What's really in protein bars and are they healthy?
Protein bars are sold as a healthy option, but are they really any better than confectionery?
Protein bars: despite the marketing, they are really just confectionary with added protein, or sometimes vitamins and minerals.
It has always struck me as odd that protein bars are promoted as being an option for the health-conscious. Despite the marketing, they are really just confectionary with added protein, or sometimes vitamins and minerals.
The ones that are low in sugar tend to have added sweeteners that can cause digestive issues. They are expensive too, at about €2.50 each, or about twice the price of a regular bar. This is a growing market, however, and there are a good number of Irish brands on sale. So what can we learn from taking a closer look?
Fulfil bars are from an Irish company and have been around for about two years. The Chocolate Caramel and Cookie Dough Vitamin and Protein bar has a tantalising caramel picture on the front. It also highlights that it weights 55g and has 20g of protein, nine vitamins and is low in sugar.
That’s as much protein as in two big glasses of milk. In this case, though, it comes from milk powder, milk protein and soy protein. The list also includes added vitamin C and B complex, which helps us to turn food into energy. In all, there are about 40 ingredients.
The bars are low in sugar thanks to using these sugar-free sweeteners: erythritol, steviol glycosides and xylitol. Erythritol occurs naturally in some fruit, but is often derived from corn. Steviol glycosides comes from the stevia plant and xylitol is often from birch trees. All of these polyols can cause upset to some and there is a warning in bold to that effect: “With sweeteners. Can cause laxative effects.”
Those who are not getting enough protein would be far better to add it in the form of real food such as milk, eggs, beans, peas, lean meat or fish
There are other lesser-spotted ingredients here, such as inulin and oligofructose. These two are forms of fibre derived from roots, often of chicory. Oligofructose has a sweet taste and is highly soluble. It can be used to boost flavour and texture. There is also gelatine hydrolysate, which is also known as hydrolysed collagen and is made from collagen from the skin, bones and connective tissue of animals. Then there is soy in the form of lecithin, oil and protein. Where it’s from, we don’t know. The list also includes polydextrose, a synthetic sugar fibre which is appropriately described here as a “bulking agent”.
Another Irish brand is Vitality, which is run by Allegro, the sales and marketing company mentioned on the label and which is owned by Total Produce. These cost about €2.50 also. The Vitality Chocolate Mousse bar tasted like nothing more than dried-up condensed milk and it had a gloopy mouth-feel too. Its ingredient list gives an indication as to why.
First up is “protein mix”, which is made up of whey protein concentrate, sodium casseinate and soya isolate. Whey is a protein by-product from the manufacturing of cheese. It used to be seen as a waste product. Sodium casseinate is another name for casein, the other milk protein. Soya isolate is a protein from soya beans. There is also full cream milk powder, buttermilk powder and cocoa powder. There’s nothing wrong with using powders to make a bar. It’s just so unappetising.
To add sweetness, there is sugar, brown rice syrup, date paste and cashew nut butter. Then there are the sweeteners sorbitol and maltitol. These are polyols, or sugar alcohols, that can cause gas, bloating and digestive issues to some. This is a very long list with about 50 ingredients, partly because the last 18 words are the names of vitamins and minerals. So you will see cholecalciferol, which is vitamin D, and pteroylmonoglumatic acid, the B vitamin known as folic acid.
The full list of added vitamins and minerals is under the nutrition heading. But do you want a commercial public company that sells confectionery supplying your vitamins? I don’t. The formula also has L-glutamine, as mentioned on the front. It is there because it is popular with bodybuilders as it can minimise breakdown of muscle and improve protein metabolism. It can cause side effects in some, however.
The Vanilla Chocolate Chip Protein Booster bar from British company Pulsin is a better prospect. It has almonds, cashew butter, pea protein, chicory fibre, chocolate chips (cocoa mass, xylitol), cocoa butter, emulsifier (sunflower lecithin), rice protein, sweetener (xylitol), cacao butter, agave nectar, concentrated grape juice, rice starch, vanilla extract, green tea extract, sea salt and antioxidant (vitamin E).
Out of these three bars, I would choose the Pulsin. But those who are not getting enough protein would be far better to add it in the form of real food such as milk, eggs, beans, peas, lean meat or fish.
FOOD LABELS SERIES
1) Being a successful shopper
9) Pasta sauce
10) Chinese ready meals
11) Frozen chips
12) Chilled fish
14) Chicken Kiev
17) Baked beans
18) Tomato ketchup
19) Chocolate digestive biscuits
21) Cadbury's Dairy Milk
22) Dark chocolate
23) Salad Cream
24) Pesto sauce
26) Sliced ham
27) Vanilla ice cream
29) Jaffa cakes
30) Protein bars