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The Truth About Protein Bars: Performance Nutrition or Candy in Disguise?

Author: Tom Venuto
Publisher: Fitness Renaissance

Meal replacement (MRP) bars, protein bars and energy bars range in quality and nutritional value from fair to horrible. Some bars are a decent way to get 30 grams of quality protein when you're in a hurry, while others are nothing more than candy bars in disguise. None of them are great because they are all processed foods. As a general rule, you should always choose whole natural foods over shakes and bars when given a choice.

The powdered (MRP) drink mixes (such as Met-RX, Myoplex, or Rx-fuel) are better than the bars because they are very low in fat and they are sweetened with Aspartame (no calories) instead of refined sugar (lots of empty calories). MRP powders are also high in protein, with 37-50 grams per serving. If a bar is all you can manage because you are at work or on the run, then you should scrutinize the labels carefully and make the best choice possible.

There are a few things you should look out for in an MRP bar. First and foremost, check the sugar content. The problem with virtually all of the bars is that they can't manufacture one that tastes good without using a lot of refined sugars. Don't just look at the "Nutrition Facts" panel; the sugar listing can be deceiving. The grams of sugar doesn't distinguish between sugars that are naturally occurring and those that are refined. Looking at the ingredient list is more informative.

FDA labeling laws require that all ingredients be listed in order of the quantity used. If refined sugars are the first or second ingredient, it is not a good choice. The refined sugars, Sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup and chocolate are frequently found high on the list. A typical bar might list protein powder (such as whey isolate) as the first ingredient and corn syrup as the second ingredient. Don't be surprised if some so-called "nutrition bars" list sugar or corn syrup as the first ingredient. Many bars are nothing more than ordinary candy bars with protein powder added in. You might as well have a Snickers!

Another ingredient to be on the lookout for is saturated fat. Many bars have moderate amounts of fat, (4-8 grams per bar). The total fat grams, however, is not as important as the type of fat used. Some bars derive their fat from peanut butter, which is fine in small amounts. Unfortunately, others use hydrogenated oils and tropical oils such as coconut oil or palm kernel oil. These are the "bad fats" that have been implicated in heart disease and cancer. Watch out for those 40-30-30 bars - they are notorious for this.

There is nothing magical about the 40-30-30 ratios just because a best-selling book says so. One popular brand of 40-30-30 bars lists soy protein as the first ingredient, corn syrup as the second and fractionated palm kernel oil as the third. These companies are really taking advantage of the public's naivete by calling these "health food" or "nutrition bars." If you think you're eating some magical combination of nutrients, think again - what you're really eating is empty sugar calories and saturated, artery-clogging fat!

When choosing a bar you should also look at the total calories and the carb to protein ratio. There are several different types of bars available, including energy bars, protein bars and meal replacement bars. The ratio of nutrients in each type can vary greatly. Your best bet is to choose one with a substantial amount of protein (30 grams of protein, preferably whey, is good for a bar). A meal replacement bar is usually around 300 calories with a ratio of one part protein to two parts carbs. If you're on a fat reducing program, then you may want to choose a protein bar with the opposite ratio: Two parts protein to one part carbs. Other bars are marketed as "energy bars" because they are primarily carbohydrates.

An example of a meal replacement bar is the original Met-Rx "Food bar." They contain 320 calories, 48 grams of carbs and 27 grams of protein (a pretty good ratio for a meal replacement). But let's examine where the carbs come from: On the ingredients list, Metamyosin (Met-Rx's proprietary whey, milk and egg protein blend) is the first ingredient. So far, so good. But look at the second ingredient: Corn syrup (sugar!) What's the third ingredient? High fructose corn syrup (read: more sugar!) So the second and third ingredients are refined sugar. Not exactly diet food is it?

Protein bars such as "Pure Protein" by Worldwide Nutrition are immensely popular these days because so many people are on low carb or reduced carb diets. The bad thing about the "Pure Protein" bars is that most are coated with real chocolate (yes, the same stuff a Hershey's bar is made of). Others are coated with Yogurt (a slight improvement.) The good thing about "Pure Protein" is that with 280 calories, 31 grams of protein, 16 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fat, the calories and ratios of nutrients are good for a fat loss program. And the total carbs and sugars are low. Also, it's a convenient way to get 31 grams of whey protein.

