Protein bars: the good, the bad and the ugly

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When you think of protein bars, what comes to mind? Convenience? Recovery food? Fast energy? While whole foods are preferred for an overall balanced diet, protein bars can provide quick sources of all macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) as well as an extra boost of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) when you’re in a pinch. . However, it’s important to pay close attention to exactly what your protein bar contains when making your selection.

What’s in your protein bar?


When taking a closer look at protein bars, the most obvious ingredient to consider is the protein source and content of the bar. Proteins themselves are broken down into amino acids in the body, which can be used to repair, recover and strengthen muscles and support the immune system. Branched Chain Amino Acids (or BCAAs, Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine) are used to support the highest rates of muscle protein synthesis and are preferred post-workout. Look for a bar with 15 to 20 grams of protein per bar.

What to look for:

  • Vegetable protein sources (generally, slightly lower in amino acids): peas, hemp, brown rice, soy
    • Found in: Garden of Life Sports Performance Bars, GoMacro Bars, Square Organics, Pro Bars, Cow Free Bars, Perfect Bars, Aloha Bars, Barebells, Zing Bars
  • Animal protein sources (higher BCAA sources): whey concentrate, whey isolate, casein (be careful with these if you have a dairy allergy)
    • Found in: Clif Builder Bars, Gatorade Whey Protein Bars, Rx Bars, Power Crunch Pro Bars, G2G Bars, Honey Stinger Nut and Seed Bar, Premier Protein Bars

RELATED: Protein isn’t just for your muscles, it can also boost your microbiome

Carbohydrates and sweeteners

Carbs always seem to get a bad rap. And when it comes to protein bars, “0 grams of sugar” or “low carb” are familiar labels on many popular bars, as they try to trick consumers into thinking they’re a better product.

Full disclosure from a dietitian: In fact, some carbs are actually good for helping to replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle, not to mention they add flavor to protein bars. On the other hand, we don’t just want to have a bar with pure carbs that raise and lower our blood sugar. When studying the bar’s carbohydrate content label, look for a balanced ratio of carbohydrates to protein. When evaluating added sugars in a bar, remember that we want to limit added sugars to a maximum of 50 grams per day, however, that doesn’t mean we want to avoid them and replace them with sugar alcohols. .

What to look for:

  • Sweeteners: Tapioca Syrup, Brown Rice Syrup, Honey, Maple Syrup, Maltodextrin, Cane Sugar, Coconut Sugar, Agave Nectar
  • Calorie-Free Plant-Based Sweeteners: These sweeteners, like stevia and monk fruit, are extracted from their respective plants and are calorie-free. They are both 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Both sweeteners are recognized as safe by the FDA.

Ingredients to use with caution:

  • Sugar alcohols: Disguised as maltitol, sorbitol, mannitol, erythritol, xylitol, and isomalt, these sweeteners are actually derived from carbohydrates, but modified to be lower in calories than other sugars. They don’t cause as many spikes and crashes in blood sugar, but because they’re only partially digested, they can increase your risk of gastrointestinal distress, gas, and bloating. Above all, do not take the risk if you are about to run.
    • Found in: Built Bars, Think Thin Bars, Quest Bars, Cow Free Bars, Pure Protein Bars, Barebell, One Bars
  • Sucralose: Better known by its brand name Splenda, sucralose is a chemically-made artificial sweetener that contains zero calories and is up to 700 times sweeter than regular sugar. Research is mixed on Splenda’s effects on the gut microbiome and metabolism, however, the FDA considers it safe for consumption. If you are particularly sensitive to it, it can cause headaches or gastrointestinal upset.

RELATED: Are you eating enough carbs after a long workout?

Other ingredients

  • Natural flavors: These are usually plant extracts and animal products that are taken in the laboratory. They provide no nutritional value, but are added to enhance the taste.
    • Found in: One Bars, Rx Bars, Pro Bars, Built Bars, Garden of Life Sport Bars, No Cow Bars, Think Thin Bars
  • Proprietary/Herbal Blends: Typically added to products as fillers or advertised as a nutritional booster, use caution when consuming as there is usually no indication of what the proprietary or herbal blend contains and may pose a health risk .
  • Prebiotics: Typically, prebiotics are types of fiber that are not digestible by the body, but are used as fuel for bacteria to support healthy microbiota in your gut. As a result, however, be careful with these types of fibers prior to operation, as they can lead to increased gas and bloating.
    • Search: Inulin, chicory root fiber, FOS, acacia fiber
  • Vitamins and minerals: While a little extra vitamins and minerals won’t hurt, don’t expect to get your full nutrient spectrum from extra vitamins and minerals in a protein bar. Also be aware that vitamins and minerals may seem like long names, but they are completely safe.
    • Look for: cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12), niacin (vitamin B3), D-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), riboflavin (vitamin B2), calcium, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1)
  • Hydrogenated Oils: Hydrogenated oils are another name for trans fats or fats that have been chemically altered to give them a more solid or semi-solid state. Trans fats have been linked to higher levels of inflammation and heart disease and should be avoided.
    • Search: partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils

Conclusion when choosing a good protein bar

Yes, try to choose bars that you like, but try to choose protein bars that contain a mix of carbohydrates and proteins, and a short list of ingredients. Be careful with sugar alcohols, fiber, proprietary herbal blends, and added flavors. And don’t look for a bar just because it says “sugar-free” or “low carb.”

The simpler the ingredients, the better (and it depends on when you use the bar, before or after the run). These bars are “dietitian approved” and contain simple ingredients.

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