Many products on the market today claim to provide us with a quick fix of the essential nutrient, but are they doing us more harm than good?
There was a time when people would look at you strangely if you said you were eating a protein bar, but these days they are so commonplace there are whole sections of supermarket aisles dedicated to various flavours and brands.
And while they might also vary in price, the one thing they have in common is they are not cheap and all purport to offer a significant source of vital nutrition and protein.
Still, while grabbing a protein bar before heading to training or as a replacement meal might seem to be a healthier option than some of the alternatives, is it really the best we can do?
Laurann O’Reilly, a personal nutrition and health expert, says the demand for protein bars is on the increase as people realise that high-quality protein is important for bone and muscle health, as well as fluid balance, regulating hormones and maintaining a healthy immune system.
But while getting sufficient protein (roughly 45g to 75g per day, depending on body weight) is essential, she says it is “worrying” that people are using protein bars as a convenient snack or meal replacement — and would advise looking for better alternatives.
“The quality of protein bars on the market is variable in terms of the levels of sugar and fat, as well as additional ingredients, such as preservatives and additives. But we are protected in terms of health claims, as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) defines ‘high protein’ to be where at least 20pc of the energy value of the food is provided by protein.
“But while many [of the bars] have high levels of protein with a nice combination of amino acid building blocks, and many also have good quality ingredients, what they lack, particularly if used as a snack or meal replacement, are the very important vitamins and minerals our body needs to function, which can be best found in whole foods.”
O’Reilly only recommends the use of protein bars for post-training recovery or if protein needs aren’t being met through a healthy and balanced diet.
“The key to eating healthy is to eat as many fresh and clean ingredients, avoiding added sugar and artificial ingredients as much as possible,” she says.
“For those who are looking to up their protein intake or are looking for a variety of proteins in their diet, there are plenty of plant- and animal-based sources available.
“One should aim to have a variety of plant-based proteins, nuts and seeds, vegetables, grains and animal-based proteins such as eggs, yoghurt, cheese, meat, fish or poultry to get the best spectrum protein in their diets.
“This not only helps us to meet our basic protein requirement to maintain health, but is also important for those in heavy training regimes or recovering from illness.”
Belfast-based nutritional therapist and food scientist Jane McClenaghan agrees that we are all looking for easy ways to get good nutrition into our diets.
Protein bars are convenient and filling, she says, and as many are chocolate-based, “they appeal to our sweet tooth”. But it’s important to read the labels correctly before purchasing and deciding whether or not it is the best option available.
“Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for every cell in our body, so we need it for energy production, our immune systems, brain health and just about everything else,” says McClenaghan.
“It is important for growth and repair, but it also helps us to feel fuller for longer, so having enough in your diet is important for weight loss.”
Protein bars have become “the latest go-to for anyone looking for a ‘healthy’ snack between meals”, she says, “but it is important to realise that a lot of these bars are highly processed. If you read behind the label of some of the most popular bars, you are likely to find a list of sweeteners, glucose syrup, emulsifiers, palm oil and flavourings.
“If you recognise all the ingredients as real food, then go for it, but I would encourage having the bars as an occasional food, not a regular part of your diet. Many are high in salt and sugar, so look at the sugar content and aim for one with 5g or less per 100g.”
The ingredients also differ from bar to bar, she says.
“While some bars are based on nuts and seeds, wholegrains like oats or quinoa and some dried fruit, and are in a completely different league nutritionally, giving you a decent hit of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, even the healthier, whole-food options should not be an everyday part of your diet, but used as an occasional food.”
McClenaghan says most of the protein bars on the market contain 10-20g of protein. Adults are recommended to eat 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight, “so for someone who is 11 stone, that works out at 52.5g a day”.
“We need more than this when we have been ill, working out a lot or have a physically demanding job — but our protein intake should be split across the day. So aim for about a palm-size portion of a protein-rich food at each meal.”
Good protein sources include eggs, meat, fish, chicken, nuts and seeds, pulses, natural yoghurt and cheese, she says.
“So I would say you’d be better off spending your money on better food rather than protein bars — go for some natural yoghurt, a chopped apple with sugar-free nut butter or edamame beans. That way you’ll get more nutrition and save some money too.”
Dublin-based dietitian Orla Walsh says protein bars can be used as a healthy alternative to other sugary snacks, but can cause minor digestive issues and are quite pricey, so agrees that it is a good idea to look for other alternatives.
“Protein bars grew in popularity when the research on protein grew,” she says. “We always knew we needed enough protein to support muscle and bone growth and development, but we didn’t know we needed about 20g every three to five hours.”
Walsh says such bars often offer 20g of protein, “which is as much protein as most adults need to stimulate their muscles to grow and repair”. “They can be tasty, are portable, have a long shelf life and help manage hunger, so they have their uses, and if you fancy a chocolate bar, but want to make a healthier choice, they are an option.
“Protein and fibre help us to feel full and keep us full,” she adds, “and although not nearly as nice as chocolate, protein bars offer protein and fibre. They tend to be about 200 calories, which is less than a chocolate bar, and have the potential to have a more positive knock-on effect on future food choices.”
But protein bars have their drawbacks, she says. “They often contain sweeteners which can cause bloating and flatulence. I would suggest people look at the amount of protein in a serving and the offering of calories. Aim for something providing around 20g of protein in around 200 calories.
“And, contrary to popular belief, nuts aren’t really a source of protein — they are a healthy source of fat. To get 20g of protein from nuts, you would need to eat over 600kcal of nuts.”
There are other foods that offer the same amount of protein as these bars, but for less calories and less money, says Walsh.
“For example, a tin of fish, a pint of milk, three boiled eggs or a serving of cottage cheese or Greek yoghurt. Also, it’s worth noting that most homemade protein bars are actually supplying more carbohydrate and fat than protein.”
Food for thought.