Many nutrition labels on protein bars are packed full of sugar, artificial sweeteners and carbohydrates — so, how do we know if they are helping us achieve our gyms goals or if they’re causing harm to our bodies?
Weightlifters and high-performance athletes require many calories and carbohydrates to perform because they burn calories as fast as they consume them, says Christopher Miller, an undergraduate student at Ryerson studying nutrition and food.
“For the rest of us, it’s likely a good idea to think of protein bars the same way we think of candy/chocolate bars: as a rare treat and not a health food.”
According to Canada’s food guide recommendations, the average 1,800-calorie diet should contain between 210 and 290 grams of carbohydrates each day, which is approximately 45 to 65 per cent of your daily calories.
The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugars (glucose and fructose: candy, chocolate, sodas and sugary fruit juices) to 10 per cent or less of our daily calories.
One gram of carbs has four calories, and carbs break down into sugars, Miller notes that a protein bar with 30 grams of sugar almost meets the added sugar recommendation for the day.
Another issue with high levels of sugars in protein bars, is that often that sugar is not satiating.
“Sugar that we’ve taken out of its original source almost bypasses our brain in a way where we don’t get as full from it,” said registered dietician, Eric Williamson. Williamson is also the owner of Unlocked Fitness and Nutrition and a PhD student at the University of Toronto.
According to Williamson, refined sugars can lead to insulin spikes and weight gain; insulin spikes happen when we ingest high amounts of sugar and carbohydrates, which causes glucose to build up in our bloodstream. High blood sugar levels can lead to Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Protein bars and supplements cater towards the needs of consistently active people. High-performance athletes don’t have the same health concerns as the general population that may consume refined sugars.
“If we can utilize those sugars, it’s not as big as an issue, but if we’re not using them and they’re being stored in our body and our body fat levels are getting high, then in an indirect way they cause a lot of issues that lead to a lot of health concerns,” says Williamson.
While bars may be higher in sugar, they do still effectively offer protein. Even if the bar’s nutrition label resembles that of a Snickers bar, a person will still get the protein they need, explains Williamson.
“If somebody is switching from a candy bar that has 30 grams of sugar in it to a protein bar that has 30 grams of sugar, that is actually a step up.”
For those looking to introduce more protein to their fitness regimen, protein powder is a better option compared to bars as Williamson explains that powders don’t contain sugars. However, the best option is to get proteins from whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, lentils and meat). Not only do we get more nutrients this way, Williamson explains we also avoid artificial sweeteners and other synthetic food additives and fillers that are human made.
One of these additives in protein bars is gelatin, which is a type of protein that comes from animals.
“Gelatin is made by processing animal bones, most commonly pig. It’s generally used to hold products together or give them a springy-chewy texture. Jello [Jell-O], for example, is essentially just flavored gelatin,” says Miller.
The idea with gelatin is to add bulk to the protein bar and is most likely used as a filler for texture than it is for protein. But Williamson explains that if gelatin is one of the last ingredients on the protein bar, it’s not as worrisome. The first few ingredients on the protein bar’s label are the ingredients used the most in it.
Other important ingredients to watch out for are any additives ending in the letters O and L, such as sorbitol and mannitol. These ingredients are sugar alcohols, which are artificial sweeteners used in place of sugar.
“They [artificial sweeteners] create gas in our digestive system so they can cause pretty bad cramps for some people,” says Williamson. “Basically, it’s a chemical – it’s a glucose molecule with a chloride [salt] attached to it. So, it still has the sweetness to it as far as in our mouth, but it doesn’t get absorbed. It basically goes right through us.”
Avoiding protein supplements altogether may be a good choice for some people.
“Generally speaking I wouldn’t recommend protein supplements at all,” says Miller. “The average Canadian is getting a fair bit more protein than they actually need, and for most of us, meeting our daily recommendations is as easy as a few eggs or some rice and beans.”