Protein bars are like a houseplant – you’re not sure why, but having one makes you feel like you have your shit together. These days, almost every snack has a protein alternative with a 40% markup. Now, I don’t want you to waste the money and tastebuds that I did on protein bars that were overpriced, overhyped and ineffective. And, being the national icon that I am, I’ve put together a guide for you to choose one that is the best fit for you.
Why Do You Even Want One?
This is the million dollar question. What is your reasoning for eating a protein bar? Is it because it helps you feel like you’re being “good” when you still want to have chocolate? Is it because a product that says “high protein” that you automatically assume it’s a better choice?
That’s what we call the “health halo” effect, and it is proven in multiple studies to hugely affect our food intake and choices (Sundark and Kardes, 2005). This is particularly evident when it comes to protein bars, with bars labelled “high protein” consistently perceived as “healthier” than their non-protein labelled counterparts (Fernan et al., 2017).
Now, eating foods because they support your goals is one thing, but eating foods because they are “good” is a little more iffy. We are Team No Moral Value Foods over here, and separating foods into “good/bad” isn’t the best for your relationship with food in the long run.
Marketing companies care about your money, not your relationship with food, and by labelling a food “high in protein” they help you feel like you’re making the right choice, and they make you pay for it (Fernan et al., 2017). Keep that in mind when you choose to pay an extra $2 for the protein alternative of your favourite chocolate bar.
Protein bars aren’t all marketing and hype. For those on the go, they are a handy, portable source of protein that won’t stink up your car/bag. For many, they are a convenient post-workout hit that tastes nice and fits in with their goals and values.
Are they an expensive source of protein? Yes. But for many, it’s how they get a serving of protein in. So, if it is worth it, let’s talk about how you can pick the bar that suits you.
Summary: Many foods are labelled high in protein to encourage you to buy them because they are “good”. Mostly, this is used to justify upping the price. However, for some, protein bars can be a convenient and portable way to get a serving of protein in.
Protein Dosage: The Danger Lies in the Dose (Or Lack Of)
Not all protein bars are created equal, and some are more “protein” than others. What makes a protein bar actually high in protein?
In order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (muscle building) through our diet, we need to consume a complete protein source (Churchward-Venne, Burd and Phillips, 2012).
A complete protein serving is one that includes all 9 essential amino acids in the necessary amounts for MPS (Burke and Deakin, 2015). Animal sources of protein are typically complete sources. Plant sources tend to lack at least one essential amino acid, but by mixing different sources of protein we can overcome this.
20-35g of complete protein is required to stimulate MPS.
Any smaller a serving, or an incomplete protein source will not be enough to stimulate MPS (Arentson-Lantz et al., 2021). This is worth keeping in mind, as many bars labelled “high protein” merely contain 10-15g of protein! You would need to eat another protein source alongside it to ensure you’re stimulating MPS.
Summary: Make sure your protein bar contains at least 20g of complete protein, if you’re eating it alone as a protein serving.
Protein Quality: #NotAllProteinBars
What makes a protein bar high-quality? It’s not like they list essential amino acids in their ingredient list. It’s also highly unlikely that your protein bar will be of high quality *pause for gasps*.
Many brands will use protein sources that are less “bioavailable” (read: easily absorbed). Protein sources such as hydrolyzed collagen are less effective sources, and are typically “filler” protein. They do not contain all the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts (León-López et al., 2019).
Better, more bioavailable sources of protein are typically milk-based. You’re looking for ingredients like milk proteins, whey, casein. These protein sources have great amino acid profiles and are of better quality (Gilani, Wu Xiao and Cockell, 2012).
The majority of protein bars use a mixture of different protein sources to make up their protein content. It is highly unlikely that your protein bar will contain enough quality protein to hit that 20g threshold for MPS, even though it may contain 20g of protein.
Summary: Look for higher quality protein to be listed higher in the ingredient list. Bars higher in ingredients of lower quality protein (e.g. collagen) may provide sufficient amino acids to initiate MPS.
So, You Don’t Want to Sh*t Yourself
Many protein bars contain a number of ingredients that can take you from fitspo to shitshow real quick.
Many companies will use sugar alcohols to make the bars taste sweeter, without increasing the sugar content. Sugar alcohols include erythritol, isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. Sugar alcohols are great sugar substitute and many of them are used alongside other sweeteners. However, many of the sugar alcohols can cause a lot of G.I. distress, such as flatulence, diarrhoea, bloating and stomach pain (Grembecka, 2015) if you consume too much.
If you have sensitive stomach, or haven’t tried many sugar alcohols before, it may be worth keeping this in mind and staying close to a toilet just in case!
