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Bar Brawl: 191 protein bars from 69 Brands. are any of them worth the calories?
America is having a love affair with protein. We can't get enough of it. Manufacturers trumpet the protein content of their foods, and they are packing extra protein into some surprising items (such as muffin mix). The number of protein shakes, gels, powders, and bars has grown exponentially within the past half-dozen years or so.
While I recognize that the shakes, gels, and the like are convenient ways for people to get more protein, I'm left with several questions. First and foremost, do we really need extra protein? I was not under the impression that most First World residents were lacking in this nutrient. But there are other questions, too. What's in those protein bars? Some of them have lengthy ingredient lists. That's not necessarily bad, but it does warrant further investigation. Of those ingredients, what's really healthy for you, and what's promoted by clever marketers with an eye for current buzzwords? And, not least, how do the protein bars taste? I don't know about you, but I've eaten food bars/energy bars/granola bars before, and very few of them have impressed me with an outstanding flavor.
How Much Extra Protein Do I Need?
Before I answer that, let me ask you this: what's your normal day like? Are you an extreme endurance athlete? Are you in training for the Olympics? Are you pregnant, or nursing a baby? If none of these apply, you almost certainly do not need extra protein, regardless of whether you work out daily or not. Protein is one nutrient that Americans do not typically lack. According to WebMD, women usually need around 46 grams of protein per day, while men require roughly 56 grams. Even if you do not eat animal products, it's entirely possible to get enough protein from your diet; you just have to be a little more vigilant than omnivores.
So if Americans don't need any extra protein, why are protein bars so popular? I can answer that in one word: convenience. Most (but surprisingly, not all) protein bars are shelf-stable, and will last for months at room temperature. This makes them perfect “grab and go” foods, especially because people often believe that, by grabbing a protein bar, or a bar labeled as a meal replacement, they're doing something positive for themselves and making a healthy choice. But we need other nutrients, as well. Even if your meal replacement bar contains other nutrients or some form of “super foods”, it's likely you'd be better off grabbing real foods that are often just as readily available. How about a piece of fruit or a can of low sodium vegetable juice, a single-portion bag of almonds or peanuts or cashews, and a carton of yogurt, cultured almond or coconut milk, or cottage cheese? An occasional protein bar isn't going to be harmful for most people, but having one every day simply isn't necessary. Protein bars can also be expensive for what you get, an additional reason not to eat them daily.
And one final note on protein: it turns out that too much of a good thing isn't very good for you. Yes, protein is a necessity in the human diet. But too much protein at the expense of other nutrients can cause bloating and constipation, not to mention weight gain. There's some evidence that low-carb diets can cause irritability. And last but not least, there's the possibility of kidney damage. Protein contains nitrogen byproducts, and the kidneys work to filter these byproducts out of your blood. When you eat a normal amount of protein, you excrete these byproducts in your urine, and all is well. But eating extra protein forces your kidneys to work harder to filter out more of those byproducts. And over time, it is possible that that can result in kidney damage.
What's in My Protein Bar?
With so many protein bars on the market, how do you choose one? I have done multiple large-scale taste-tests over the years on everything from strawberry jam to olive oils to whole grain pancake mixes, and I have never seen anything like this. There are articles upon articles out there---online, on television, in publications. They are authored by nutrition “experts” (whatever that means these days), or personal trainers, or founders of companies who produce protein bars that they insist are the best protein bars on the planet. I have a stack of articles in front of me as I write this, and the authors agree on almost nothing. Most agree that eating real, whole foods is the best way to obtain nutrients, but point out, reasonably enough, that not everyone has time to stop and eat real, whole foods every time they are hungry. Many believe that the first step in choosing a bar should be to decide whether it's a snack (in which case fewer calories and lower levels of protein, fats, and carbs are the way to go) or a meal replacement (more calories and higher levels of protein, fats, and carbs are acceptable). But beyond that? Well, it gets complicated. There are too many different ingredients in the protein bars I tried to talk about all of them, but I can touch on the basics.
First, you must consider the source of the protein. There are some bars designed for omnivores. Most of those use meat---beef, venison, chicken, turkey, bison, or lamb---as their protein source, but one company, Exo, uses cricket flour---that is, “flour” made from processed crickets. A great many people who don't think twice about eating meat shudder when I mention this, but why? Societies have been eating insects for eons, and there are some compelling reasons to eat them (for more on this, see Daniella Martin's excellent book, Edible). A few bars contain collagen, which is the most abundant protein in mammals, or beef protein.
