It's time to put down the protein bar you reach for after your workout or the snack bars you pick up to stave off hunger pangs in the afternoon. While manufacturers may have positioned these bars as part of the clean eating trend, most contain more sugar than a doughnut and only slightly less carbs than a Snickers bar. Many protein bars also use soy to boost the percentage of protein in their products.
While you may have heard that soy is healthy, unfermented soy products are nothing more than a clever marketing gimmick to reduce the cost of production. Soy was a minor industrial crop in the early 1900s. By 1935 Ford Motor Company was using a bushel of soybeans in every car produced to manufacture strong plastics for gear shift knobs, horn buttons and window frames.1
Although these products have become a popular choice among gym goers, protein and energy bars are not the best choice and likely shouldn't be the first choice to refuel your body after a heavy workout. In an effort to determine the nutritional benefit of protein bars available in the U.K., bespoke insurance company Protectivity developed a Fitness Food Index that identified specific nutritional markers and compared those against other bars.4
Many Bars Fail to Meet Advertising Claims
Andy Brownsell, commercial director at Protectivity, found the result surprising.5 He shared with Food Navigator that many of the bars they tested had more saturated fat and sugar than a Krispy Kreme doughnut. PowerBar's Protein Bar 30% Lemon Cheesecake has 31 grams of protein and 20 grams of carbohydrates, 19.5 of which come from sugar.6 Maximuscle Prograin Flapjack Berry protein bar has 22 grams of protein and a whopping 41 grams of carbohydrates.
The index revealed that although product advertising indicates these bars are "healthy" and high in protein, many are also loaded with processed saturated fats, sugars and carbohydrates. In comparison, a Snickers candy bar has 4.5 grams of saturated fat, 33 grams of carbohydrates and 4 grams of protein packed into 250 calories.7
However, while the Snickers has more calories, it is also a larger serving size. Gram for gram, both the Luna protein bar and the Snickers bar have the same number of calories.8 Neither is a good choice to refuel.
Advertisers also claim these products help to refuel your body after a tough workout, but further independent research indicates they do not prevent an energy deficit or influence your ability to perform physical activity.9 In a study using energy bar supplementation to evaluate physical performance on 26 men eating field rations plus energy bars for eight days, the researchers found the group eating the protein-rich energy bar experienced no differences in physical performance or lean mass from those who did not eat the bars.
These nutritional challenges are being met with creative advertising campaigns that are estimated to grow the market by nearly 8 percent each year between 2017 and 2021.10 The report indicates that traditional print media and social media campaigns will be aimed at the convenience factor as more people are looking for quick, ready-to-eat food and snack options. There are literally hundreds of power/protein/energy bar options available in stores, at the gym or your local coffee shop.
Many believe that your body only requires calories to produce energy and thus these bars are acceptable nutrition options. Nancy Clark, director of nutrition services at Sports Medicine Associates in Brookline, Massachusetts, believes similarly, saying,11 "Bananas give energy. Twinkies give energy. Energy bars give energy. That's because they all provide calories."
Soy, Sugar and the Wrong Fat Equal Big Problems
Up to 95 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. used to produce soy isolate proteins for protein bars are grown from genetically engineered (GE) seed. This allows the farmer to routinely and liberally spray their fields with glyphosate to kill weeds without damaging the plants.
However, the soybeans also become severely contaminated with this known endocrine disruptor. Glyphosate is toxic to the placenta that delivers nutrients and removes wastes between mother and the fetus. Unfortunately, once damaged or destroyed, this can result in a miscarriage.
In a Brazilian rodent study, researchers found GE soy significantly reduced fertility.12 Soy has also been linked to erectile dysfunction. The two natural drugs found in soy, genistein and daidzein, mimic estrogen so well that they have been known to cause a variety of alarming side effects in men, including:
- Breast enlargement (gynecomastia)
- Decreased facial and body hair growth
- Decreased libido and erectile dysfunction
- Mood swings and frequent crying jags
- Lowered sperm count
Soya, soja or yuba
Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
Textured soy protein (TSP)
Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Textured soy flour (TSF)
Large amounts of refined sugar and/or high-fructose corn syrup are necessary additives when using soy proteins in order to disguise the taste and make the bars more palatable. This addition increases your risk for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. In other words, while sugar and fructose have become a daily habit and are included in almost every processed food produced, they damage your health, increase your risk of disease and are responsible for diseases with a high mortality rate.
