Protein bars have been around for quite sometime now but some glaring questions still remain. Are they just glorified candy bars? Are there any good ones out there? What’s the scoop on sugar alcohols? We take a look how some of the big names stack up in terms of quality and whether protein bars are actually worth the money.
When we take a look at any bar one of the first thing that catches our eye is the carb/sugar content. Sugar, for the most part, gets a pretty bad rap and rightfully so. Sugar is associated with metabolic issues and obesity as it sits high on the glycemic index. Prolonged sugar intake can also lead to dental health issues as well. With the reputation that sugar has, most companies utilize sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are structurally similar to both a sugar and an alcohol molecule. The alcohol molecule leaves ethanol out, the compound that gets you intoxicated. Sugar alcohols stand at the forefront because many of them don’t spike blood sugar or insulin and the ones that do are at a minimal level. Sugar alcohols are also substantially less calories than normal sugar while maintaining most of the sweetness. The biggest downfall with sugar alcohols seem to be the digestive issues they can cause. If you’ve ever felt bloated or had gas after eating a protein bar or two, sugar alcohols might have been the culprit. The most commonly used sugar alcohols are xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, and maltitol. Erythritol seems to be the healthiest option because of how little digestive problems it causes and it has next to no calories. It doesn’t hurt that erythritol is the closest in sweetness to sugar either. Maltitol is considered the least healthiest option as it still triggers an insulin spike and is rather high on the glycemic index. The final take on sugar alcohols seems to be that they are the lesser of the two evils but shouldn’t necessarily be a go to option if you’re having a sugar craving. Sugar alcohols are still a processed compound and not intrinsically healthy in comparison to something like a piece of fruit. The sugar found in foods like fruit and milk have vitamins, minerals, and fiber; they aren’t empty calories.
So, are these protein bars just glorified candy bars? The answer? Yes...and no. First off, what constitutes as a protein bar? Usually anything with added protein would be a safe bet but we think 15 grams of protein or more per bar is optimal. So right off the bat you’re getting the benefit of a substantial amount of protein as compared to next to none in a candy bar. If we look at fat content, this is where it can get a little iffy. In the bars we carry here at the shop, the fat content ranges from 6 all the way up to 15 grams. A Snickers bar is 11 grams of fat. Most people see fat as, well, fat but all fats are not created equal. Fats derived from nuts and other natural foods are healthier than added oils. It’s also important to note the amount of saturated fat in each bar. Carbs, for the most part, are pretty cut and dry. How much sugar is in each bar? And now how many sugar alcohols are in each bar? Out of its 33 grams of carbs, a Snickers bar has 27 grams of sugar and zero sugar alcohol. In comparison, the fan favorite Oh Yeah One Bar has 23 grams of carbs but only 1 gram of sugar and 5 grams of sugar alcohol. Now here’s where it can get a little confusing. Most protein bars include dietary fiber. When looking at net carbs, dietary fiber is subtracted from the total carb count. This means that if you have 20 carbs in a bar and 9 grams of dietary fiber, your net carbs are 11 grams. Most companies use isomalto-oligosaccharides (IMOs) as a dietary fiber, which has it’s benefits but isn’t solely a dietary fiber. A very high percentage of IMOs are considered slow digesting carbs rather than dietary fiber. A compound like soluble corn fiber (SCF) is more of a true dietary fiber than IMOs and tend to be a healthier option.
The most obvious macronutrient that people tend to look at when it comes to a protein bar is protein. Protein content is usually the whole reason why we go out of our way to grab one. So let’s take a look at what most companies use as protein sources. Almost every bar company we carry uses milk protein isolate (MPI). MPI is derived from milk but most of the lactose is removed. Some companies use whey protein isolate (WPI) as well. WPI is the highest quality protein as it’s 90% purity and refined of most fats and carbs. There isn’t a huge drop off between WPI and MPI though MPI is a cheaper and slower digesting product. There are some companies that use whey protein concentrates (WPC) and caseins. WPCs, at 80% purity, are a little lower quality than WPI and slower digesting. You’ll find a little more fats and carbs in WPCs as well. Casein is considered the slowest digesting protein and tends to be the most filling. Most people use casein before bed as the protein is slowly released throughout the night. So what should be avoided when looking at protein content in a bar? Basically any bar that doesn’t include at least one of the proteins listed above. All protein is not created equal, you have complete and incomplete protein. Complete protein has all of it’s amino acids, incomplete has a fraction. For example, 10 grams of protein from chicken is much better than 10 grams from bread. The chicken is a muscle building protein, bread is not.
So what are the best options out there? Well, it depends. We always say that if eating a protein bar is keeping you from eating worse things, any option works for the most part. If you plan on eating a protein bar to get some more protein throughout the day, we suggest either getting that protein through whole foods, making a shake, or grabbing a product like a Best Bar Ever. Best Bar Ever will always be one of the best options on the market as it’s gluten free, non-GMO, and all real food without any added artificial sweeteners. Best Bar’s protein sources are whey protein isolate and casein. If you’re looking for a more traditional protein bar, Oh Yeah One bar and Quest Bars seem to be some of the better options out there. Always remember, a bar’s flavor shouldn’t be the end all be all, some bars sacrifice a little flavor for quality. There’s no perfect bar out there, they all have their flaws, so in the end pick the one that works best for you and your goals.