Energy Balls! Healthy or not and how many per day?

Energy Balls are small tasty morsels that can be packed for on-the-go snacking or as a treat. The question is - What makes them healthy and can you have too much of a good thing?

Quick jump

Energy balls aren’t just a fad, according to Google trends interest and ‘energy’ around the topic have steadily increased since 2015 and there’s a good reason. It’s easy to make, eat and pack for on-the-go days. If you are looking to kick the candy habit and want a healthy alternative, then energy balls are most certainly an option.

BUT, and this is a big but, there are some things you should know… 

How many can you eat in a day?

Let’s start here, because if you happened to come across a yummy recipe and made them, you probably ate 5 or 6 right there and then, or was that just me?

The reality is that any food that focuses on energy is going to be high in calories. And before we get into the debate about whether calories count or not, there are limits. Too much of anything, even the good stuff, is not a good thing. 

That being said, and depending on the recipe, you should probably not have more than 1 or 2 a day.

I know, it makes me sad as well.

What's in an energy ball?

Energy balls are great. You can use many common ingredients which makes it difficult to list surefire ingredients. But there are ways to figure out what’s in them using their name.

You can jump to The Basics of Making an Energy Ball further down to see the many variants of ingredients but there are clues you can use before looking at the ingredient list.

Unless they are called something emotive like a bliss ball, their names are often related to two factors:

Ingredient focus

The primary ingredient will be illustrated in the name. So you may see the following:

  • oat ball
  • macca ball
  • coconut ball
  • tumeric ball
  • coco ball

Superfoods, (goji berries, lions mane, ginger),  are a popular choice in the name as they are linked to many nutritional benefits.

macronutrients focus

Fat, Energy (carb or sugar) and Protein will feature in the name.

  • protein balls – popular among gym enthusiasts and often contain protein powders
  • energy balls – meant to give you a boost and often contain high carbohydrates or sugars
  • fat balls (aka fat bombs) – popular amongst those on Keto, Banting or low-carb diets.

Did they even exist before 2015?

These little balls of deliciousness have been around for a long time and all across the planet. Like with most food trends in the modern day, it is often a new take on an old recipe.

Dominican republic

In my search for the history of energy balls and trying to figure out when exactly they became a thing, I came across Dominican Cooking. A truly delicious site filled with amazing authentic Dominican dishes.

Lo and behold there is a recipe for Jalao a traditional dish using coconut and honey to make a candy ball.

France

Apparently, we can thank a clumsy apprentice to Chef Georges Auguste Escoffier in France.

He poured pastry cream into the wrong bowl and so Chocolate Truffles were born. There are a few other stories about the origin that you can read here.

But essentially dark chocolate balls have been around since the early 1900s

Sweden

The Swedes have a chokladbollar, which essentially means chocolate ball. It too has been around since the early to mid-1900s.  

The Danes had oat balls and here in South Africa, I grew up with date balls.

So, they have been around for a while. 

The massive shift in focus circa 1970 and the many health crazes that came about, (energy, protein and fat), have all had their day in their 15 minutes of fame with a craze-relevant energy ball to go with it.

But what are the upsides to these little balls of yumminess?

Are energy balls good for you?

There are many plus sides to adding energy balls into your meal planning routine. Some of the positives are also negatives depending on your dietary requirements. But let’s first look at the pros.

pros
  • Convenient and easy to pack for an on-the-go day, work or school
  • Tasty and easy after-sport snack
  • Healthier alternative to highly processed snacks
  • They store well, so you can make a big batch and use them over a few weeks
  • Highly customisable, you can use your favourite flavours and ingredients or dietary requirements in many ways
  • There are a gazillion recipes online, so you have no shortage of options
  • They don’t have to be round, you can make them any shape or size you like
  • No cooking, (maybe a little with a savoury one), but generally you just need to blend or mix ingredients together
  • When you make them yourself you can control the type and amount of sugar

Then there are huge bonus points for this next one

  • Use up random bits of ingredients lying around the kitchen 

Of course, just like the yin and yang of life, there are a few downsides to energy balls. Let’s look at some of the cons… many of these cons apply to bought or prepackaged energy balls. Remember, when you make it, you control the ingredients.

cons
  • Allergens – many recipes require sesame seeds, nuts or nut butter 
  • Calories – between the nuts, seeds and dried fruit, they can potentially be very high calorie
  • Easy to eat – if you are hungry, you can easily eat a whole lot and still not feel satiated
  • Blood Sugar – if you need to keep your sugar intake down, be sure to check the ingredient list first
  • Powders – high levels of processed protein powders are often added to increase the protein level
  • Artificial Sweeteners – again, commercial ones tend to be high in artificial sugars to try keep the overall calorie or sugar level down 
  • Weight Gain – Too many in the diet can contribute to unexplained or unexpected weight gain 

Are they a good alternative to bought snacks?

