While manufacturers may have positioned protein bars as part of the clean eating trend, most contain more sugar than a doughnut and only slightly less carbs than a Snickers bar. Many protein bars also use soy to boost the percentage of protein in their products.
Although these products have become a popular choice among gym goers, protein and energy bars are not the best choice and likely shouldn’t be the first choice to refuel your body after a heavy workout.
While you may have heard that soy is healthy, unfermented soy products are nothing more than a clever marketing gimmick to reduce the cost of production. Soy was a minor industrial crop in the early 1900s. Today, 31 states2 produce $40 billion in soybeans each year,3 the vast majority of which is used to produce oil and soy protein that are used in the manufacture of food products.
Andy Brownsell, commercial director at Protectivity, found the result surprising.5 He shared with Food Navigator that many of the bars they tested had more saturated fat and sugar than a Krispy Kreme doughnut. PowerBar’s Protein Bar 30% Lemon Cheesecake has 31 grams of protein and 20 grams of carbohydrates, 19.5 of which come from sugar.6 Maximuscle Prograin Flapjack Berry protein bar has 22 grams of protein and a whopping 41 grams of carbohydrates.
The index revealed that although product advertising indicates these bars are “healthy” and high in protein, many are also loaded with processed saturated fats, sugars and carbohydrates. In comparison, a Snickers candy bar has 4.5 grams of saturated fat, 33 grams of carbohydrates and 4 grams of protein packed into 250 calories.7
However, while the Snickers has more calories, it is also a larger serving size. Gram for gram, both the Luna protein bar and the Snickers bar have the same number of calories.8 Neither is a good choice to refuel.
Advertisers also claim these products help to refuel your body after a tough workout, but further independent research indicates they do not prevent an energy deficit or influence your ability to perform physical activity.9 In a study using energy bar supplementation to evaluate physical performance on 26 men eating field rations plus energy bars for eight days, the researchers found the group eating the protein-rich energy bar experienced no differences in physical performance or lean mass from those who did not eat the bars.
These nutritional challenges are being met with creative advertising campaigns that are estimated to grow the market by nearly 8 percent each year between 2017 and 2021.10 The report indicates that traditional print media and social media campaigns will be aimed at the convenience factor as more people are looking for quick, ready-to-eat food and snack options. There are literally hundreds of power/protein/energy bar options available in stores, at the gym or your local coffee shop.
Many believe that your body only requires calories to produce energy and thus these bars are acceptable nutrition options. Nancy Clark, director of nutrition services at Sports Medicine Associates in Brookline, Massachusetts, believes similarly, saying,11 “Bananas give energy. Twinkies give energy. Energy bars give energy. That’s because they all provide calories.”