Protein Bars: Still Candy in Disguise?

I remember an article you wrote years ago called “protein bars: performance nutrition or candy bars in disguise?”You mentioned that most protein or health food bars were essentially just candy bars with protein powder.I was wondering if your opinions on this have changed at all since some of the products today seem to use a lot more “real food” ingredients and a lot less sugar and other junk. I included a link to a label of a new product I just found. Your thoughts on it would be appreciated. Thanks!

Some protein and energy bars have improved, and the number of choices has increased. Today, the demand has grown so much that you can find protein and energy bars in convenience stores and supermarkets, whereas years ago, they were only found in gyms and in health food stores.

Although better choices are available, “candy bars in disguise” still dominate the marketplace because they sell better. Why? Because they usually taste better and most consumers make their repeat purchases based on taste, not on nutritional quality or health value.

The challenge for the food and supplement companies is that it’s somewhat difficult to manufacture a bar made with all-natural whole-food ingredients that’s also low in calories and low in sugar without it tasting like a brick of sawdust.

Usually, something has to give – refined sugars must be added, artificial sweeteners added, fats are added or calories added. Take your pick.

To make matters even more confusing, advertising for these bars has gotten very slick and persuasive, so if you only read the ad, but not the ingredients list and nutrition facts panel, you could very easily be fooled.

With more choices available and with more persuasive marketing, it’s actually harder than ever to sort the good from the bad unless you become very savvy about reading labels very carefully, paying special attention to the top 2-3 ingredients.

When reading the labels, there are a few things you should watch out for in a health, energy or protein bar.

Check The Sugar Content

First, check the added (refined) sugar content. However, when looking for sugars, don’t just look at the “Nutrition Facts” panel.

The grams of sugar doesn’t distinguish between sugars that are naturally occurring and those that are refined. Look at total sugars for sure, but you also need to look at the ingredients list.

FDA labeling laws require that all ingredients be listed in order of the quantity used. If refined sugars are the first or second ingredient, it’s not a good choice (unless you’re counting it as one of your “fre eday” or “cheat day” meals).

The refined sugars, Sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup and chocolate are frequently found high on the ingredients list. (it blows me away how many “high protein health food” bars list chocolate as the #1 ingredient! What the *@*&!)

A typical bar might list protein powder (such as whey isolate) as the first ingredient and corn syrup as the second ingredient. Don’t be surprised if some so-called “nutrition bars” list sugar or corn syrup as the first ingredient.

Many bars that are still best sellers today are nothing more than ordinary candy bars with protein powder added in.

Some of the new brands of protein bars still include added (refined) sugars, but they are lower down on the list. For example, in the label I was just looking at, the added sugars include:

Semisweet chocolate
Low DE corn syrup
brown rice syrup

That’s a total of 4 different types of added sugars. One of them, honey, is a natural sugar, but it’s still a calorie dense source of sugar. The honey you find in these bars is also almost certainly a processed honey, not the real, raw, (more nutritious) form.

Fortunately, you can see from the nutrition facts panel that the total sugars are fairly low at 6 grams (out of 35 total carbs), so it’s really not all that much. Still, after looking at the ingredients list, you can see that this bar is not a natural food in the purest sense.

Check for trans fats and total fat content

The next thing to look for on a protein bar ingredients list is trans fatty acids, which usually show up as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are a food manufacturer’s delight because they extend the shelf life of food products and virtually never spoil. Good for profits, not so good for you.

If you see NO hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list, thats definitely a good thing. But then again, it’s almost an insult to our intelligence to put trans fats in “health food” or “protein”bars anymore, though many companies still do.

Check for fiber content

More and more often, we are seeing the new generation of protein and energy bars with added fiber. I’d rather get my fiber in the whole food it originally came in, but you could argue that adding fiber is an improvement over the old bars.

In one new brand, I saw 5 grams of fiber listed on the label. Sometimes the fiber does come in the form of whole food ingredients such as oatmeal. Supplemental fiber may also be added.

Look for whole food ingredients

One of the biggest differences in some of the new generation of protein bars, and this is also true of powdered meal replacement drinks, is the inclusion of whole food ingredients.

I’ve seen bars that include include whole grain oats, pumpkin or sweet potato. All of these ingredients provide carbohydrate and a small amount of sweetness, which may decrease the amount of refined sugars necessary to make a good tasting bar.

Each of these foods, if they are in their original unrefined form, contain vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

You’ll also sometimes find cinnamon on the label, which many nutrition experts consider a functional food due to it’s health promoting properties (research shows that cinnamon may play a role in control of blood sugar).

Other “functional” foods that may be found in some of these newer bars include nuts, flaxseeds or raw coconut, just to name a few.

Check the calorie content

Don’t get so caught up in the ingredients list or macronutrients that you forget to check the calorie content. Many of the newer bars are made more palatable by including healthy fats such as natural peanut butter or essential fat blends.

They also may use all-natural, but calorie-dense carbohydrate sources. That’s not a negative from a health perspective, but it is a concern from a caloric perspective.

I’m starting to see bars these days which, while they taste pretty good and have fewer undesirable ingredients than the older bars, they can be very high in calories – often in the 400-500 range.

That’s literally a whole meal’s worth, even for a guy. That could be a pro or con. Endurance athletes may find higher calorie bars othing short of life-savers, but the very same bars can sabotage a reduced calorie fat loss program.

Notice the satiety factor

There’s one final factor that most people seldom consider when grabbing a protein bar on the run. Think about how full (or not full) 440 calories of protein bar makes you feel compared to something like 1 full cup of oatmeal and an egg/egg white scramble (also about 440 calories for the meal).

The next time you eat a protein bar or a whole food meal, pay very close attention to the feeling of fullness immediately after the meal, and notice your hunger level for several hours afterward.

If you noticed that the bar wasn’t very filling and you were hungry and on the prowl for more food an hour later, then reconsider your choices in the future.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that the new and improved generation of protein bars are certainly the lesser of evils as protein bars go. However, I’d still not consider any bar as a daily staple food, especially for fat loss programs.

As for health and nutritional value, remember, all bars that come in wrappers are processed foods. Some may be less processed than others, but you haven’t seen a protein bar hanging off the branch of a tree lately have you?

Enjoy these types of bars for emergencies of convenience, like eating while driving or flying, rushing about between classes, and so on. Or have them as a treat once in a while, instead of a conventional candy bar.

The rest of the time, pick as many whole, natural, unprocessed foods as possible. That’s the kind of eating I recommend in my fat loss nutrition program, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle

Burn The Fat, Feed the Muscle is the most detailed, one-stop guide to fat burning nutrition you’ll ever find.That’s why so many people call it the fat loss bible.