If you are an omnivore or a vegetarian who allows dairy and/or egg products in your diet, multiple bars use some form of whey (whey protein, whey protein concentrate, or whey protein isolate) or egg whites as a protein source. Many of the former proclaim their use of only grass-fed whey; others go a step further, insisting that their whey is grass-fed and cold processed. Casein, the primary protein in milk, is also often seen as a protein source.
But what if you're vegan? Even then, you'll be bowled over with choices. There are bars made with soy protein or soy protein isolate (SPI), bars made with pea protein, bars made with hemp protein, bars made with quinoa protein, bars made with rice or brown rice protein (sprouted or not), and bars made with some combination of the above. And let's not forget about nuts or seeds. Peanuts, almonds, and cashews are all popular choices among the former; chia, flax, and of course hemp seeds all contribute some protein.
So, you pick a protein source (or a combination of sources) with which you're comfortable, then you head online to check that out. Maybe you shouldn't. In meat-based bars, questions abound about how the animals were raised and cared for, and there's concern about the amount of saturated fat Americans ingest from animal products. Soy protein or soy protein isolate? One of my sources insists that almost all soy eaten in the US is problematic because it's genetically modified and not fermented. Another decries any kind of soy protein as cheap and unhealthy because of the phytoestrogens it contains. Others say these concerns are nonsense, and that soy protein or soy protein isolate are fine protein supplements. Here's an article claiming that casein is very difficult for the human system to digest, while another asserts that it's an excellent protein source, easily digestible. Protein from hemp seeds? According to Sfgate.com, they offer a complete protein, but Examine.com says they do not. The seeds contain all of the essential amino acids, but several are not present in high enough amounts for human requirements. Whey protein or whey protein isolate? One article I have from 2015 says that whey protein can destabilize the microflora in your gut and promote acne. Then there's the piece from Men's Fitness claiming that whey protein can reduce hunger, fight cancer, help you handle stress, and act positively on your immune system. Some people express reservations about any kind of protein isolates, citing risks of metal and pesticide contamination, among other issues. Others fear problems from repeated and long-term consumption of any heavily processed protein sources. I've been researching and writing about foods for two decades, and I'm having immense trouble sorting through all of this; what must the confusion level be, I wonder, for people who have no background in food or nutrition?
As I began tasting more and more bars, I started wondering why so many contained so much fiber. While this isn't the case for every bar I tried, it was fairly common for bars weighing in from 45 to 75 grams to have 10 or 14 grams of fiber or even more—sometimes significantly more. Why?
Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin are types of short chains of fructose molecules (the two differ slightly in their chemistry). Both occur naturally in many different vegetables; inulin is sometimes known as “chicory root fiber”, although the two are not necessarily synonymous. In particular, inulin is often found in protein bars. Both FOS and inulin are used as sweeteners, though both are less sweet than table sugar.
IMOs, or isomalto-oligosaccharides, are similarly common in protein bars. IMOs are another kind of fiber. While they occur naturally in some foods (soy sauce, miso, and honey, for instance), according to Steve Hertzler, a registered dietician, extracting IMOs from these sources on a large scale is not economically viable, so typically they're synthesized from starch with the aid of enzymes. Frequently, the starch used is tapioca starch, from the cassava root. The resulting syrup is lightly sweet and Hertzler asserts that it has other properties, as well, (such as moisture retention) that make it well-suited to food bars. Manufacturers, says Hertzler, can include more than 15 grams of IMOs in a food bar, resulting in a product with quite a bit of fiber (the Fiberyum brand of IMO syrup contains 5 grams of fiber per teaspoon, and a teaspoon is 6.6 grams. So 15 grams of this syrup would be just over 2-1/4 teaspoons, with a bit more than 11.25 grams of fiber). (Hertzler questions whether these IMOs are truly “natural”, as is often claimed; in addition, he casts doubt on whether they are completely undigested fiber and whether they are prebiotic. But that topic is too large to explore here. He also states that, because they provide fiber in addition to sweetness, consumers react favorably to them).
Inulin is available as a powder or a syrup; when made from chicory root, it typically contains 3 grams of fiber per teaspoon (as does the FOS powder I found for sale online). You can find IMOs for sale on a good many websites, including Amazon.com, where I found a description for one brand as follows: “...about half the sweetness of sugar and can replace agave, corn syrup, honey, rice syrup, cane juice, etc. It's sugar-free, gluten free, non-GMO, vegan...prebiotic, Paleo. It also has 5 grams of dietary fiber per teaspoon.” Yes, per teaspoon. So if you're using IMOs as a sweetener for your protein bar and employ only 2 teaspoons per bar, that's 10 grams of fiber right there. That doesn't count anything else with fiber you might include, such as seeds (chia seeds have 10 or 11 grams of fiber in two tablespoons), nuts, coconut flakes, oats, and dates or date paste.