If you’re making them yourself and managing the number of sugars going into them – then yes, they are a great alternative. Bought snacks – meaning those crafty, promise you-the-world, eat-me-I’m-healthy snacks you find at the checkout line – are often no better than a regular candy bar or treat. 

Health or what you might consider healthy differs from person to person and is influenced by many factors. This means some people have no issue with a few preservatives or a bit of protein powder being in their snacks.

For others, anything with sugar or high carbs is as good as eating a sweat, regardless of what the ingredients are.

The answer is somewhat subjective. You will need to decide what your food or diet philosophy is and make a decision accordingly.

According to me and my philosophy, I enjoy them occasionally and yes I prefer them over prepackaged health snacks.

The basics of making an energy ball

There are a few basic elements to making energy balls. If you are a beginner then start with ingredients you are familiar with, and normally have in your pantry. Make small batches just in case there’s an oopsy.  

Once you have that mastered the basics, you can start subbing out or playing with the ingredients to create your own special recipe.

ingredients

Dry Ingredients: 

  • Oats – The most reliable and easiest ingredient to use. It’s accessible, cheap and there are gluten-free versions. 
  • Flour – Flours can be used but, depending on what flour you use, it will affect the percentage of wet ingredients you add. Coconut flour for example can be very dry and may require up to 50% more wet ingredients to get the correct texture. Wheat-based flours used for bread and pasta are not a good option. Many alternative nut or seed flours would be better. Eg: Flax meal, almond flour, macadamia nut flour etc.
  • Powders & Spices – Using powders as part of the blend or as the primary dry agent is a great option if you want to load up on a particular nutrient. (Cocoa is the primary ingredient in a truffle). Keep in mind that the flavour will be intense and the cost will also be a lot higher. Powders you might try are protein powders, and superfood powders:  maca, matcha, beetroot, moringa, acai and many more. 
  • Nuts & Seeds – Nuts and seeds feature in many categories, fats, fibre, butter, flour, and oils but on their own and in their whole form they are an excellent addition. Some examples are Sunflower, chia or flax seeds. Almond, pecan, macadamia, pistachio nuts.
  • Desiccated Coconut – More often used for dessert like balls, but it does work and will need a larger amount of wet ingredients.
  • Salt – This is completely optional and should be kept to a minimum. Adding a pinch of salt to some flavour combinations can make your energy ball stand out. Energy balls made with dates often have a caramel flavour to them, so adding a few flakes of Maldon salt will create a delicious salted caramel vibe.

Wet Ingredients: 

  • Butters – Nut and seed butters are a favourite as they add creaminess, and flavour and help with binding the dry ingredients.
  • Oils & Fats – Nut and seed butters also fall into this category, but if you are looking for high energy then you could also include coconut, MCT, macadamia or flax oil. When experimenting with different oils and fats, take note of their state at room, fridge and freezer temperature. This will affect the texture and mould-ability of the final item considerably
  • Water – Water is very useful if your mix is feeling too dry or crumbly and does not want to bind properly. Add 1tbsp at a time and make sure you have blended the mixture well before adding more.
  • Dried Fruits – Dried fruits are fairly moist by nature. If you find they are a little dry you can try soaking them in warm water for a few minutes. This will rehydrate them and add to the gooeyness of the mix. Popular dried fruits are Medjool dates, peaches, pears, figs, apples and more.

Extra Flavour:

If you want to elevate your regular energy ball with flavour or colour, there are many ways to do this:

  • Centres – You could add a hazelnut, dried fruit or piece of chocolate to your energy ball by wrapping it in the centre of the mix.
  • Covers – Keep the energy ball basic and when they are rolled and ready, roll them around in bright red beetroot powder, desiccated coconut or coat them in melted chocolate The options are endless.
  • Mixes – Add powders, bits of fruit or chocolate to the mix. You may have to add a little water or wet ingredient to the mix and be careful not to add too many extra dry goods to the mix. The trick is to add a little at a time and test along the way.
  • Extracts – Vanilla, Coffee, and Cocoa are all extracts that can add a tremendous amount of flavour.
  • Spices – Spices like ginger, cinnamon, cardamom can all add a sense of warmth or exotic flavour.