It's Easy to Get Hooked on Ultra-Processed Foods
If you're hooked on protein bars, candy bars and easy-to-eat convenience foods, there's good reason. Foods that aren't fresh from the vine, ground, bush or tree are considered processed. If they are altered, such as pasta, bread and canned or frozen products, then they are processed. However, depending on the amount of change, the processing may be significant or minimal. Ultra-processed foods have dramatically higher amounts of sugar, and typically more chemicals, than minimally processed foods.
Protein and energy bars are ultra-processed foods as they don't look like anything grown naturally and also contain ingredients not found naturally. Research has found nearly 2 percent of calories in processed foods come from sugar, on average, while unprocessed foods contain no refined or added sugar.
Researchers who performed a cross-sectional study using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of over 9,000 participants, concluded that,16 "Decreasing the consumption of ultra-processed foods could be an effective way of reducing the excessive intake of added sugars in the USA."
Despite what industry-funded studies, industry expert advice and advertising campaigns would like you to believe, processed foods are unhealthy. Eating processed foods is associated with depression, low academic performance and behavioral problems by age 7.17,18 However, food manufacturers have carefully orchestrated flavors and sensations to be as addictive as possible.
For instance, when Yoplait yogurt was first introduced in 1999, it contained 100 percent more sugar per serving than Lucky Charms cereal. But, since most believe all yogurt to be healthy, sales soared.
Although, food manufacturers shy away from references to "addiction" when referring to their product, sugar is just as addictive as cocaine. A rodent study demonstrated that 94 percent of rats allowed to choose between sugar water and cocaine, chose sugar.19 Even the rats addicted to cocaine quickly switched their preference to sugar. According to the researchers:20
"Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals. We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants. In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants."
In my view, eating a diet consisting of 90 percent real food and only 10 percent or less processed foods is a doable goal for most, and could make a significant difference in your weight and overall health. Unless I'm traveling, my diet is close to 100 percent real food, much of it grown on my property. One just needs to make the commitment and place a high priority on it.
Too Much Protein May Sabotage Your Health
Protein is one of the necessary building blocks in your body but, like all things, too much of a good thing is not better. Protein bars deliver between 8 and 30 grams of protein per bar. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) established by the Institute of Medicine (IOM),21 is 0.80 grams of high-quality protein per kilo (kg) of body weight (0.36 grams of protein per pound) or approximately 46 grams per day for a sedentary woman and 56 grams for a sedentary man.
Yet, most Americans eat an average of 100 grams of protein each day, nearly double the RDA.22 This means the addition of a protein bar could increase your protein intake to levels far greater than your body needs. It's important to remember that your body has an upper limit of how much protein it can use. When you overconsume protein it stimulates a pathway called the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) that plays a significant role in the development and growth of many cancer cells.
This pathway also plays a role in the aging process. This means excessive protein may increase your rate of biological aging and your risk for cancer. For optimal health, I believe most adults need about 1 gram of protein per kg of lean body mass (not total body weight), or 0.5 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. To calculate your protein requirement, use this formula:
- First determine your lean body mass by subtracting your percent body fat from 100. If you have 30 percent body fat then you have 70 percent lean body mass
- Multiply this percentage (in this case 0.7) by your current weight in kilos or pounds. For example, if you weigh 170 pounds, multiply 0.7 X 170 = 119 pounds of lean body mass
- Using the "0.5 grams of protein per pound" rule, 119 X 0.5 = 59.5 or just under 60 grams of protein per day
Pick a Healthy Postworkout or Midafternoon Snack
Protein bars are advertised as convenience foods for an on-the-go lifestyle that may leave little time for cooking and sitting down to dinner. However, with very little effort you can pack your own convenience foods that are nutritious and support your health. Once you're eating unadulterated foods — foods that are as close to their natural state as possible — your body and mind will thank you. Examples of healthy snack options that will, nutritionally speaking, put your ordinary candy bar or sugary yogurt to shame, include:
Raw nuts such as macadamias and pecans
Dehydrated veggie chips made at home
A cup of homemade bone broth
Vegetables, cooked, raw or fermented
Cheese made from raw, grass fed milk
Organic pastured boiled eggs
Yogurt or kefir made from raw organic grass fed milk
Fruits in moderation, such as mangoes, strawberries or blueberries