Chances are, when most of us purchase a protein bar, it is because we are on good behavior – opting for a healthy snack instead of a candy bar or bag of chips. Unfortunately, in many cases the main difference between the two is a matter of marketing. A typical protein bar can contain as much sugar as many of the items in a candy aisle, and in many cases they contain more highly processed ingredients (what kind of sorcery must you perform to create something that looks and tastes like a brownie, but is actually a “healthy” on-the-go snack?). At least a candy bar is honest – its marketing claim? “I’m full of sugar, and I taste good.” We can’t argue with that.
But first, a basic nutrition lesson.
We get 90% of our energy from three sources: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
Fats have been out since the 80s, when our government misled us to believe that they were the definitive cause of heart disease (always a theory, still not a fact). Then we started hating on carbs – originally thanks to the Atkins and Zone diets, now everybody is eating Paleo (or if you’re really on-trend, “Keto”). That leaves protein as the one source of energy that has not yet fallen under scrutiny – in fact we tend to take a more-is-better approach.
So let’s talk about protein
Unfortunately, what we are about to find out is that more protein isn’t always better. Surprise! Our bodies need a proper balance of all three nutrients to be healthy (and by the way, what is proper for you may not be proper for me – sorry to anyone who was hoping for a magical formula here).
Let’s take a little time out here to enjoy some good news: if you eat a normal Western diet, you are easily eating enough protein. (The recommended daily allowance 45-55 grams give or take – about as much as in one chicken breast). You do not need extra protein. Your muscles aren’t going to shrivel up, we promise.
Now the bad news – if you are overconsuming protein, you aren’t doing your body any favors. As our protein consumption has begun to exceed the recommended limits, scientists have started to investigate the impact it could have on our health, and the early results are not favorable – your kidneys, bones and liver may suffer, or you may be at greater risk for cancer or coronary artery disease.
In conclusion, when it comes to the protein part of a protein bar, you probably don’t really need it.
Beyond the protein
Protein may be the featured ingredient in many bars, but sugar typically isn’t too far behind. Point in case: A normal sized Snickers bar contains 27 grams of sugar, and sugar is the first ingredient. A Clif bar contains 21 grams of sugar, and Organic Brown Rice Syrup is the first ingredient. In either case, you are consuming one small snack that contains almost your entire recommended daily amount of added sugar (about 30 grams).
That may be just fine if you are eating the bar as it was originally intended – as a package of carbs for people who are expending a lot of energy (think hiking, biking, long runs, and so on). This is not so great if you keep bars stashed in your car, purse or desk drawer and eat them on a daily basis – go ahead and eat a snack if you’re hungry – just skip the sugar bomb and opt for something that is better suited for those days when we aren’t burning tons of quick energy.
What’s arguably worse is the artificial sugars that protein bars often sneak in to keep nutrition-label-savvy shoppers happy. Think Thin bars, for instance, boast 0 total sugars on the nutrition label – but keep reading and you will notice there are 21 grams of “Sugar Alcohol” – a newly developed type of artificial sugar that (surprise!) we don’t know much about. What we do know is that artificial sweeteners are ironically linked to weight gain – probably not what you’re after if you’re buying this product.
At the end of a day, if it looks like a brownie, smells like a brownie, and tastes like a brownie… it is probably more like a brownie than a protein bar, no matter how “healthy” the package looks.
Sound Food Swaps:
If you’re looking for a convenient snack, nuts or good quality trail mix are a great substitute if allergies aren’t a problem.
If you need a bar but want to upgrade, choose one with only whole ingredients. Lara bars and other date-based bars, for instance, still contain 18 grams of sugar but at least they are coming in the form of whole fruits. Most contain around six ingredients, all of which you could find in a normal household kitchen.