This fantastic article was written by The Healthy Happy Coach, Joshua Graham (Fitness Expert and Nutritionist). Connect with him on Facebook at The Healthy Happy Coach.
We can now find protein and energy bars and balls in grocery stores, outdoor equipment stores, convenience stores, health food shops. They are all over the place! These bars have exploded in popularity in the last 10 years. The number of brands out there making these are staggering, and there are so many different kinds to choose from. A vast majority of these products are, for a lack of a better word, garbage. There is little nutritional value in them, yet they are high in calories, they are packed full of hidden sugars, GMO’s, artificial sweeteners, flavoring agents, preservatives and overall poor-quality ingredients.
Without delving into the ingredients of each bar ourselves, it would be easy to mistake them for a healthy snack to turn to when the label has such buzz words as ‘natural’ ‘vegan’ ‘paleo’ ‘plant-based’ etc. It is time to start calling some of these protein and energy bars what they really are – higher protein candy bars. For example, did you know that a Vega Sport Protein Bars contains 16g of sugar! There are better options on the market than this but almost all of them have various drawbacks.
In this article we are going to be discussing why most protein bars should be avoided, why they are not the best option to use after a workout or as a snack, and a protein bar you can make yourself to save money and your health!
What makes mass-produced Protein Bars so unhealthy?
We must give a round of applause to the people who market protein bars, they have truly done a fantastic job in convincing us that they are a healthy, nutritious snack or post workout meal. However, this just isn’t the case. Protein bars on the market today are filled with poor quality ingredients that often go unnoticed, but not anymore!
One of the most popular protein sources used by companies of vegan protein bars is Soy Protein Isolate. Soy is a massive GMO crop and roughly 95% of the soybean grown in the United States is genetically modified where most of the products are made. A couple of years ago, I worked on an organic biodynamic farm for a couple of days and I was shocked to see how many of the farms around them were growing GMO soy, it was truly astounding. Unless stated otherwise, most protein bars are using GMO soy protein.
There are a number of issues with GMOs but we know that there can be pesticide residues which cause issues with human hormone function – in fact levels 1000 less than what are commonly used on GMOs cause this effect. Therefore, avoiding all GMOs is best for our health.
Whey protein is also a very commonly used protein in most protein bars. Whey protein is used because it is cheap for the company to use, but also because whey protein is absorption happens very quickly. Whey is absorbed so quickly because it causes a large insulin spike. When insulin is chronically being spiked it can lead to insulin resistance which is a big problem for long-term health. Keeping insulin sensitivity high is extremely important for our health and well-being.
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This is not the only issue with whey as a lot of whey comes from cows which are in factory farmed environments which means dirty conditions, poor quality feed and the possibility of hormones being added. In goats we can see that how they are raised (factory farms or traditional farms) changes the protein profile of the whey that comes from their milk, it is likely this is the same for cows as well. Cows are designed to consume grass, but unfortunately, most are not given this opportunity. However, New Zealand whey comes from grass-fed cows which means it is a higher quality. Therefore, if you see whey on the label look to see if it is organic or from New Zealand.
Commercial protein bars are filled with hidden sugars like dextrose, maltose, brown rice syrup, cane syrup, barley malt, beet syrup, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, maltodextrin and agave nectar. Sugar can come in many forms and are most often added to make these bars more palatable. When reading a label, it goes from what makes up the greatest percentage of the product to what makes up the least, so if we see a sugar near the front we can be sure there is a lot of sugar in there.
However, companies have caught on to us becoming educated and are now putting in a number of sugar sources which means they will show up further down the ingredient list, this does not mean that there is any less sugar in there. Buyer beware, there is a lot of sugar in commercial protein bars. For example, Cliff Builder’s Bar which is one of their high protein bars also contains 21g of sugar.
Many bars use something called palm kernel oil because it helps maintain the integrity and texture of the bar and is more stable at higher temperatures and increases the shelf life of the product. Palm kernel oil is extremely processed and devoid of any kind of micronutrients, plus there are many ethical considerations to take into account as a massive amount of deforestation is taking place to obtain this type of oil. This deforestation is very prevalent in Indonesia and is causing the loss of a large amount of habitat for endangered orangutans and other species.
