There are so many protein/energy bars available on the market today. Companies use great marketing techniques to draw the people in to buy them. “All Natural”, “Pure”, “Thin”,” Perfect”,” Pro”, “Balance” are just some of the words that are commonly found on the packaging and most people associate these words with health and good nutrition. Unfortunately, those words do not mean anything at all. In fact, any time you see any of these words you should look at the label carefully and read all the ingredients.
The fact that its says “all natural” doesn’t automatically mean it is good for you. The Food and Drug Administration considers foods to be “natural” as long as they don’t contain added colors, or any synthetic substances. So this means that those foods can still be highly processed and genetically modified and in case of meats, injected with hormones.
Today, most of the protein/energy bars contain ton of ingredients that are not good for our bodies: high fructose corn syrup, soy (or soy isolate), sucralose, palm kernel oil, sugar alcohols (Maltitol Syrup, Xylitol, Sorbitol, Lactitol, Mannitol, and Erythritol) and many others. So yes, the packaging is a marketing gimmick and very misleading.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) –This sugar is commonly used in many foods. HFCS is compromised of glucose and fructose and depending in which product it is used, the percentages of the 2 vary (typically it is 45% glucose and 55% fructose). Although some argue that HFCS is same as the table sugar, most doctors and researchers agree that it is not processed the same way in our body, hence it is not the same. Simple sugars (glucose) goes directly into our blood stream and it is used as energy. On the other hand, when we eat something with HFCS the sugar is divided into two parts – glucose goes to your blood stream where fructose actually goes to liver and whatever is not processed coverts to fat. Over the long run this can cause many metabolic issues.
Sucralose –this is a non-nutritive sweetener that is used in most protein bars. In fact, it is really challenging to find one without it! Sucralose is manufactured by chlorinating sucrose (sugar). Basically, sucralose is sugar wrapped in chlorine so our body won’t process it as sugar. This is how the sweetness of sugar is intensified but it is non-caloric. Think of the sucralose as a disguise, if you will. Even though only small portion of the sucralose is absorbed and the rest is eliminated, why would you even want to ingest something that our body cannot process? FDA did not ban sucralose in food yet because it is within “safe limits”. But just think about what chlorine is used for!
Soy (soy protein isolate) – over 85% of all soy produced in US is genetically modified (GMO). And guess what? Food companies do not even need to disclose it! It is not required by FDA. So, yes, most probably when you eat something with soy, it is GMO. Many protein/energy bars contain soy protein isolate for higher protein content. Many studies that have been published say that part of the soy that’s protein was considered waste and it wasn’t until recently that companies discovered that they could actually make money off it so they started adding it to foods. In addition, over the past few years soy has been under a lot of scrutiny and has been linked to cancer although none of the studies were conclusive.
Palm Kernel Oil – It is very high in saturated fat and should not be confused with the palm oil or coconut oil (these two are extracted from the pulp of the palm fruit and kernel of the coconut where palm kernel oil is extracted from the kernel of the oil palm). Palm Kernel Oil is very high in Lauric fatty acids which are proven to raise blood cholesterol levels. It is commonly used in commercial cooking because it is the cheapest oil and it has a long shelf life, even longer then vegetable oil or canola. This oil is used to make soaps, washing powders and personal care products because of its high fatty acids. Palm kernel oil is also commonly used in creamers, ice creams, chocolate and definitely found in many protein/energy bars.
Stevia – Stevia that is widely used today in households and among food companies is highly processed and it has nothing to do with the actual green leaf stevia. The healthiest form of Stevia comes from the green leaf plant where, basically, the plant is dried and grounded. But Stevia that is added to foods and the one that we buy at the store actually goes thru the process of leaf extraction first followed by multiple step process where different additives and chemical solvents are added.
Sugar Alcohol – this is a reduced-calories sweetener that is not necessarily bad for you but many researchers believe that our intestines are not able to digest this sweetener well and can cause digestive issues (bloating and gas to name a few) if you consume high quantities.
Here are some of the most popular bars that are available on the market today that contain at least of the ingredients above if not more:
Pure Protein (Palm kernel oil, sucralose, soy lecithin & protein)
Zone bar perfect (maltodextrin -artificial sugar usually derived from starches such corn or potatoes; palm kernel oil, soy, sucralose, artificial flavors)
IsaLean (isagenix) (contains over 30 ingredients and only 4 are real food and rest are food additives – natural and artificial)
CLIFF Builder’s (soy, soy and more soy; very high in saturated fat coming from many oils that bar contains – vegetable and sunflower to name a few; also after soy protein next two ingredients are chicory Syrup and brown rice syrup which means that great % of the bar are the two syrups!)
