(WellnessNova.com) - These little meals-in-a-wrapper are everywhere these days. Walk into a gas station, a supermarket, or even some farmer’s markets and you will surely walk across energy bars of all types: low carb, high-protein, sugar-free, paleo-friendly, made for women, all-natural, or made for body builders.
Protein bars are convenient when you are traveling, late for work, or just too busy or tired to cook a meal or prepare snacks. The high-protein quantity in them helps to satiate your appetite until you have time to cook a real meal. Some bars are supplemented with vitamins and minerals to help any nutritional deficiencies and are “engineered” to have a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
But are they actually healthy for you? Are protein bars just candy with a nutritional costume on?
1. What to Watch Out for When Buying Protein Bars
Packaged protein bars are no different than any other packaged food, except they are filling a niche-marketing role. Shelf lives that extend into the years may provide you excellent short-term energy, but be careful with the types of protein bars that you buy. Some things to check for when buying protein bars are:
Sugar content: How many grams of sugar are in it? Some protein bars have as much sugar as actual candy bars. On the topic of sugar, what kind of sugar is it? Some bars market themselves as being sugar-free or low-carb, so why do they still taste sweet? The answer: artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols (which don’t even contain any sugar or alcohol). Sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal pain, especially if you already have some digestive sensitivity.
Society has gotten so accepting of artificial sugars, but do we really know how they affect us? According to an article on Livestrong, ditching natural sugars for synthetic sugars might not even be helpful for slimming down and may even cause our bodies to put on a little weight. Furthermore, eating artificial foods, sugars, and others trick our bodies into liking and craving the wrong foods. Not good! While it’s important to limit sugar amount, it’s also vital to eat natural ingredients.
Ingredients: The main reason for eating is to nourish, build, and heal our bodies. Bonus points if the food tastes incredibly! However, when we start putting taste before nourishment, our bodies and minds will be the first to suffer. An important rule to remember when reading through the ingredient list is to be able to recognize them. If something sounds like it belongs in a scientific lab report, skip that protein bar (and food in general).
Carregeenan, though derived from seaweed, causes intestinal inflammation in human and animal cell studies. Some bars contain caramel color, which is commonly used in soda. This ingredient may increase the risk of cancer according to a study done at Johns Hopkins University.
Protein: Whether you are looking to bulk up or not, eating high-quality protein is vital for wholesome health. Protein is made up of a variety of amino acids. Humans are able to synthesize some of these amino acids in their bodies, but we also need to get some from our food as well. Thus, variety is key, once again, to staying strong and healthy. Amino acids are used all throughout the body in different systems, from building muscle to having a strong nervous system and cognitive abilities.
Some protein bars contain a processed version of protein called soy protein isolate. This protein source comes from soybeans after nearly all the carbohydrates and fats have been stripped away. Sounds great for someone that is trying to eat a high-protein diet. Yet, according to Mercola, this ingredient can cause low libido and erectile dysfunction. If it is genetically modified soy, other indirect health problems may occur such as endocrine system disruption and fertility issues.
Some of these modified proteins contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is a widely accepted neurotoxin. Textured vegetable protein (TVP) and hydrolyzed plant protein can also contain MSG. Adding these processed proteins to energy bars, snacks, and frozen foods is a lot more common than you may think. Some companies are even starting to add protein to flavored water. Water. Yeah, so be sure to double-check the ingredient labels for all packaged foods and drinks.
Fiber: Rarely do we hear about different types of fiber besides soluble versus insoluble. Inulin is starting to become a common additive in some foods. Although inulin is a prebiotic, it can also cause flatulence in those with irritable bowel syndrome.
For more similarities of candy bars versus protein bars, check out this blog from Harvard comparing calories, fat, sugar, salt, protein, fiber, and other vitamins and minerals.
Don’t get this wrong, the idea behind protein bars is excellent: smaller high-protein meals. But you can do a lot better.
2. What to Look for When Shopping for Energy Bars
It’s always best to have fresh food for meals. But who’s kidding — we all get rushed, busy, and tired in life. Where’s the balance between eating conveniently on-the-go and not caving to junk food? Keep an eye out for these things when purchasing protein bars from the store:
Whole Foods: Oats, peanuts, raisins, and etc.. Whole, unprocessed foods are what you’re looking for here. Whole foods are high in natural antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Your body assimilates these nutrients the best when they are found naturally in foods. They taste delicious, are digested more easily, and will give you the best energy for later in the day.
Fiber: We’ve all heard before that fiber helps to keep you full and satiated for longer. When you’re grabbing a quick snack to-go, it’s easy to find a short-term solution. It is especially during these times that you need to make sure you don’t compensate long-term gratification for short-term indulgence. Yes, food can be tasty (and should be), but you also need to make sure your body is feeling great after your taste buds have gotten their fix. Pick bars with at least three grams of fiber.
3. Try Homemade Protein Bars
Fresh and home-cooked food provides the highest energy and nutritional content. Isn’t that what food is for — to fuel and nourish? Search the Internet for healthy and cheaper recipe alternatives to those pricey $2 per serving energy bars.
Protein bars (or balls, or squares) are shockingly easy to make at home. They are a lot cheaper to make in bulk, and you will be able to add all sorts of fresh ingredients to them. You can pick from a variety of whole ingredients to get a tasty balance of micro- and macronutrients. Try experimenting with nut butters, oats, chopped nuts, cacao powder, seeds, pureed dates, dried fruit, coconut shreds, agave nectar, honey, and cinnamon.
There are a variety of bake and no-bake recipes online. You can create a HUGE batch of protein bars and store them in an airtight container for the rest of the week or in the freezer for long-term.
So, Are Protein Bars Healthy?
It depends. No matter what, stay away from highly processed bars with more artificial additives than actual ingredients. Aim for making your own protein bars at home to save money, and you’ll have one of the most nutritious snacks. However, when you are out and about, pick protein bars with whole foods to find a good balance between eating conveniently and staying healthy.