Ingesting fiber in an amount appropriate to your gender and age is a good idea. Consumers understand that, and many Americans know they don't get enough fiber. Among other things, fiber makes you feel full, a distinct advantage when you're eating, say, a 2 to 3 ounce bar as a snack or a meal replacement. You want to feel as though you've eaten something significant, and 2 or 3 ounces of food just isn't very much. There's something else interesting about these fibers, too: compared to some of the other ingredients in a protein bar, they can be less expensive, in part depending upon the “specialty” level of the protein. In the last paragraph, I quoted a product description from Amazon.com. You can buy ten pounds of that IMO for forty-five dollars, and the people who buy it were complaining about a recent 20% price hike. Five pounds of date paste retails on the same website for twenty-seven dollars. By contrast, the least expensive price I found for a grass-fed, cold processed, GMO-free whey protein was $85.49 for a five pound container. Five pounds of organic brown rice protein powder cost $65.00 on Amazon. Four pounds of egg white protein powder go for $50.00. Granted, prices go down when you buy in large quantities, but presumably that's true whether you're buying syrups or powders or seeds, proteins or fibers. And not all fibers are less expensive than proteins; three pounds of inulin retail for $49.99, while three pounds of organic, raw hemp seeds go for $38.35.
Manufacturers don't put fiber into their bars solely for economic reasons, but the addition of fiber is an economic factor for many of them, and fiber in these bars is another reason so many Americans believe that protein bars are healthy---a win-win situation for those who make them. Recommendations for daily fiber intake from the National Fiber Council are 38 grams for men 14 to 50 years of age and 30 grams for men aged 51 or older; for women, the NFC suggests 21 grams for those over 50, while women from 14 to 50 years of age ought to ingest 26 grams of fiber daily. But if you're getting a majority of your daily fiber from a protein bar, maybe you need to re-think the way you're eating. And I'm concerned about the possibility that some children may get too much fiber from protein bars. Schoolkids of all ages snack on them or eat them after workouts these days; does a ten year old really need a protein bar with 15 grams of fiber in it?
Do you have to watch your sodium intake? A good percentage of the protein bars I tasted are low in sodium or have moderate levels of it, but there are plenty of higher sodium levels out there, too; I've seen sodium content of 650 mg in one bar. If you need to be careful about this, you'll have to check the sodium level of any bar you're considering purchasing.
If protein is having a moment, sugar is having one, too, but in a completely opposite direction. Sugar (and gluten) are the favorite dietary villains these days; I've actually seen one parody claiming that sugar has been “bad for you...since the internet began”. I don't question that most people consume more sugar in its various forms than is optimal. I know I do. But finding sweeteners to take refined sugar's place has proven problematic for a long time. To my surprise, I did find a few protein bars sweetened with cane sugar and/or corn syrup. But most manufacturers eschew those sweeteners.
What's used as a replacement? I found protein bars sweetened with fruit and fruit products (including dates, date paste, raisin paste, apple juice concentrate, coconut nectar, coconut palm sugar, agave syrup, fruit juice, and more). The FOS, inulin, and IMOs already discussed can function as other alternatives (albeit less sweet) to cane sugar. Other frequently-used sweeteners include honey; brown rice syrup, made by fermentation (the starch in the grains yields a liquid as a result of fermentation; this liquid is then heated until a syrupy consistency is achieved); stevia; and monk fruit or monk fruit extract. For the best discussion I've seen of stevia and monk fruit, click here: http://www.prevention.com/eatclean/natural-sweetener-explainer (yes, they use one of my pet peeve buzzwords, but the article is still well-written). Dark chocolate is used in a number of bars, and the sugar in it can provide some sweetness to a bar as a whole. Many manufacturers turn to sugar alcohols to sweeten their protein bars, and there's endless debate on whether those are “healthy”.
Why is sweetness important in a protein bar at all? Manufacturers and advertisers know what sells. It is not an accident that so many protein bars look like candy bars or have flavors like dark chocolate peanut butter or cookie dough or coconut crème. The idea that you can eat something that tastes like dessert but is still “healthy” for you possesses the ultimate appeal to American consumers. Go into a well-stocked grocery store and look at their display of protein bars; how many are sold in savory (as opposed to sweet) varieties? Makers of meat-based protein bars offer savory flavors, but even those often include an element of sweetness. Of bars without meat, I found only one or two brands that offered any savory flavors.
