Protein predicament: Health concerns about protein bars

Protein bars might not immediately come to mind when you think of unhealthy foods, but some aren’t as beneficial as they seem. Many bars sold today contain large amounts of ultra-processed ingredients, artificial sweeteners and added sugars.

A hearty alternative to granola bars, protein bars have ballooned into a $4.5 billion dollar industry, with some analysts predicting the market will grow to $7 billion by 2030. Options in the protein bar aisle at the grocery store keep growing, with flavors like Birthday Cake, Maple Glazed Donut, and Strawberry Creme.

But don’t be fooled by the flashy packaging and high protein count; some protein bars masquerade as “healthy,” despite containing the calories of a candy bar. 

Although people often eat protein bars after a workout or as a meal replacement, those that are heavily processed or contain artificial sweetener do not supply the nutrients your body needs to get from a meal or to recover from exercising. 

Get Your Free Guide: EWG's Guide to Food Additives

What’s the matter with ultra-processing?

Ultra-processed foods are those that have been engineered so they no longer resemble the raw ingredients they derive from. They contain added ingredients you won’t find in any home kitchen. The industrial processing involved usually means they offer far less in nutritional benefits – fewer vitamins, less fiber, and more fats and carbohydrates. 

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to a slew of health issues, like obesity, several forms of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular issues. They have been described as interacting with the body in the same way as an addictive substance like nicotine

A Harvard study published last October collected data from more than 30,000 participants over the course of 10 years and found that people with diets high in ultra-processed foods have a higher risk of developing depression.

Another study found that just a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food could increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 15 percent, regardless of the person’s weight.

Added sugars and artificial sweeteners

While a protein bar isn’t as nutritionally empty as a bag of ultra-processed potato chips, many brands contain added sugars, artificial sweeteners, such as high-fructose corn syrup, and fatty oils like canola or palm that keep the bar from falling apart. These sweeteners have been linked to an abundance of health harms, including fatty liver syndrome, insulin resistance and diabetes. 

Most protein bars contain added sugar, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends Americans monitor and limit when possible. On average, adults consume two to three times the recommended amount of added sugar every day, an amount that has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular issues, obesity, diabetes and even cognitive decline

The same Harvard study that found an association between depression and ultra-processed foods found a similar association between depression and artificial sweeteners. Study participants in the top fifth of artificial sweetener consumers had a 26 percent higher risk of developing depression than those in the bottom fifth.

An artificial sweetener may be listed as the second or third ingredient on the label of a protein bar. Some common ones include sucralose and erythritol, which has been linked to serious heart risk. These aren’t naturally occurring ingredients and are made in chemical processes.

The body can’t easily digest these food additives – they may cause bloating or indigestion, or have a laxative-like effect as the body struggles to absorb them.

Tips for safer protein power

Not all protein brands contain potentially harmful food additives. Certain brands of protein bars can still be a healthy snack or helpful energy boost. Just remember to:

  • Read the label. Studying the list of ingredients is the best way to get an idea of what’s in your protein bars. Take special note of how much sugar, fats and artificial ingredients there are in the bar. 
  • Avoid added sugars and artificial sweeteners, when possible. The amount of added sugar in a product will be displayed in grams. Artificial sweeteners are often not highlighted in the same way and may just be listed as one of the bar’s ingredients.
  • Try to choose protein bars with minimal processing. One rule of thumb is to look for products with as few ingredients as possible – with names you recognize. Or consult EWG’s Food Scores database to identify products with fewer harmful food chemicals.
  • Consider buying organic. These products have fewer ultra-processed ingredients and additives. 

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