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Are Protein Bars Good For You?

Are Protein Bars Good For You?

It wasn’t all that long ago when the question featured above would have seemed comical on its surface. Protein bars occupied the lowest rung on the sports nutrition ladder. They were amalgamations of the cheapest whey concentrates, plant-based proteins, and a laundry list of chemical preservatives, indigestible sugar substitutes, binders, and fillers. They were chalky, gluey, and virtually impossible to eat. Serious athletes steered clear of them and casual fitness enthusiasts couldn't stomach them.

That was then. In recent years, the protein bar market has been transformed by advances in whey protein formulation, refinements in ingredient quality, and higher standards for protein bar flavor, texture and nutrient bioavailability. Protein bars, once exiled to the dim back aisles of health food stores, have now emerged as a prominent fixture in convenience stores and groceries, where they're snapped up by fitness-conscious people who have made protein bars a staple of their dietary regimens.

So we’re living in a new golden age of highly nutritious, muscle-supporting, great-tasting protein bars. Right?

Well, no, not exactly.

The truth is, a few protein bars offer true muscle-supporting nutrition and most others are just plain bad for you. When you eat one or more bars per day from the latter group, you're spending good money (certainly more than you would spend for a straight-up candy bar) on junk food that might actually be worse for your health than the inexpensive candy bar.

So what makes a bad protein bar? What makes a good one? Let's take a look.

The Basics: Protein, Calories, Carbs, and Sugars

The first and easiest fact to ascertain when you study a protein bar wrapper is how much protein it contains. Most bars will tell you right on the front in bold type. (They won't tell you what kind of protein on the front, but we'll get to that.) The simple rule here is this: If a protein bar offers less than ten grams of protein, it's not a protein bar. You want at least twelve to fifteen grams of good-quality protein in your bar. This immediately disqualifies a lot of the old-school "power bars" and energy bars that masquerade as protein bars.

How about calories? There are protein bars out there that are packing 350 or 400 calories. Protein bars can be a great dietary option, especially during a hectic day, but do you really want a single protein bar to account for one fifth or one sixth of your suggested daily caloric intake? Maybe not. Especially if the actual protein quality is lacking.

And then there's the matter of sugar. What good does it do to substitute muscle-supporting protein for carb-laden junk food if the protein bar you're eating has 47 grams of carbs, including 28 grams of sugar? Yes, a number of popular protein bars fit that profile. Heck, a standard issue 39-gram Hershey's Bar from a vending machine has just 20 grams of carbs, 17 grams of sugar, and 214 calories.

Basically, you want a protein bar that offers plenty of the preferred nutrition source, protein, and keeps carb counts low. How low? Below ten grams of total carbs and less sugar. If your bar can't do this, it's not a protein bar. It's a candy bar.


Another word on sugar. Beware of chemical sugar substitutes that are included in bars specifically to mask carb content. We've covered this issue in depth before here, but it bears repeating. Sugar alcohols like sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are found in many "low carb" processed foods (including protein bars) because they have been deemed indigestible. This doesn't mean that your body won't try to digest them, resulting in significant gastrointestinal distress along the way. To add insult to injury, some sugar alcohols (xylitol and and maltitol in particular) actually DO increase blood sugar levels.

Also on the list of disqualifying ingredients are isomalto-oligosaccharides. These synthesized IMO fibers were once similarly classified as indigestible, but the FDA has now determined that our bodies can digest these synthesized fibers as carb content much more efficiently than was previously believed. Are IMOs indigestible fiber or junk carbs? In the end, it hardly matters. Both are bad for you and have no business being in your protein bar.

Seek Out Only the Best Proteins

When it comes to the protein in your protein bar, quality is more important than quantity. There are so many protein bars out there that tout mind-bogglingly high protein gram counts on the front of their packaging. Wow, you're thinking, 32 grams of protein? That's the equivalent of a good-sized 5-ounce piece of chicken breast!

Yeah, well, it's not. When you read the back panel of the protein bar (the one that's tucked under the fold so you have to seek it out) you find that these bars contain little or none of the preferred forms of protein, which are whey protein isolate, hydrolyzed whey, and milk protein isolate. These proteins offer the highest biological value, have complete profiles of all the aminos essential to protein synthesis and muscle growth, and benefit from the highest standards of protein formulation, resulting in the preservation of the fragile protein microfractions that support muscle repair and recovery. You can tell that these proteins are lacking in most bars because they either don't appear in the ingredient list at all or appear far down in the list.