Power bars are energy bars that were designed with endurance athletes in mind. Power bars contain about 80% of the calories from carbs, 20% from protein and minimal fat. An endurance athlete's diet is very high in carbs, as much as 60% or more of total calories. That makes the Power Bar a decent energy food for endurance athletes in intense training. Unfortunately, the Power Bar has the same problem as many other bars - it's mostly sugar. Maltodextrin, an excellent source of Complex carbohydrate, is the second ingredient, but the first ingredient is - you guessed it - high fructose corn syrup. You'll probably burn all those carbs up if you're extremely active, but these are not the greatest for a fat reducing program and they're skimpy on the protein. If you need the carbs, why not just have a piece of fruit instead?

Some of the newest brands of MRP and protein bars have gotten around the refined sugar and saturated fat problem by using fake fats such as Salatrim and artificial sweeteners such as Acesulfame Potassium. When most of the refined sugars and saturated fats are removed, using fake fats and artificial sweeteners is the only way left to make the bars palatable. There is an ongoing debate about the safety of artificial sweeteners and fake fats. The Center for Science in the Public Interest rates Acesulfame Potassium as one of the top ten worst food additives, because tests showed that it caused cancer in animals. It is important to note however, that these tests involved giving laboratory rats hundreds of times the amount that humans would normally ingest in a day.

Furthermore, the Food & Drug administration (FDA) categorizes it as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), a classification for all food additives that are considered harmless. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) also approves of fake fats and artificial sweeteners including Aspartame and Acesulfame K. The ADA's position statement on "fake" fats says "Fat replacers may offer a safe, feasible and effective means to maintain the palatability of diets with controlled amounts of fat and/or energy." The ADA's position statement on artificial sweeteners says, "It is the position of the ADA that consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners when consumed in moderation and within the context of a diet consistent with the Dietary guidelines for Americans." Probably the best advice is to just do like the ADA (and your mother) told you and partake of all things, including artificial sweeteners, in moderation.

The new Met-Rx "Protein Plus" bar is one of the new breed of bars that uses artificial sweeteners and fake fats. Let's take a look at what's in them: The "Protein Plus" bar contains 300 calories and only 15 grams of carbs. The first ingredient is "Metamyosin" protein. With 32 grams, there's probably no easier way to get a whole meal's worth of high quality complete protein when you're in a hurry.

The second ingredient is a "faux" chocolate coating that includes Maltitol, Salatrim, peanut butter and Acesulfame Potassium. Maltitol is a "sugar alcohol" that is used as a sweetener. It has half the caloric value of sucrose because it is not completely absorbed by the body. The FDA classifies it as GRAS. Salatrim is a reduced calorie fat developed by Nabisco that has only 5 calories per gram as opposed to 9 calories in conventional fats. Salatrim is used in both solid and liquid forms in snacks, cookies, dairy products, (and now protein bars).

The third ingredient is Glycerine, a crystalline, viscous liquid formed when fat molecules split. It is half as sweet as sugar and is used to keep baked goods, jelly beans and marshmallows moist and to plasticize foods such as fudge, chewing gum, gelatin, cheese, etc. Glycerine is GRAS. Additional ingredients in the bar include peanut flour, polydextrose (a bulking agent with only 1 calorie per gram), natural flavors, malt barley syrup and peanut butter. Clocking in with 8 grams of fat, or about 24% of the total calories, the Protein Plus bar is not exactly low fat, but the fat is not saturated and the total calories in the bar are not excessive.

Source One bars, also by Met-Rx, are similar, with the protein blend as the first ingredient, Salatrim the second, and cocoa the third. The only difference is the Source One Bar has only 190 calories with 30 grams of carbs and 15 grams of protein. That makes it a decent snack for people on a reduced calorie diet.

All things considered, if you are concerned with staying lean and muscular, then you're better off with bars that use artificial sweeteners and fat replacers than ones loaded with corn sweetener (refined sugar) and palm kernel oil (saturated fat). No bars are "excellent" nutrition-wise, but some are definitely better than others. My advice is to read the labels carefully and choose one that is low in calories and refined sugars, uses no saturated fats and has a good protein to carb ratio.

Always stick with whole foods whenever possible and make the powdered MRP shakes your second choice. Don't make it a habit to eat bars regularly - use them for convenience only. But remember, you have to eat something every 3 or 4 hours for a muscle-building or fat reducing diet to work, so if you have no other alternative, a bar might be the only way to get your fill of protein in a pinch.

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1. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. Journal of the Americal Dietetic Association. 98: 580-587, 1998.

2. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Fat Replacers. Journal of the Americal Dietetic Association. 98: 463-468. 1998

3. Anderson, Jean, Deskins, Barbara. Nutrition Bible. William Morrow & Co, New York, 1995.

4. The Best of Nutrition Action Healthletter, "The Ten Worst Food Additives," Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1996