Health News Digest

August 30, 2010

How Nutritious And Natural Is Your Protein Bar?

Muscle brownie

By  Michael D. Shaw

Widely available at gyms, health clubs, convenience stores, and even at the checkout lines of some electronics and stationery retailers, these products are variously referred to as nutrition bars, energy bars, or protein bars. Sure, they sound healthy, but are they?

Dawn Jackson, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, admits that the bars are convenient, especially when you’re physically active. “You wouldn’t put a turkey sandwich in your pocket when you go on a bike ride, but you could easily bring one of these bars with you.” However, she cautions, “some of the bars have as much sugar and as much saturated fat as a candy bar. So use them in moderation.”

Certainly, you should read the labels. Although a few years ago, that was not always helpful. In 2001, ran tests on 30 nutrition bars, and 18 of them gave results that differed—in some cases significantly—from the label claims. The most frequent misrepresentation was the under-reporting of carbohydrate levels. In one case, a bar labeled at 2 grams of carbs clocked in at 22 grams.

In its most recent testing, reports that the labels are much more accurate, but still warns that…

  • In some bars, most of the fat present is saturated fat
  • A “whole food” bar contained more calories per gram than most other bars
  • The top ingredient in some bars is one of the sugar alcohols

As to sugar alcohols, they are a hydrogenated form of carbohydrate commonly used as sweeteners and bulking agents. Food products labeled “sugar-free,” including hard candies, cookies, chewing gums, soft drinks, and throat lozenges often consist of sugar alcohols.

Sugar alcohols are less caloric than sugar (1.5 – 3 calories per gram vs. sugar at 4 calories per gram), and they do not cause tooth decay. On the other hand, since they are not absorbed in the small intestine, bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea can occur.

Lenny & Larry’s—a Southern California-based maker of natural baked goods—is more direct about sugar alcohols:

Does your protein bar carry a disclaimer that says “may cause gastrointestinal discomfort?” We hope not. Using sugar alcohols in protein bars also lets a company make a cheaper product, allows them to list lower carbs or lower sugar and then they add maltitol syrup and hydrolyzed collagen…yummy!

There is some good news regarding sugar alcohols…does not promote tooth decay! Here is our tip on tooth decay: Brush your teeth at least twice a day. Problem solved.

The people behind Lenny & Larry’s are Barry Turner and Don Croutch. Barry was Cyclone on the hit TV series “American Gladiators,” and is a fitness enthusiast and bodybuilder. Don is a noted entrepreneur and is also a fitness buff. They are passionate about what they do, and as you can see, are not afraid to tell it like it is regarding supposed health foods. One of Lenny & Larry’s products is a Muscle Brownie, identified by many of its customers as a protein bar.

Barry and Don tell their customers that high-quality snacks of this type can be helpful when blood sugar is dropping, as a pre-workout energy boost, or when other food choices are less healthy. They are also convenient as an easy to digest fuel during long endurance training sessions.

Health writer Elizabeth Walling adds a few more tips on protein bars:

  • Sweeteners should never be the first ingredients listed on the label.
  • Whey protein is generally preferred over soy protein.
  • High fiber is preferred for general health reasons, and because it promotes a feeling of fullness.
  • Look for bars with at least 10 grams of protein.
  • Good taste is important, and is often overlooked by consumers.

Walling also reminds us that “Protein bars are not meant to replace a balanced diet and exercise, but should be incorporated with healthy habits so you can reap the benefits of living a healthy, balanced lifestyle.”

Finally, as one smart-alecky fitness writer puts it, “Finding the right protein bar might be an exercise, but it’s well worth the trouble. And, read those labels!”