The same goes for fibre. Many bars display labels like “high in fibre” and have added fibre to make them more appealing and seem more healthful (Sundark et al., 2005). Now, there’s nothing wrong with fibre. In fact, the body loves fibre. Fibre helps move things through your gut which aids digestion. Fibre also helps keep you full, and is linked with reduction in a litany of diseases and cancers (Buttriss and Stokes, 2008). However, many bars have a very high fibre content. Indeed, some protein bars contain a whopping 17g, which is over half the recommended daily intake for most individuals (Stephen et al., 2017).
Of course, this isn’t “unhealthy” at all.
However, an acute intake of high fibre can be a one-way ticket to the public toilet, if you’re not used to having that much in one sitting. Furthermore, consuming a high-fibre snack close to exercise can also cause GI distress (Prado de Oliveira, Burini and Jeukendrup, 2014). Not ideal, so you better keep this in mind when timing when to eat your bar!
Summary: Be wary of high fibre and sugar alcohol content in bars, if you have a sensitive stomach, or are eating bars close to exercise!
Protein Per Calorie
The next and final consideration, is pretty much goal-dependent. Many bars are quite calorie dense, and are quite small in size. Protein bars typically range from 200-350 calories. If you are aiming to lose weight on relatively low calorie targets, 350 calories can be a huge chunk of your daily target.
You may be better off with a more satiating, higher volume alternative, such as Greek yoghurt and berries. Instagrammer @healthy_little_lifter has a number of such recipes!
Summary: If you are dieting, some protein bars can be a huge chunk out of your daily intake. You may prefer a higher volume, more satiating snack.
Hopefully, you aren’t too horrified. Yes, protein bars get a lot more hype than they are actually worth, for the most part. There are huge variations in protein quality, protein amount and ingredients across the market. They’re not all evil, money-grabbing gains-thieves, and in fact they can be hugely beneficial for increasing protein intake.
However, there are a lot of considerations when deciding which protein bar is best for you.
- Arentson-Lantz, E. Von Ruff, Z., Harvey, M., Wacher, A., Paddon-Jones, D. (2021) ‘A Moderate Serving of a Lower-Quality, Incomplete Protein Does Not Stimulate Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis’, Current Developments in Nutrition, 5(2), p. 487.
- Burke, L.M., Deakin, V. (2015) Clinical Sports Nutrition, 5th ed. Australia: McGraw-Hill.
- Buttriss, J.L., Stokes, C.S. (2008) ‘Dietary fibre and health: An overview’, Nutrition Bulletin, 33(3), pp. 186-1200.
- Churchward-Venne, T.A., Burd, N.A., Phillips, S.M. (2012) ‘Nutritional regulation of muscle protein synthesis with resistance exercise: strategies to enhance anabolism’, Nutrition & Metabolism, 9(40).
- Fernan, C.,. Schuldt, J.P., Niederdeppe, J. (2017) ‘Health Halo Effects from Product Titles and Nutrient Content Claims in the Context of “Protein” Bars’, Health Communication, 33(12), pp. 1425-1433.
- Gilani, G.S., Wu Xiao, C., Cockell, K.A. (2012) ‘Impact of Antinutritional Factors in Food Proteins on the Digestibility of Protein and the Bioavailability of Amino Acids and on Protein Quality’, British Journal of Nutrition, 108(2), pp. 315-332.
- Grembecka, M. (2015) ‘Sugar alcohols – their role in the modern world of sweeteners: a review’, European Food Research and Technology, 241, pp. 1-14.
- León-López, A., Morales-Peñaloza, A., Martinez-Juárez, V.M., Vargas-Torres, A., Zeugolis, D.I., Aguirre-Álvarez, G. (2019) ‘Hydrolyzed Collagen – Sources and Applications’, Molecules, 24(22), p. 4031.
- Prade de Oliveira, E., Burini, R.C., Jeukendrup, A. (2014) ‘Gastrointestinal Complaints During Exercise: Prevalence, Etiology and Nutritional Recommendations’, Sports Medicine, 44, pp. 79-85.
- Stephen, A.M., Champ, M.M., Cloran, S.J., Fleith, M., van Lieshout, L., Mejborn, H., Burley, V.J. (2017) ‘Dietary fibre in Europe: current state of knowledge on definitions, sources, recommendations, intakes and relationships to health’, Nutrition Research Reviews, 30(2), pp. 149-190.
- Sundar, A., Kardes, F.R. (2015) ‘The role of perceived variability and the health halo effect in nutritional inference and consumption’, Psychology & Marketing, 32(5), pp. 512-521.