There might be another reason for the use of sweeteners in protein bars. If you look online at reviews of protein powders and protein powder isolates, there is a lot of recognition that some of them don't taste very good, a big reason that so many flavored varieties exist. Pea protein and hemp protein are especially notorious in this regard, but it's evident that people also have taste problems with whey, soy, and other proteins. While I'm sure many of the protein powders are better than they used to be, I've found countless articles online describing methods to disguise the their taste and even their texture. Making a protein bar in a dessert flavor would appeal to consumers who understand that protein powders may not taste great on their own.
Considering that protein is the darling of nutrients these days, it's ironic that one form of protein should be getting such a bad rap. Celiac disease is very real, and it is very serious; people who have it must avoid gluten. And there are other health issues that can make gluten problematic. But the overwhelming majority of people do not need to eat gluten-free, period. Despite this, manufacturers of many protein bars are making sure consumers know that their bars don't contain this dreaded substance, either via a label claim or by actual certification.
When will people start calling out manufacturers on the use of overhyped buzzwords? I've been waiting for that to happen for years, and there's still no sign of it, alas. None of these have any legal definition, which means that manufacturers and advertisers can claim any or all of them without any kind of proof. To put it another way, you're taking the word of someone trying to sell you something. Here are some of the most common claims for protein bars:
Natural/All-Natural. From the FDA website: “The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.” To give you some idea of the way that manufacturers and marketers can manipulate these terms, according to this longstanding policy, the makers of high fructose corn syrup can (and do) claim that HFCS is a natural sweetener.
Clean/Tastes Clean/Clean Ingredients. As opposed to “unclean” or “dirty”? There's no such thing, legally, as a “clean” food or ingredient. And anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Period.
Pure. Does this mean that other proteins or protein bars are somehow impure? Don't count on it! Like “clean”, “pure” is especially popular these days, when Americans are increasingly concerned about the quality of their food supply.
Raw. Again, because there is no official definition, “raw” can mean anything a manufacturer wishes it to mean. Ingredients derived from both animal and plant sources must be processed so they are safe for human consumption, and at least some of that processing often requires heating the ingredients to a temperature greater than 118 degrees F. Additionally, many sweeteners are heated in processing, including brown rice syrup and maple syrup. In fact, I have a wrapper from one bar I tasted with a “raw” label claim that contains both maple syrup and roasted sunflower seeds (when questioned about this, a representative from the manufacturer explained that the sunflower seeds were roasted due to listeria concerns, and that it's their manufacturing process that is “raw”, meaning the bars are not cooked).
Simple. A favorite of manufacturers of many food items, not just protein bars. In an era when processed/prepared foods can have lengthy lists of ingredients, many questionable, manufacturers want you to think their ingredient lists are uncomplicated, with ingredients you can pronounce. But the fact that you can pronounce an ingredient doesn't make it simple; there's nothing “simple” about the creation of protein powder or protein crisps.
Handmade/Handcrafted. Another favorite these days, these words call up comforting images of craftspeople painstakingly making up small batches of protein bars with loving care. But most bars are obviously machine-made. Again, these terms have no legal definition, so they can mean anything. My guess is that a few of the smaller companies may well make their bars with little other than a set of scales and a mixer, but because of the lack of a formal definition, anyone can claim to do that.
ORAC Scores. Here's a buzzword with a legal definition, something you don't find every day. ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scores are the results of lab tests that attempt to quantify the total antioxidant capacity of a food. For instance, unsweetened chocolate has an ORAC score of over 48,000---exceptionally high. Lovers of spicy foods will be happy to know that both chili powder and black pepper have very high ORAC scores, too. And blueberries and raspberries are noted for good strong ORAC scores. But there are a couple of problems with these scores. First, the scores are for 100 grams of food, about 3.5 ounces. The next time you plan to eat 3.5 ounces of unsweetened chocolate or chili powder, let me know, and I'll have medical personnel standing by.
More serious still is the fact that the testing was flawed. According to an article in The Huffington Post, there was neither consistency nor standardization in the testing. Companies could “inflate” the ORAC scores of their products by testing larger amounts and then comparing the results against a smaller quantity of known high-scoring antioxidant foods; the values also changed depending upon which free radical was used in the test. Advertisers and marketers misused and misrepresented the data to the point that the USDA's ORAC score database was removed from their website in 2012.
Mercifully few manufacturers make claims for their protein bars involving ORAC scores, but a few persist in doing so. Yes, high-ORAC-score foods can be healthy for you. But don't base your protein bar purchase on these numbers!