We also need to consider the negative effects of the number of preservatives, coloring, flavoring agents and other synthetic chemicals that are used in many of these protein bars on our health.
Protein Bars: Not as advertised
Protein bar usage is becoming more and more popular after exercise and as a general snack. The reason being, we are led to believe that we need to get in nutrients ASAP after our workout in order to maximize our anabolic window. A big reason this window exists is that our insulin sensitivity is pushed up after our workout an insulin is an anabolic hormone. However, if we simply look at the facts of digestion, we can see that having a protein bar or shake, meal, etc. after a workout doesn’t really hit this window.
When we eat, our food goes to our stomach and it is broken down by enzymes and acid. This does not happen automatically, however, and it has been shown that it can take up to 5 hours sometimes for food to completely leave the stomach. 5 hours may be on the longer end but even if it goes quickly and only takes an hour for that food to leave our stomach, we have now missed this anabolic window which is about 30 minutes to an hour after exercise, as the food still needs to travel into the small intestine and be absorbed. Looking at this, we can see that this whole process of getting our protein in and food in ASAP after our workout is a fallacy.
The best thing to do is actually have a nutrient-rich meal ninety minutes to a couple of hours before our workout as those nutrients will be ready to use during and after we are done and then a nutrient-rich meal after exercise as well, within a couple hours. If we are looking for a maximal anabolic (growth) response then .4-.5 g of protein per kg of lean body mass is recommended. If we are working out first thing in the morning, as I often do, then a pure amino acid supplement can help as eating a large meal directly before I find does not sit well or there are benefits to working out in a fasting state.
If we do decide to have something to eat before our workout or after, then a protein bar is not necessarily the best choice, as whole foods can also be very effective and just as effective as a protein bar while giving us more micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) as well.
Toss Store Bought and Try this!
As we have established, store bought protein bars are not always the best, they are typically made with poor quality ingredients and contain lots of unnecessary sugars and other fillers. There is a still a way for us to enjoy a protein bar if we like the convenience of having one, and that is making it ourselves!
You may be thinking, “well that sounds like a pain” and to be honest, I did as well so I decided to put my money where my mouth is and make one myself. The result was a delicious protein bar that was easy to make in less than 10 minutes, prior to 25 minutes of baking! My protein bar is filled with healthy, nutritious ingredients that you can pronounce and know what they are. You can find the recipe on my website here! The recipe makes 6 bars and each one contains 11g of protein, 6g of fiber plus did I mention they are made with black beans and actually delicious!
Here is another recipe for a healthy homemade bar that is high in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
When it comes to any type of product on the market we should be careful not to fall into the marketing trap and examine it ourselves to see if it is truly good for us and our health.
Commercial protein bars are not what they are pumped up to be, a lot of them are made with poor quality ingredients and too much marketing hype. Using whole foods is a great alternative or we can make our own homemade bars to both save money and enhance our health!
- Joel Spiroux de Vendomois, et al. Debate on GMOs Health Risks after Statistical Findings in Regulatory Test. International Journal of Biological Sciences. 2010; 6 (6): 590-598.
- Frid AH, et al. Effect of why on blood glucose and insulin response to composite breakfast and lunch meals in type 2 diabetes subjects. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005; 82 (1): 69 – 75.
- Moreno-Indias L, et al. Farm and factory production of goat cheese whey results in distinct chemical composition. Journal of Dairy Science. 2009 Oct; 92 (10): 4792-4796.
- Suzuki, S. Experimental studies on the presumption of the time after food intake from stomach contents. Forensic Science International. 1987 Oct – Nov; 35 (2-3): 83-117.
- Alan Albert Aragon and Brad Jon Schoenfeld. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2013; 10: 5.
- Minna M. Tanskanen, et al. Effects of easy-to-use protein rich energy bar on energy balance, physical activity and performance during 8 days of sustained physical exertion. PLOS One. 2012 Oct.
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