So What IS in the ingredient list? Well, you shouldn't be surprised to discover that the same low-quality, low-biological-value whey protein concentrate found in yesterday's outmoded protein bars is still listed as the first and primary ingredient in many of today's "next-generation" products. Whey protein concentrate can contain as little as 50% protein and can contain a lot of undesirable fat, lactose, and calories. You'll also find pea proteins and wheat proteins with their incomplete amino profiles and generally poor digestibility, as well as gelatins and collagens which offer no nutritional value at all.

It's also amazing how much soy protein is present in the many popular protein bars on the market. And we're not necessarily talking soy protein isolate either, with its relatively complete amino profile (for a plant-based protein). Instead, we're talking conventional soy protein, soy flour, soybean oil, and even soy lecithin, which is used as an emulsifier in many protein bars.

Soy protein is a slow-absorbing protein source with a BV significantly lower than that of whey protein isolate or hydrolyzed whey. It contains phytoestrogens that may negatively impact the free testosterone levels in men. And it contains lectins and protease inhibitors that can inhibit the absorption of important nutrients. Soy, in short, is not your preferred protein source for efficient muscle support.

Beware of These Junk Ingredients

A lot of the ingredients in typical protein bars don't serve any nutritional purpose at all. They're there to bulk the bar up or give it a smoother texture or make it last longer on the shelf. They're also there because, in a word, they're cheap.

Take maltodextrin. This cheap bulk sugar derived from corn, rice or potato starch is a virtually universal ingredient, appearing in more than half of all processed food in the U.S. It's a multi-purpose junk ingredient in that it sweetens, is used as a filler and as a preservative to extend the shelf life of food. It has a high glycemic index, so it will quickly spike your blood sugar. It has been shown to have disastrous effects on the gut bacteria essential to digestion and overall wellness. If it's in your protein bar, you need a different protein bar.

Fructose is also on the list of bad sugars. Fructose is unique because, unlike other sugars, it can only be broken down by one organ in the body, the liver, and only in proportionally small quantities. It tends to be stored in the liver until the liver is overloaded and then converted directly into body fat. Fructose, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, is Public Enemy #1 in America's worsening obesity epidemic. Obviously, another must-avoid. While we're on the subject, corn starch and soluble corn fiber are highly processed carbohydrates that add no nutritional value to food. Their only function is to bulk food up so it looks like you're getting more food. Believe us, you're not.

Other undesirable ingredients to keep an eye out for are partially hydrogenated oils which can clog arteries and causing obesity, vegetable glycerin which can cause nausea, headaches, and diarrhea, and most artificial dyes and colors.

A Protein Bar That Is Truly Good For You

You knew we were going here and it's for all the right reasons. The ProSource Bar is a protein bar specifically designed to avoid all the nutritional drawbacks cited above. It offers 15 grams of protein and just 9 grams of total carbs, with very little dietary fiber (just a gram or two) and about four grams of sugar.


And then there's the protein. ProSource Bars truly are powered by the best proteins on earth, a blend of the highest-quality, ultra-hydrolyzed whey protein and cold-processed, micro-filtered whey protein isolate, protein sources chosen specifically for their complete and highly-bioavailable amino profiles. The milk protein isolate in the ProSource Bar is a robustly complete protein derived from raw milk, containing all the essential amino acids, less than three percent fat, a low carb count and almost no lactose.

All those other bad ingredients? You won't find them in the ProSource Bar. That means no IMO fibers, no sugar alcohols and no fillers or gelatins or indecipherable ingredients. You’ll also find no cheap whey concentrate or soy protein in ProSource Bars. Even soy lecithin (a common emulsifier in inferior protein bars) has been eliminated in favor of healthy sunflower oil.

If you're serious about your fitness and nutrition, you deserve a protein bar that rises to your high standards. The ProSource Bar is unrivaled in its luscious flavor and texture and, just as importantly, it's good food that is good for you. Enjoy each ProSource Bar with the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you're supporting your body and your fit, active lifestyle to the fullest.

The articles featured herein are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Specific medical advice should only be obtained from a licensed health care professional. No liability is assumed by ProSource for any information herein.