets me add nuts or whey, you can bet I’ll be redesigning my bar to boost the protein. Until then, I’m enjoying a fruit filled energy bar, that was handmade by my friends at ElementBars.

Building a “restricted” bar on our website, taught me a few things about the difficulties of food allergies and restrictions. We at ElementBars are now working on an improved “build a bar” experience that will let you specify your restrictions. The “build a bar” ingredients will then adjust to your specific needs – gluten free, soy free, vegan, nut free, or lactose intolerant. This should make your customization process easier than any other place on the web. We hope that this will help you to meet you dietary goals or fit your personal needs in the future.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Expert Opinion: Fat

(This month's expert opinion is from Jason Miller. Jason Miller is an MD/PhD student at UCSF doing research on Huntington's and other neurological diseases.)

For those who keep up on the latest about healthy eating, the last decade of nutrition research may feel like a whirlwind of confusion and contradiction. The confusion started in the last part of the 20th century, which saw a trend towards low-fat food consumption. Low-fat alternatives to just about any packaged product began appearing on our grocery store shelves. In the extreme case, we had products like Olestra, which tasted like fat but were indigestible, thereby rendering any food product fried in Olestra as low-fat or fat-free. The US government's "food pyramid" showed fats as part of the "peak" of the pyramid, to be consumed in only sparing amounts. On the heels of this low-fat consensus came the Atkins diet, which emphasized the minimization of carbohydrates. Because the Atkins diet allowed consumption of large quantities of fat (and protein), the diet directly contradicted the mantra that low-fat eating was healthy eating - Atkins dieters were really losing weight eating high-fat food. As the Atkins diet settled in as a way of life for many people, news about trans-fats then hit the national conscience. Trans-fats, which are unsaturated fats that have been partly hydrogenated (no need to understand this technical mumbo-jumbo right now, but just know that partially hydrogenated fats and trans-fats are essentially equivalent), seemed to be especially unhealthy for people - so unhealthy that many cities have banned or are considering banning the fat from being used in restaurants.

So what the heck does one make of all this confusion? Unfortunately, the putative healthiness of a low-fat diet or an Atkins diet (or other diets) were often based on assumptions rather than rigorous and carefully controlled scientific studies. But things seem to be changing. In the past several years, numerous clinical trials have been conducted and a much clearer consensus about what constitutes healthy eating has emerged. While there are lots of new findings from these studies, I am going to focus on those findings related to fat consumption.

First, an introduction to fat. There are three basic categories of fat (but many more subcategories) - saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans-fats (which are man-made). Fats are made up of long chains of carbon with hydrogens attached to them. For a fat to be "saturated," each carbon in the chain has to be totally saturated with hydrogens. In contrast, an "unsaturated" fat is one in which there are fewer hydrogens attached to the carbon chain. To create "trans-fats", one takes an unsaturated fat and chemically attaches some (but not too many) extra hydrogens on it - hence the term "partially hydrogenated."

With that introduction, one may naturally wonder why fats were originally thought to be so unhealthy, thereby sparking the low-fat trend of the late 20th century. Part of the answer is simply that people saw fat that you consume as somehow equating to the fat that hangs on your belly. But the body can and does make fat from anything you consume. The real magic rule for how much fat you have on your belly is a simple formula: If you consume more calories than you burn, it will be turned to fat - it doesn't matter what type of calories you consume. To be fair, there was a more legitimate reason to think that fat might be bad, and that has to do with how many calories are in a gram of fat. First, let me remind everyone that essentially all of the calories you consume from food come from either proteins, carbohydrates, or fats. Proteins and carbohydrates each have about 4 calories per gram. But fats actually contain 9 calories per gram. So if you consume a 1/2 pound meal that is all protein and your buddy consumes a 1/2 pound meal that is all fat, your buddy would have consumed more than two times the number of calories as you consumed. Assuming you both eat roughly the same mass of food each day and expend the same number of calories per day, your buddy will soon become a lot fatter than you! The problem with this logic is that it turns out that certain foods tend to make you feel more full than other foods. For example, carbohydrates make you feel full immediately but also make you hungry much earlier than proteins and fats. Fats actually cause a sustained feeling of fullness, and this helps temper how much fat people consume, thereby preventing the high caloric content of fats from actually making people that much fatter.

So now that we know fats don't necessarily make you fat (and can actually cause you to feel more satiated than other food types), is there any real difference between unsaturated fats, saturated fats, and trans-fats? A lot of recent research has provided one clear answer: YES!! I'll cut to the chase and tell you that unsaturated fats are oftentimes really good for you, especially the omega3 and omega6 unsaturated fats, while saturated fats and trans-fats are unhealthy. If all fats have the same property of making you feel satiated (and none of them really make you inherently fat), why is there a health difference between unsaturated, saturated, and trans-fats? The answer lies in how the body utilizes these different types of fat. When the body sees saturated fats, it tends to combine these fats with cholesterol into packages that circulate in the blood and deposit into the walls of our arteries. As these "fat plaques" build up, they clog our arteries, predisposing us to heart disease, stroke, and a slew of other health problems. In contrast, when the body sees unsaturated fats, it tends to put these fats into packages that actually scavenge cholesterol from arteries and brings it back to the liver for proper disposal. Certain types of unsaturated fats, like omega fats, are particularly good at triggering this process. Because these types of fats are promoting the removal of "fat plaques" from our arteries (and proper disposal of the "fat plaque" components in the liver), it isn't surprising that they are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. Finally, there are trans-fats. It's not exactly understood why our bodies react so poorly to trans-fats, but some people postulate that because trans-fats are manmade and not seen in unprocessed food, our body has difficulty understanding what to do with these fats. Like saturated fats, they seem to increase our risk of heart disease and other vascular problems.

So what types of foods contain saturated fats, trans-fats, and unsaturated fats?

Saturated fats - almost all fat that comes from animals is largely saturated (EXCEPT for fish!); certain non-animal fats are also high in saturated fats - coconut oil or milk, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter oil, and, to a lesser degree, cottonseed oil. Butter is also comprised almost exclusively of saturated fat.

Unsaturated fats - a good number of vegetable oils are unsaturated, including olive oil, canola oil, sunflowerseed oil, etc.; almost all nuts are high in unsaturated fats as well; fish also contain primarily unsaturated fats. The really really good unsaturated fats (omega3, omega6, and other related fats) are especially high in fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds.

Trans-fats - food has to be processed in order for it to have trans-fats. Most candybars have some trans-fats. Margarine and many butter-substitute spreads are also trans-fats. Anytime the ingredient list for a product says "partially hydrogenated," there are trans-fats in the product.

So after experiencing more than a decade of confusion about what constitutes healthy eating, we finally have some concrete answers that are almost assuredly going to stand up over time:

Avoid saturated fats and trans-fats, while being sure that your diet contains an adequate (not too little, but not too much either) amount of unsaturated fats. Within the unsaturated fats, try to be especially aware of consuming fats like omega3 and omega6 that have been shown to have substantial health benefits.

You can get your fill of omega fats by requesting an omega boost with your Element Bar or packing your bar with walnuts and flaxseeds.