Marco's Blog

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Protein Bars

2009-01-15 6 min read marco

Have you ever gone to the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon? When the lines are long enough that you have no hope of getting out without having developed a serious craving by the time you get to see the candy bars?

Let’s face it, it would be wonderful if we could always eat healthily. We should always have fresh, raw foods with us; foods rich in proteins, “good” carbohydrates, vitamins, and a good balance of minerals. Instead, we opt for the convenient, and that mostly means fats and sugars.

I learned to use protein bars as a convenient, but healthier alternative to candy bars when the craving strikes. I know some of them are billed as meal replacement, but a lunch consisting of a candy bar pretending to be healthy is not my thing. I’d rather have something cooked and reserve the protein bar for the treat segment of my eating day.

Selecting a protein bar has been tough for me. A great many of them taste terrible, are not healthy at all, and they all seem to be ridiculously expensive.

Taste

Frankly, I’d rather have a more expensive, less healthy protein bar if it just tastes good. That’s probably mostly because in my case it replaces the candy bar or pastry I would have otherwise eaten – and if it doesn’t match the quality of what it replaces, then it doesn’t do me any good.

I’ve been trying dozens of different bars from lots of different places. I tend to prefer those that have a rich chocolatey coating, crunchy nuts on the outside, and caramel inside. In short, I want a healthy Snickers bar.

On that front, my clear winner is IIS Research’s OhYeah! bar, chocolate & caramel. But I’ll continue this thread as soon as I taste a new winner.

Nutritional Value

A protein bar is a work of science as well as of culinary art. It needs to pack plenty macronutrients in a balanced way, it needs to have a pleasant texture, it needs to have enough vitamins and minerals to supplement the rest of the crap you are eating.

Reading the labels of the bars is not amusing. The terms thrown out there can be quite puzzling and it’s really hard to find the information you need and want in a quick and easy way.

From my perspective, the important things to consider are:

  • how many calories does the bar contain in total?
  • how many of the calories are from proteins?
  • what is the source of those proteins?
  • how much sugar does the bar contain?
  • does the bar have a sufficient amount of fiber?

I usually don’t care much about the fat vs. carbohydrate content of bars, ever since my low-carb diet taught me that carbs are as bad for me as fat. Besides, I don’t really like most fatty foods, so I rarely have to worry about over-indulging.

Total Calories

Given their status as snacks in my world, I prefer bars between 200 and 300 calories. Less than that and they keep me hungry. More than that and they are dangerously close to a meal.

There are plenty bars that are below or above my thresholds. 100 calorie bars are all the rage right now, but if my hunger can be stilled with 100 calories, I’d rather go for a piece of fruit (which contains water, which none of the bars do). You should really think about what the protein bar is going to do for you, what function it has in your nutrition, and choose it accordingly.

As an example, the ISS OhYeah! bar I mentioned above weighs in at a whopping 380 calories – but since I eat it only after a spinning class (burn rate: 600 calories) it’s acceptable. I wouldn’t eat it if I hadn’t consumed a lot of energy before it.

Protein Calories

Many protein bars, especially the cheap ones, don’t contain a lot of proteins. Ideally, you’d like the bars to have more than 30% of their calories from proteins. Balance bars favor a 30-40-30 ratio of protein, carbs, and fat calories – but I think that’s too low, given you are likely to eat a protein bar after a workout.

To tell the number of calories from proteins, multiply the protein grams by 4. If your bar packs 26 grams of protein, that means 26 * 4 = 104 calories. That’s the value for the OhYeah! bars, and compared to the 380 calories total, it’s not a good deal.

Protein Source

Most protein bars source their proteins from soy or wheat. Animal proteins are much more expensive and hence not used for the most part. This has two side effects: (a) the ingredient lists sound like a biochemical manufacturing label, full of soy protein isolates and other unpalatable stuff, (b) the vegetarian protein mixes lack in a few essential amino acids that have to be either added back or are simply lacking in the bar. Check your labels to find out what’s the case.

Sugar Amount

I have learned the hard way that common sugar (and all readily digested sugars, e.g. fructose) has a horrible side effect: it causes cravings. The theory goes that, since sugars are digested quickly, they immediately flood the blood-stream. The result is a “sugar high,” followed by a “sugar crash” some time later.

That the language of sugar is not sweet but reminiscent of addiction is not coincidental, since sugar cravings are entirely analogous to withdrawal symptoms for any other drug. They come without rational explanation (e.g., you don’t need to be hungry to feel them), they require immediate and compulsive satisfaction, and they tend to cause overindulgence.

I used to eat more than 100g of sugars per day, mostly hidden in pastries, cereals, and condiments (yes, check how much sugar there is in that salad dressing of yours!). At the end of the day, depending on my sugar status, the only way to get through the evening might be wolfing down a whole chocolate bar, or eating a half pound of M&Ms.

I am in an enlightened post-sugar world, now. I eat at most one pastry a day in the morning and avoid everything that smacks of readily digested carbohydrates (starches count). I avoid the pasta at Italian restaurants, leave the rice behind in Asian ones, and do without the sandwiches I love.

And for a protein bar, I would never ever touch anything that has more than 10g of sugar. It doesn’t really matter how many calories the bar has, overall: if it has more than 10g of sugar, I get a high – which leads to a low.

Fiber

Many protein bars have additional fiber embedded in them. Some of them can be so rich in fiber, they can be a ready substitute for fiber supplements. Atkins Advantage, for instance, has 240 calorie bars with 10g of fiber. Considering that’s about a third of my fiber allowance per day, that’s a supremely good deal!