I recently gave a Cheat Sheet interview on Protein Bars, along with David Katz MD at Yale (a prolific writer, and head of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine) and Heather Mangieri RDN in Pittsburgh (sports nutrition expert and ADA spokeswoman. They did a great job in excerpting it, so I thought I’d include the full interview here, below.
1. What is your overall impression of packaged protein bars? Do they live up to their healthy image?
** Largely glorified candy bars. Most people would be better off with a handful of nuts and an apple. Lots of unnecessary processing and preservatives for many popular commercial bars, too many of which are high carb, insulin spiking, and fattening.
2. When someone is considering purchasing a packaged bar, what ingredients or nutritional information should they be looking for on the label? (Amount of protein, sugar, fat, fiber, etc.) Also, is there such a thing as a bar that has too much protein in it?
1. Has a raw food as a first ingredient: nuts, a fruit, a vegetable.
2. Has as much protein as it does sugar, or nearly so: aim for 8 grams or more
3. Has less than 10 grams of sugar (the lower, the better!)
4. Has no added sugar or artificial sugars or trans (i.e., partially hydrogenated) fats
5. Has less than 250 calories.
**Bars are not meals. They’re big snacks and back-ups for when your plan goes wrong. No plan? Make one. That’s how you get ahead. Bars that have more 20 grams of protein are considered part of the performance enhancing supplement regime, which can be dangerous for men when used inappropriately: see, for example, http://www.apa.org/
3. On the flip side, what ingredients or nutritional information should cause concern?
** No trans fats in bars, ever.
** Avoid foods with the “fat free” label: these items are usually pumped full of sugar to make up for loss of flavor.
4. Are there things men specifically should be looking for or avoiding?
** Men should not eat bars with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats.
** Men should not eat bars with synthetic chemical additives.
** Men should be cautious about bars with soy protein isolate: made by removing nutrients from the bean: especially people with thyroid imbalances, certain cancers, and hormonally-influenced metabolic disorders.
Also, whey, hemp and pea protein are often better tolerated than casein, for example, which can reduce mucus formation and digestive disturbances for those who are sensitive to dairy.
5. Most people would probably agree foods prepared at home are better for us, but protein bars are a convenient alternative when we can’t make it into the kitchen. Is there a limit on how many people should eat? Per day? Per week?
** I would use protein bars as a back up plan: when possible, have a handful almonds, walnuts or peanuts and an apple instead. It’s nature’s protein bar.
6. Do you eat any of these types of products in your life?
**Once in a while I will have a Santa Barbara Bar Coconut Almond Bar: it’s delicious, high in protein, low sugar, and minimally processed. And it’s local.
7. What does all that information on the label (healthy, all natural, etc.) really mean? Is it all just a marketing ploy? I know Kind bars came under fire earlier this year because they used the word healthy on their packaging but their high levels of fat caused concern.
** Labeling is designed to drive sales, so it is about marketing not about education or data. To get the real scoop, you have to read the ingredients, and learn to read between the lines on labels.