CHORI Bar Fills in the Gaps of Poor Diets

A health nutrition bar from the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute is headed to the marketplace and can improve metabolism for obese eaters.


CHORI researchers Bruce Ames, Mark Shigenaga, and Joyce McCann have high hopes for their CHORI bar.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Almost 20 years ago, a couple of scientists at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, or CHORI, turned their lab into a kitchen of sorts, concocting a recipe long in their dreams.

Swirling in the public health crisis of skyrocketing obesity, Bruce Ames, a biochemist best known for his work on dietary carcinogens, and microbiologist Mark Shigenaga, a pioneer in the growing field of gut health, wondered if they could create one food product that would essentially tune-up the dietary process of people with poor diets, giving them a fighting chance against illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

The idea wasn’t far-fetched.

There were plenty of ways to add critical vitamins and minerals to the diet — pills, supplements, fortified foods. And a growing number of ways to aid digestion — bacteria-rich yogurts, probiotic capsules, fiber bars, or drinks.

Ames and Shigenaga wanted to roll these together into a kind of science-based super food to take on even the crappiest eaters.

They named it the CHORI bar, after their research home.

Many recipe tweaks and clinical trials later, the CHORI bar is leaving the Oakland lab for the marketplace. This summer, under a licensing agreement with KEEN Growth Capital, a food, beverage, and wellness investment group, the bar will be sold to the public as a nutritional supplement. Its form (bar, drink, bites), name (not CHORI), and price are still being.

To Ames, Shigenaga, and other scientists involved in the project, this is an exciting, long-anticipated step. Motivated by a series of studies indicating the bar can improve metabolic health, including cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure, they’re hoping it will benefit large numbers of people. They also acknowledge that their studies are small, and what happens now will continue to shed light on the bar’s potential. They also hope that in a world exploding with dietary health products, the CHORI bar finds a respectable home.

“There are 400 bars in the market, but they’re mostly just candy bars; ours was for health,” Ames said.

“The CHORI bar is different than those hundreds of bars you see on the market shelf,” Shigenaga said. “The construction of the bar was informed by evidence and literature that shows that these pieces [ingredients] were doing something really good to the metabolism of the cell. These pieces are more expensive than anything most major manufacturers would do. It’s an expensive bar, because there’s nothing like it.”

The low-calorie, fruit-based CHORI bar, with a composition that is similar to the Mediterranean diet, contains numerous essential vitamins and minerals that work together to fuel and maintain healthy cells. Special attention is paid to micronutrients and fiber, which are key to healthy metabolism. Many nutrients work together, needing each other to be beneficial.

People who are overweight or obese often aren’t getting adequate nutrients. Additionally, diets that are especially high in unhealthy fats and sugars stress the ability of cells to efficiently process foods.

This double whammy of not enough good foods and too many bad ones can lead to an insidious metabolic negative spiral, at its worst called metabolic syndrome. This is associated with high blood pressure, insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and excessive body fat, all of which can lead to chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

A healthy diet, exercise, and weight loss can help. But many people struggle to sustain these changes.

The CHORI bar isn’t intended to replace good eating or exercise, its developers say. But studies indicate it can boost healthy metabolism, making cracks in the negative cycle of lousy eating.

“Metabolism is a very complicated network that uses lots of different kinds of proteins and lots of enzymes to do every function that’s required in the body,” said Joyce McCann, a scientist and the CHORI bar project director. “Even people who think they’re eating good diets don’t get optimal amounts of vitamins and minerals; there is modest deficiency.”

McCann, who joined the CHORI project a couple of years after it got started, helped position it to potential business partners.

The bar isn’t for casual eating. But it isn’t pharmaceutical.

“The thing about the bar is that it’s not a snack bar. I hate to use the word treatment, but it really is for obese metabolic problems,” McCann said. “The basic idea is that the bar is filling gaps in poor diets, and that’s why we don’t tell people they have to change their diet; the whole point of the bar is to fill gaps.”

When McCann first sampled the lab handiwork of Ames and Shigenaga, she had a strong reaction. “The bar was inedible. It was literally inedible.”

The team brought in food development experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Albany, now project partners. Today, it’s more melt-in-your mouth blueberry, with hints of dark chocolate. Its whole food ingredients are blueberries, red grapes, dark chocolate, and walnuts. Other ingredients include several kinds of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, DHA (an important omega-3 fatty acid), and several other components added to benefit gut health. There is no yogurt in the bar, though there is an ingredient added that is found in yogurt. 

“When we got to the point where a few of us could swallow it, we did our first clinical trial,” McCann said. “And four of us ate the bar for two weeks. It still tasted terrible, but we managed to eat two bars a day for two weeks. We took blood samples and we found that even in four people our HDL [good cholesterol] went up significantly. We were extremely surprised.”

The CHORI bar’s formula has been guided by numerous small clinical trials, nearly 20 to date, McCann said. Positive results fueled momentum.

As with most research, the size and scope of the studies evolved through the years, starting with testing by lean scientists and then to overweight members of the public. The standard testing period increased from two weeks to two months.

“When we put this data together, we found much to our delight and to our surprise changes in a whole bunch of metabolic parameters in a healthy direction. That really put us over the top,” McCann said.

Eating the bar on a regular basis as a supplement and without a changed diet correlates with improved cholesterol profiles, blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar, and some weight loss. It helps some more than others, which is being analyzed. People with greater inflammation, often seen in metabolic syndrome, seem to get less benefit.

Many who’ve eaten the bar regularly say they simply feel better, the researchers said.

The most recent study, published in November in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology, found that eating the CHORI bar twice daily for two months improved lung function in obese teens with a particular kind of treatment-resistant asthma. Obese asthma is linked to metabolic problems.

The study’s 30 participants, half of whom had the CHORI bar and half who didn’t, didn’t change their diets in any other way. They all had some health education.

Most of the CHORI bar team members are retired or semi retired. They’re keeping a close eye on bar’s entry to the public and support continued studies.

The CHORI team and the research institute will get a percentage of market profits under the licensing agreement with KEEN.

“We want to encourage people to improve their diets. We have to trust the company. I think they appreciate the bar; they’re very interested in nutrition,” McCann said.

“I really believe in the mission of what Bruce and his team are doing,” said Nicholas Krivoruchko, managing director of Advanced Micronutrition, the KEEN subsidiary marketing the bar. “I see this obesity epidemic and all of these chronic diseases that are diet and lifestyle induced. I do believe food is medicine, and I found their research was fascinating. I was riveted by it.”

The CHORI bar will probably be sold in a few forms, such as a bar and a drink, on a mail-order subscription basis, where you pay monthly.

The CHORI scientists stress that real food the old-fashioned way is the preferred route to health.

“The best way to do it of course is to eat a good balanced diet, less meat, more fish, and no sugary soft drinks. You need vitamin-rich foods — fruits are terrific,” said Ames, 90, who credits his own good health to his Italian wife who brought Italian cooking with her as they made a home.

Shigenaga’s take: “A healthy diet is what you want to transition to. We would hope that your use of the CHORI bar is short, and it’s short because you’ve moved on to something that’s even better, which is the whole food diet.”

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