Sweetness:

In the context of energy balls, sweetness is added using liquid sweeteners. Adding granulated sugars might make the mixture too crumbly and the sweetness won’t be as infused in the mix.

Depending on what you have chosen as your base ingredients you may not need to add sweetness to your mix. Dried fruit like apples and dates are already very sweet. But for some mixes, the sweetness helps with keeping your dry mix together. 

Some suggestions are: 

  • Maple Syrup
  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Apple syrup
  • Coconut Blossom syrup
Food processor
equipment

You can make them by hand, with a blender or a food processor.

Here’s how and what to expect:

By Hand:

If you aren’t using any equipment then there are a few tricks to make things a little easier.

  • Mix all the dry ingredients first and make sure they are well mixed. If you try adding them to a wet mix it will be difficult to get them evenly distributed.
  • Mix all the wet ingredients together and then add them to the dry ingredients. 

Use a wooden spoon or a strong spoon with a comfortable handle. The mixture will thicken as you mix it and you have to change over to using your hands at the final stage.

The mix will eventually become a big ball that you can then portion out and roll.

Rub your hands with a bit of coconut oil or olive oil to keep the mixture from sticking to your hands.

The end product will be a lot courser than those made with a blender or processor.

Blender or Food Processor:

Either option will be quick and both will require that you stop and scrape the sides down at regular intervals.

The blades will also be breaking down the mix, so the final result will be more even and finer textured. 

  • Begin by adding the dry ingredients first. This will help keep the wet and sticky ingredients from getting stuck at the bottom.
  • Add the wet ingredients on top of the dry and begin by pulse blending.
  • Blend on low and stop regularly to scrape any mix that is stuck to the sides or bottom
  • Be careful not to over blend
  • Once you are able to pinch a piece and press it into a ball that does not fall apart it’s ready.

If you think the mixture is too runny, cover it and put it in the fridge for 30 minutes or so. This will allow the dry ingredients to soak up some of the wet ingredients and make the mixture more doughy. If it is still too runny, add a little more of the dry ingredient, 1tbspn at a time and mix well. Wait a few minutes before adding more to allow it to fully absorb the wet ingredients.

Storage:

Because the ingredients are raw and often have fresh whole ingredients it is always a good idea to store them in a tightly sealed container and:

  • Fridge – They hold well for at least 2 – 3 weeks in the fridge. This period may have to be adjusted if there are any fresh foods in the mix, i.e., apples or pears.
  • Freezer – If they are in a tightly sealed container or ziplock bag you can store them for up to 3 months. 
    ** Place them on a tray with baking paper and freeze them individually. Once frozen you can bomb them into a container and they won’t be a solid frozen block. You will be able to take one out at a time if necessary.   

Have you seen energy/power/superfood balls in the store and been wowed by all the health claims on the label? 

Now you’ve read this article and are feeling a little confused. Are they really all that healthy? Download the Health Washing Lingo Resource and learn how to see past all those promises and focus on what really matters.

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A final word on energy balls as a snack

When all is said and done, adding energy balls into your diet plan can be a fun and tasty way to help curb cravings for treats, give you a quick energy boost, and be an easy way to include more superfoods in your diet. Or you like them and enjoy having them. Ultimately you choose what goes in your diet and what does not.

Use the following guidelines to help you get the best of your energy balls:

  • From Scratch: Where possible make them yourself. They are easy to make, store and use for on-the-go-days
  • Whole Food Ingredients: Keep additives or processed ingredients to a minimum
  • Moderation:  Remember 1 or 2 at most per day
  • Variety: Change it up a little and use it to help boost your macronutrients for the day
  • Monitor: Listen to your body. Does it make you more hungry or do you end up skipping a proper meal when you eat energy balls? 

If you are unsure about dietary choices and need guidance remember to first check in with your primary healthcare provider. Make sure you don't have any specific or specialised dietary requirements, health issues that need to be addressed or medications that might react with some foods or eating schedules.

About the author

** There are no specific studies showing benefits or downsides to including energy balls in your diet.

Any health claims made will most likely be specific to the ingredient or primary intent. So if the recipe is focusing on a superfood like matcha or a macronutrient like protein that will be the focus of the health benefit. 

**Nutritional breakdowns are also subjective to products and sources of ingredients. If you are needing accurate breakdowns, you will need to calculate with the actual ingredients you use or consult the relevant medical professional to assist you.

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