If you have taken a close look at most protein bar labels, you have likely noticed they are loaded with added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and corn-based ingredients. This begs the question, are protein bars healthy or ever an acceptable form of nutrition?
The answer is not a simple straightforward yes or no, unfortunately.
Protein is one of the trendiest buzzwords in the food industry right now, even drawing headlines such as “Why Is Everyone Selling Protein Bars?” in business publications. While an increase in options on store shelves offers those with dietary restrictions ample choices, the downside is the plethora of choices leaves many individuals susceptible to the trap of food marketing and misrepresented labels.
Protein is the building block of our muscles and helps aid in faster recovery following a rigorous workout. While everyone is different, an average individual needs about 25 to 30 percent of his or her daily food intake from protein to help boost metabolism, while an athlete will typically require a higher amount.
To answer the question are protein bars healthy, we must take a look into some common misconceptions about them, understand how to properly read a label, and know which times are most appropriate to eat protein bars.
Common Misconceptions About Protein Bars
Protein bars are better alternatives to junk food: According to the New York Times, rising demand for cheap forms of protein in China has sent whey prices soaring. As a way to cut costs, manufacturers increasingly use a less expensive source for protein bars, including soy concentrate and other soybean derivatives, and pea flour. Since these sources of protein do not taste good on their own, products often have tons of added sugars to make up for it and add flavor. This results in a protein bar that has as much sugar as a candy bar, and little added nutritional value.
The more protein consumed, the better: Individual requirements vary widely depending on health, overall nutrition and activity level. Endurance athletes will generally require more protein than the average person, but it can often be consumed through meals or real food snacks such as raw almonds, a hard boiled egg or grass-fed whole milk yogurt. Humans can only process 8 to 10 grams of protein per hour according to Precision Nutrition, so exceeding this is unnecessary and unable to be used by the body.
Protein bars are acceptable as meal replacements: The digestive system must be in a restful, parasympathetic state in order to function properly. This means that whenever possible, sitting down and eating a meal slowly, rather than in the car or on the go, is going to ensure your body can properly break down the food and use the nutrients. A protein bar perpetuates the habit of eating in a rushed state and can lead to digestive distress, nutrient deficiencies or the inability to be satiated. It’s advantageous to your overall health to form the habit of enjoying real food meals in a relaxed state to get the most from your nutrition.
Understanding Nutrition Content of a Protein Bar
When selecting a protein bar, it’s important to look beyond the marketing speak, buzzwords, and packaging to make a selection. Here are a few tips for finding a high-quality protein bar:
- Read the label: And then read it again. Even if the label says “naturally flavored,” there’s still a chance it has corn-based or artificial ingredients in it. If there’s a word you can’t pronounce on the ingredient list, look it up before committing to it. Shorter ingredient lists are better and will often indicate the product has a higher content of real food versus processed junk. Remember that the ingredients are listed in order of quantity, meaning if sugar is the first item on the list it makes up the majority of the bar.
- Check sugar content: Some protein bars have 30 or more grams of sugar, which is comparable to a typical candy bar. Sticking to less than 20 grams of sugar is ideal, although there are exceptions if the ingredients are mostly real food (dried or whole fruit, for example), versus added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup. The source of the sugar matters just as much as the amount, so make sure to double check which ingredients might be adding to the sugar content of the protein bar.
- Pay attention to omega-3 content. Historically humans ate diets with a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Today, a standard diet has an average intake of omega-6’s 10-25 times higher than we evolved to eat. This imbalance is largely due to the increase in vegetable oil consumption over the last 100 years, which is often used as a filler in processed foods. Pay attention to the omega-3 and omega-6 content in the product and aim for something that’s rich in omega-3’s, with ingredients such as walnuts and flaxseed.
- Opt for real food ingredients. Although not the same as a bodybuilding protein bar, many new real food bars have been introduced to the market in the last couple of years. Protein bars derived from grass-fed meat, such as EPIC Bars, or those made with egg whites, almonds, and fruit, such as RX BARS, are gaining traction among those who follow a real food lifestyle for the quality ingredients and trustworthy business practices.
- Pay attention to how you feel after eating it. This takes practice, as you will have to pay extra close attention to how you feel within 15, 30 and 60 minutes of eating a protein bar. If you notice symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, bloating or fatigue, chances are there is an ingredient or two in the product that does not agree with you. It’s wise to keep a food journal when trying any new products to keep close tabs on how you feel and ultimately, decide if it’s a product you want to continue eating or avoid altogether.
So, Are Protein Bars Healthy?
While real food is nearly always a better choice to a grab and go snack or bar, the reality is that sometimes when you’re traveling, training for an endurance event or simply don’t have any other options, a protein bar is the best you can do.
With the right ratio of protein, fat, and carbs, a real-food based protein bar can be a healthy meal replacement in a pinch. The trick is reading the label, knowing what your individual body requires, and enjoying protein bars sparingly.