Luna Bar (various types of soy, palm kernel oil, different saturated fat oils)
Balance Bar (maltodextrin, palm kernel oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil; corn syrup, soy, fructose)
ProBar (Soy protein, palm kernel oil and many other saturated fat oils; first items listed on the label are different syrups and real food items such as almonds and cocoa are way on the bottom which means there are only traces of them in he bar)
Nature Valley Chewy Protein Bars (this is just packed with everything bad that you can imagine – soy, maltodextrin, fructose, starch, vegetable oils; and the fact that ingredient 2 and 3 are sugar and different vegetable oils, it’s a red flag for sure!)
KIND bar (palm kernel oil, soy, added sugar – in some flavors there is so much sugar and fat that you may as well eat a candy bar)
MYOPLEX (this bar is widely distributed in the gyms; The very first ingredient listed is corn syrup followed by soy. So this means there is more corn syrup then anything else; also the bar contains palm kernel oil, added colors, fructose, different starches)
Muscle Milk High Protein Bar (soy, palm kernel oil, canola oil, stevia)
SlimFast, Special K, Medifast and most other “weight loss” bars I do not even wanna mention. Those we should avoid, period.
After reading this you are probably thinking so what’s left? There are still some good options out there. Some of bars below may not be the lowest in sugar but at least it is real sugar!
Rise Protein Bar Almond Honey – 280 calories, 20 grams of protein, 16 grams of fat and 20 grams of carbohydrate (Fiber 4g and Sugar 13g)
This is one of the rarely found bars that only have few ingredients, to be exact only 3! Almonds, Honey and whey protein. It is high in calories but they are calories that come from protein, good fat of almonds and sweetness of honey.
There are many flavors to pick from, another one of my favorite is the Cacao banana protein bar. Also simple, same ingredients as above plus cacao and banana.
This protein bar is a definite green light!
Health Warrior Superfood Protein Bar –Dark chocolate coconut sea salt – 200 calories, 10 grams of plant protein, 8 grams of fat and 25 grams of carb (fiber 5 g and sugar 11g)
This bar is a great option when you are on the go and need a quick snack. It has only 10 grams of protein (plant based not whey) but contains some great nutritional ingredients that support lean muscle such as chia seeds, quinoa, oats, almonds, cocoa and coconut.
Some other flavors are Honey Almond, Peanut Butter Cacao and Lemon Goldenberry.
Final thought, great snack option when on the go or if you are in between meals and need something to bind you over.
LARABAR Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough – 210 calories, 4 grams of protein, 11 grams of fat and 28 grams of carbs (fiber 3g and sugars 16g)
This particular LARABAR is not high in protein but it is great for energy when you need a little pick me up. Or if you crave something sweet at night. Most flavors do taste like dessert! They are super clean as far as ingredients, only 4! Dates, cashews, sea salt and chocolate chips. I buy a bag with half size bars and keep it in my car and pantry.
They come in many flavors but another one of my favorites is the Peanut butter chocolate chip. Again, 4 ingredients only. This one has little more protein (6 grams) because of the peanuts (and also little more fat).
LARABAR also has some bars that are higher in protein such as their UBER line and the ALT protein line. Mixed Nut Bar (UBER) is really good and Chocolate Peanut butter (ALT) as well. They have 6g and 10g of protein respectively. These 2 lines have little more ingredients (9 and 8) but they are all real food items that you can actually identify.
Although these bars are high in sugar content it is either natural occurring sugar or honey, so we can safely eat them in moderation.
Coconut Cashew Quest Bar – 190 calories, 20 grams of protein, 8 grams of fat and 4 grams of Net Carbs (Fiber 14g, Sugar 1g, Erythritol 4)
Although this protein bar contains sugar alcohols it is a good option if you do not have any digestive issues and you consume it in moderation. It has very few ingredients and is a great source of protein and fiber. It has a chewy texture and it is very flavorful.
Important to note that not all Quest bars are created equal. Only few flavors do not contain sucralose, so be careful when picking. Some other safe flavors are: Chocolate peanut butter, Cinnamon roll, Strawberry cheesecake and Lemon cream pie.
True North Almond Pecan Crunch clusters – 150 calories, 4 grams of protein, 11 grams of fat and total carb 10 grams (fiber 2g and sugar 5g)
This is not a protein or energy bar but it can certainly replace one. This product contains almonds, pecans and cashews bind together in little square clusters. It is high in fat but it is good fat coming from nuts (saturated fat is only 1g and it comes from sunflower oil). Super easy to bring when you are on the go or when you get a sweet tooth throughout the day. But of course, be mindful with how many you eat just like you would with regular nuts. Calories accumulate quickly if we don’t pay attention.
True North comes in few other flavors but another one of my favorites is Chocolate nut crunch.
In conclusion, eating real food is always better then having a protein, energy or any kind of health bar. But if you would like to have one, take a peak at the label first. Don’t let the wrapper fool you.
Until Next Time,
References: http://www.wikipedia.com, American Institute for Cancer Research, Authority Nutrition, LiveStrong, GMO-Compass.com; nutritional information obtained from the various product websites