I understand it. Americans are scared. We have seen recall after recall of every conceivable type of food product, from spinach to ground beef to energy bars. Centralized production facilities with wide-scale distribution result in many chances for foods produced by large-scale manufacturers to be mishandled, stored or transported in an unsafe manner, or exposed to contaminants, whether those contaminants are pathogens or metal fragments. Nor are small-scale manufacturers exempt from some of these issues. People are concerned about the ingredients in their food, where those ingredients came from, and how they were produced. And what if you or, worse, your child, has a food allergy or sensitivity?
For these reasons, nothing succeeds in the US like the stamp of certainty. The list of available certifications for food products has multiplied many times over in very few years. Some of these certifications are based on federal standards. For example, if you want to have your product certified gluten free, there are specific FDA criteria to which the product must adhere. Certification is voluntary, but manufacturers know that people are looking for reassurance that a product does not contain gluten these days. So it's common for them to choose one of several certification agencies, have audits and inspections done, and pay the fees. Doing so allows them to display a symbol on their product's packaging---a popular move with consumers, who look for these symbols. Without certification, you can claim on your packaging that your product is gluten free where it is appropriate, but you cannot use the symbol of any certification group. Smaller-scale businesses and companies just getting started often take this approach. Some certifiers go beyond federal requirements. The FDA mandates that any food labeled “gluten free” contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. The Gluten Intolerance Group (www.gfco.org) provides gluten free certification, but this organization insists that all finished products carrying their logo contain 10 ppm or less of gluten.
Other certifications do not have to meet federal standards, by virtue of the fact that there are none. For instance, many protein bars include the claim “vegan” or “100% vegan” on their labels. While there are agencies who will certify a product as vegan, there is no legal definition for a food being “vegan” in the US. And there are different standards among vegans regarding whether certain foods are acceptable or unacceptable. Also falling into this category is the “Non-GMO Project Verified” certification. This is an organization filled with some very busy people. The last time I caught up with anyone from this group, there was a waiting list of roughly 18 months for those seeking certification; that is how popular this aspect of food certification has become. Look on their website (www.nongmoproject.org), and you'll discover that their standard is a “consensus-based document”.
Many of the protein bars tasted for this article are certified kosher. There has been an increased interest in kosher foods in the US in recent years, but not because of any religious affiliation. Rather, foods certified according to the ancient kosher laws are perceived by some people as having fewer issues with quality and cleanliness. The kosher laws are extremely complex, but foods can be divided into three basic categories: meat, dairy, and pareve. Meat includes all meat, poultry, and meat/poultry by-products, such as collagen. Dairy foods are derived from or contain milk---milk, butter, yogurt, and all cheese. Pareve foods are considered “neutral”, and contain neither meat nor dairy ingredients or products. Eggs are pareve, as are fish, fruit vegetables, and grains. There are a large number of kosher certifying organizations.
While protein bars not alone in their often-multiple certifications, it does make me wonder what the future of commercially-retailed foods will be. I have seen one certification that is absolute nonsense and misleading at best, and I know one brand of protein bar I tasted for this article is certified this way, but I did not see the certification on the label of any bars in this brand. I suspect other such certifications will follow.
Narrowing Down the Contenders
There are too many protein bars available for me to try all of them, or even a majority. So how did I decide which bars to taste for this article? I set an arbitrary minimum protein content; any bar I tried had to have at least ten grams of protein per serving. In addition, after two incidents with sugar alcohols, where I ate decidedly moderate amounts of products containing these substances but still experienced what's politely termed “gastric distress” afterward, I do not consume them. So any bar with sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol, erythritol, or other sugar alcohols was out of contention. (Yes, I have read that erythritol is processed differently by the human system, and no, I wasn't taking a chance on it.) The exception was glycerine, also called glycerin or glycerol. The American Diabetes Association lists glycerine as a sugar alcohol; they are the only source I've found that does so. In any case, my system can handle glycerine, so bars containing it were acceptable. I also do not consume Splenda (a brand name for the sweetener sucralose) or Sunett/Sweet One (brand names for acesulfame potassium, also known as acesulfame K). So, that cut down further on the numbers of bars I tasted. Finally, I cannot tolerate spicy foods, so that cut out several more bars. Other than that, I tasted any kind of protein bar I could acquire easily.
Please bear in mind that I am NOT an authority on nutrition! I am not a registered dietician or a nutritionist; I'm not a personal trainer or a fitness guru. I'm not telling you that you shouldn't eat any of the above substances, or that you are a bad person if you do, or that eating them will lead to some sort of terrible malady. These are personal decisions based on my life experiences and the research I've done, and that's all.
Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet, by Daniella Martin (New Harvest, 2014)
Krishna Rathi, founder, Oorja Bars
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.