Knowing why something is not a good idea can be almost as important as knowing why a choice is the correct path. A good example is in the nutrition world. Americans are looking at more dietary options and variations than ever before, eager to find products that help support their dietary lifestyle, and one of the foods we’re turning to in almost ubiquitous quantities are protein bars. But are these protein bars actually healthy?
A recent article in Parade attempted to provide some direction on protein bars, and what to look for if you decide to incorporate into your diet. Some of the factors or ingredients recommended by dietitians who were interviewed for the article include:
- Choose a bar that has 10 grams or more of protein
- Pay attention to the quality of nutrients, especially the first few as those are going to be the highest percentage of the bar
- Don’t think about protein bars as a meal replacement, as they will likely not keep you satisfied and might cause binging or additional snacking
- Consider partnering a protein bar with some other nutrients, like seeds, nuts or greens, to improve the nutrient density
- If you do turn to a bar for a meal replacement, choose a bar that packs 200 – 500 calories and consider bars that offer some additional benefits, such as immune support, inflammation blocking, minerals for cognitive health, etc.
In addition to the above advice, I would add five important considerations:
- Protein Quality Matters. Complete proteins should be your first choice, especially like a high quality whey protein isolate. While soy protein is considered a complete protein, you need to be aware of GMO and hormonal risks that would make me look at other options. As for pea protein, while it is technically complete, it is light in certain amino acids, so the best way to take it is when it is partnered with other plant-based proteins that complete the protein profile.
- Avoid the GI issues. Tapioca starch, chicory root fiber and soluble corn fiber are examples of fillers that are used to add fiber and create the bar format so it holds together. They are also used as ways to talk about “net” carbs as they will be considered fiber, so get subtracted from the total carb amount. Don’t be fooled. Tapioca starch and soluble corn fiber will likely affect your insulin levels and chicory root fiber has a long history of causing GI issues.
- Keep it Natural. If, for example, you choose a peanut butter & chocolate bar, look at the peanut butter ingredients. Just peanuts and sea salt? Ok. If it has sugar and/or seed oils, walk away. Same thing with the chocolate.
- Easy on the Sugar Substitute. Cheap ingredients like maltitol are atrocious for metabolic health, so stay away. Sucralose is used quite a bit for low-carb options, but has a lot of risks. It is a much poorer sugar replacement that has even been shown to increase blood glucose and insulin levels while decreasing insulin sensitivity…exactly what we DON’T want! Look for more natural options like monk fruit or stevia leaf extract. Regardless of which one you choose, make sure it’s at the tail end of the ingredient panel to ensure a low dose.
- Consider other Options. Natural food options are simply more nutritious, more usable and less processed, and are always going to be a better choice, so consider a few hard boiled eggs, a can of tuna, or a natural cheese stick and a handful of pecans as examples of a better way to get your protein. If you’re truly looking for low/no carb options, check out this video for a helpful list.
Assessing Five Protein Bar Choices from the Article
The first selection recommended is a GoMacro organic vegan protein bar. You will notice a few things about this bar that are concerning. First, it has at least 35 grams of carbs in a 56g bar, which is a huge sugar load for such a small snack. In fact, if you’re following the ketogenic lifestyle, you can only eat this bar and 4oz of riced cauliflower for your total carb intake in a day. Secondly, you will see organic brown rice syrup as the first ingredient. Syrup = sugar, plain and simple. So, you don’t want to be eating something with sugar, much less the first ingredient! Thirdly, the protein in these bars is coming from seeds and nuts, which is not necessarily bad, but something to consider as you evaluate whether you are ingesting complete protein sources, as most seeds and nuts are not complete.
Another selection recommended is from Vital Proteins & Jennifer Aniston, which is a protein + collagen bar. This is a pretty protein-dense bar, given its only 39g but packs 14g of protein, and if you look at the protein (1st ingredient), it’s a combination of milk protein isolate and whey protein isolate. I like the fact this bar has no soy, no sucralose (it is sweetened with monk fruit), and does offer some additional minerals and functional ingredients like collagen. What I don’t like is the glycerine (sugar alcohol), the dark chocolate with maltitol, and sunflower oil. The bar delivers 12g of carbs for those counting carbs.
A third selection, one from a brand we’ve covered before at http://www.business-fit.org, is the protein bar from KIND. At 12g of protein per 50g bar, it’s middle of the pack in terms of protein density. However, the ingredient panel is a hot mess. The number 2 – 5 ingredients, in order, are chicory root fiber, soy protein isolate, honey, glucose syrup & palm kernel oil. From such a terrible set of ingredients, you would expect the nutritional value to be poor, and it is, with 17g of carbs per bar that includes 5g of ADDED sugar. Of course, this bar also has soy lecithin, just to make sure the full impact of poor ingredients is complete. I would recommend you stay away from this one!
Larabar has an option on this list, their Larabar Peanut Butter Cookie bar. This is an interesting one, as I have to give them props in the simplicity of their ingredient list. It’s almost impossible find a bar that is made with only three ingredients, yet that is what Larabar has done. Each 48g bar only yields 6g of protein, which is coming from the peanuts, but delivers 24g of carbs with 16g from sugar (dates). I would not consider this a protein bar with such a low protein content, and certainly not a good option for a ketogenic lifestyle, but if you are following a vegetarian or vegan diet and are not counting carbs, this could be a less processed snack option for you to consider.
There are several other bars on this list, but the last one I had to delve into a bit deeper is from IQBAR, called their Brain & Body Keto Bars. Each 45g bar contains 12g of plant based protein, primarily from pea. The bigger question, though is, whether it can stand up to the Keto branding it has on the package? With 11g – 13g of carbs per bar, it’s tough to say this is Keto. But here’s where marketing takes liberties. Because the second ingredient is tapioca fiber, there is a high amount of fiber in the bar (10g), so the “net carb” intake is around 3g. While I respect their use of natural ingredients (flax, peanuts), the elimination of soy (they use sunflower lecithin), and their use of stevia as a sugar alternative, I don’t agree these are keto. Not all tapioca fiber (which comes from the tapioca vegetable) is the same, and while certain kinds can act as a resistant starch and offer pre-biotic benefits, not all can do so. Besides, to realize the maximum benefit of a ketogenic lifestyle, you have to get your body into a constant state of ketosis, which means gross carbs need to be < 40g/day.
Snacking is here to stay, as Gen Y and Gen Z are driving snack consumption at a dizzying rate. This constant, frequent feeding, though has two major problems. First, every time you eat, especially carbs, you spike insulin, which drives a host of metabolic issues and encourages fat storage. Second, we tend to turn to processed foods for snacks, which are of low nutritional utilization and value, and typically loaded with seed oils, sugar variants and a host of other additives and fillers that actually can detract from a healthy lifestyle. Natural, non-processed, and as close to the food’s original state are always going to be the best choices, so go for 2 hard boiled eggs and a natural cheese stick for 20g of protein-packed goodness, healthy fats and almost no insulin response. However, if you do choose to consume protein bars, look for choices that have high-quality & complete proteins, no fillers or starches, no sugar, use a small amount of a quality sugar substitute like monk fruit or stevia leaf, avoid the soy, offer some additional functional benefits, and give you at least 10g of protein per bar.