They are the brightly colored enticements at the entrance and exit of most gym chains. They’ve expanded in convenience store chains over the years, driving major sales. They’re within arm’s reach at grocery store checkout lines:
The Protein Bar.
The categories under the umbrella of sports nutrition bars are expanding rapidly to cater to different audiences and interests, from body building and endurance sports, to weight management and fat loss. Nutritional health bars have a U.S. market size of $2.4 billion dollars, according to Food Manufacturing.com.
While they tout convenience, satiety, energy, and muscle-building claims, this very marketing speak can often coerce you to overlook ingredients and the possible toll they can take on your overall health.
Do you need protein in your diet? Yes.
Do you need all the other things that come with these bars? That’s debatable…
6 Trends of a Protein Bar
Ingredients in sports nutrition bars are there for different reasons. Some products use them to enhance the flavor, texture, shelf-life, convenience to transport, or just bulk the product up to make it cheaper to produce for the manufacturer.
Other times, ingredients are sacrificed to meet health-conscious consumers’ demands in hot areas, such as lower sugar and gluten-free. The minimizing of those ingredients often leads manufacturers to reformulating with different ingredients to maintain the binding structure (a.k.a. chewiness, softness).
When reading labels and ingredients, it’s valuable to know that ingredients are listed in the order of the highest amount used in the product, to the least amount.
Here are some common themes and ingredients found in popular brands and a quick decode of what to keep a keen eye out for:
- More than One Type of Sugar: Sugar comes in many different forms – you’re probably familiar with high fructose corn syrup and its damage and risks by now, but did you also know that manufacturers won’t always stop at just one sugar added? One bar’s ingredient listing contains 5 different types of sugar, for a total of 27 grams, or 7 teaspoons, of sugar; Another lists corn syrup as the first ingredient. The truth is that all sugars, regardless of how they are labeled, such as white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, evaporated cane sugar, cane juice crystals, and brown sugar, to name a few, have similar effect on the body when it comes to producing insulin and raising blood sugar levels. Sugar is digested into glucose and can contribute to inflammation, a.k.a. the body’s response to internal damage. The daily recommended allowance from the World Health Organization is 6-9 teaspoons. According to the movie Fed Up, most Americans consume an average of 41 teaspoons. That’s over five times the recommended daily allowance. Five times.
If you would like to calculate your grams of sugar into teaspoons, try bookmarking this handy calculator until you get the hang of the 4 grams-to-1 teaspoon conversion.
- The Addition of Grains and Seeds: According to FoodManufacturing.com, ingredient manufacturers will be looking to up the nutrition levels of granola-type bars using ingredients other than milk and whey proteins, and contributing to “sought-after product positionings,” such as gluten-free and a clean label. Look for additions of quinoa, amaranth, sorghum, flaxseed and chia. These foods are known for being rich in fiber and protein, with ingredients such as ALA omega-3 fatty acids, that support the structure of cell walls and cellular membranes in the body. Optimal levels of the omega-3 fats also reduce risks to many diseases from cancer, arthritis, strokes, heart attack and Alzheimer’s disease.
If you are sensitive to grains and seeds, such as people with autoimmune diseases, ingesting those ingredients may be not best for you. The good news is that Omega-3’s are found in a variety of seafoods, such as halibut, salmon, and sardines – fish is actually the top source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
- A Mix of Protein Sources: Protein, a macronutrient, can come from many different sources, whether animal or plant-derived. Not all proteins are created equal, however. Among the most popular are whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, and soy protein isolate, though the amount of protein, lactose and fat present differs. Depending on your needs, allergies, and food intolerances, there may be a form of protein you may want to avoid, which can be tough to do if companies are using protein blends, as opposed to just one kind. Failing to read the label can mean accidental ingestion of processed or genetically modified soy or more lactose than your body can handle.For example, this bar’s ingredients contains all three types of protein.
- Wheat, Corn, Rice, and Other Starchy Fillers: While protein will be the first ingredient listed in the label, making protein the most prominent ingredient in the bar, there are a host of ingredients further down the list that can be inflammatory, depending on your specific dietary needs, allergies, and food intolerances. Look for fillers such as wheat flour, rice flour, malted barley flour, maltodextrin, and even soy crisps.
- FODMAPS: FODMAPS are an acronym for a group of poorly digested sugars. This group of carbs, further defined as “Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols,” can be easily fermented by the bacteria in your gut, and are poorly absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract. The results can range to the production of gas and digestive problems to throwing off your gut health, especially in individuals with chronic gut disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Popular protein bars source ingredients like agave, high fructose corn syrup, maltitol, soy, or wheat, all of which are FODMAPs. For the full breakdown of FODMAPS, visit our recent post.
- Artificial Sweeteners: Some bars contain multiple forms of sweeteners to either lower the calorie/sugar gram count in their nutrition facts labeling or to maintain structure of the bar. These artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose (a.k.a. Splenda), high fructose corn syrup, and sugar alcohols (eg. maltitol syrup) have been linked to negative side effects, such as diarrhea, stomach and abdominal pain. They have also been reported to alter the gut microbiota and disrupt the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, causing metabolic changes that can be a precursor to diabetes, according to the New York Times and findings published in Nature.
We always advocate educating yourself and reading labels and nutrition facts, to stay informed.
Hopefully these tips helped equip you to make more informed decisions, whether that means smarter picks at the grocery store, or curbing your consumption of processed foods, though ultimately the choice is yours.
How WellnessFX Can Help
If you found this fascinating, you might also be interested in “Protein powder: What Ingredients to Look For and Risks Associated,” and even “5 Common Food Additives You Should Know More About.”
If you are interested in a more in-depth look into what impact your personal nutrition and lifestyle have on your biochemistry, you can get a blood test and even book a 20-minute consultation with a WellnessFX practitioner. They can then give you tailored recommendations based on your biomarkers results.
The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.