What's In My Protein Bar? Analyzing The Top Five.

Protein bars seem to be gaining in popularity; their space on grocery store shelves is growing noticeably and I see new brands introduced every few months. I view protein bars as one of these deceptive foods, with packaging that is always so plastered with health claims that they seem like tasty, snackable, dessert-flavored nutrient supplements. Some even call themselves meal bars or meal replacements, to imply that they are just as good as your homemade lunch. (How dare they!)

Even though I feel this way, I still eat these packaged snacks on occasion—I so often find myself in the situation where I am hungry NOW but don't have the time to cook or even stop to sit and eat a pre-made meal. (This trap is preventable and is a work-in-progress for me!) They are also one of my comfort foods—my favorites are Macrobars and Rx bars, which have less additives and taste like delicious, chewy, chocolatey cookies—and I swear there is some psychology behind the feeling of relief or excitement upon opening a packaged food. However, I strongly believe that if I can avoid packaged foods, I should; that I am honoring my body in choosing to do so. Even if it takes more time and effort, I would rather eat something prepared at home with ingredients I like and can see, than in a faraway factory with questionable ingredients.

Breaking habits around convenience foods is easier said than done, but it is a worthy goal to work towards. Non-judgmental transparency about what you eat can be a catalyst for positive change. With this post, I want to shed light on some of the questionable ingredients that are present in five of the most scanned protein bars by the nutrition database Nutritionix.

If you are like me and will never not crave protein bars for a snack, stay tuned for my next post, which will be a compilation of healthy DIY recipes!

When I initially set out to write this post, I intended to cover every ingredient on the package labels. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of ingredients in these products, I chose to focus on those that I found most common, and most offensive.

Key Concerns: protein powders, "natural" flavors, and artificial sweeteners. These are ingredients present in all of these bars, and most others that you will find on the shelf.

- I have always been skeptical of protein powders for their highly-processed

nature and their seemingly too-good-to-be-true nutrient density. In researching this topic, I was astonished to find out about a completely separate issue: heavy metal toxicity. A 2018 study by the Clean Label Project revealed that of the 134

top selling protein powder products, 70% contained detectible levels of lead, 74% contained detectible cadmium, and 55% contained BPA. Yet another reason

to ditch highly-processed foods in favor of earth- and home-made alternatives!

Here is a link to their infographic with more details.

- Natural flavors: an intentionally vague term used to mean any combination of flavor-adding chemicals. "Natural flavor" mixes can contain more than 100 ingredients. More information on "natural" flavors is available by the

Environmental Working Group.

- Artificial Sweeteners: Erythritol, Glycerol, Maltitol, Mannitol, Polydextrose, Saccharin, Sorbitol, Sucralose, Xylitol... The list goes on. While these sugar substitutes have some objectively "healthier" characteristics: low or no calories, does not spike blood sugar, basically passes through the body untouched and unused except for their flavor — they aren't nutritious, as some natural sugars can be, and they can cause gastric distress for individuals with sensitive bowels— or for the unfortunate individual who eats too many sugarless gummy bears.

Additionally, science-y wording aside, some researchers believe that when you

eat these super-sweet foods, but your body doesn't receive the sugars it expects, it might confuse your body and throw your blood-sugar-regulation capabilities out of whack.

A Final Note: I am intrigued by the flavors that are designed for these products. They are most often meant to mimic a dessert; as if eating a chalky, chewy, birthday-cake-flavored chemical-bar warms your heart like a slice of birthday cake would. When we deprive ourselves of the special-occasion foods we crave, and instead eat imitations of what we desire, I believe that it can build up the feelings of deprivation and lusting over the desired dessert to a stressful level. Protein bars should be eaten to build muscle and provide energy for a day of strenuous activity. Brownies, donuts, and birthday cakes have their own, totally separate, time and place. Learning when to nourish and when to celebrate, and how to enjoy both richly, is the relationship with food to which we should aspire!

1. Kind Bar - Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate

INGREDIENTS: Mixed Nuts (Peanuts, Almonds, Walnuts, Macadamias, Cashews, Brazil Nuts), Dark Chocolate (Sugar, Palm Kernel Oil, Cocoa Powder, Soy Lecithin, Milk Powder), Soy Crisps (Soy Protein Isolate, Tapioca Starch, Salt), Honey, Non GMO Glucose, Chicory Fiber, Soy Lecithin, Natural Flavors.

- Palm Kernel Oil:

- Also known as Palmitate and Glyceryl Stearate, PKO is highly refined and high in saturated fats—too many of these increase the risk of heart disease.

- For human rights and the health of the planet, PKO should be avoided. In Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries where palm oil is grown, human rights abuses among farm workers are widespread. The USDA lists palm oil as a commodity associated with child labor and forced labor. Deforestation is increasing in these countries to accommodate the demand for the oil, and large tracts of peatland are burned to make room for more crops, releasing tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. To learn more about the environmental impact of Palm Oils: I recommend this article from Green Stars Project.

- Soy Lecithin

- Soy lecithin is an emulsifier, meaning it holds the ingredients of the processed food together over the weeks or years. During its production process, the soy oil is extracted from the soybeans with the use of a chemical solvent called hexane—a byproduct of crude oil. It is not necessary for manufacturers to prove that there is no trace hexane in the food product, because there is no USDA standard for a safe amount of ingestible hexane.

- Soy Protein Isolate: See my note at the top about protein powders. Also noteworthy is the skepticism around the health of soy products in general, especially processed and condensed such as in this form. Soy contains phytoestrogens—plant hormones that can indeed interfere with human hormones. It is a more recently researched issue, so long-term effects aren't yet clear, but some nutritionists recommend limiting soy products due to concerns of altered hormonal functions.

2. Quest Bar - Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

INGREDIENTS: Protein Blend (Milk Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Isolate), Soluble Corn Fiber, Almonds, Water, Unsweetened Chocolate, Erythritol, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter. Contains less than 2% of the following: Sea Salt, Sunflower Lecithin, Steviol Glycosides (Stevia), Sucralose.

- Milk Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Isolate: potentially contain heavy metals.

- Erythritol, Steviol Glycosides: sweeteners that may cause indigestion.

- Natural Flavors: Anywhere from 1 to 100+ Mystery Ingredients!

- Sucralose

- Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that can cause the liver and kidneys to swell, and shrinkage of the thymus gland. The thymus gland is responsible for producing our disease-fighting T-cells.

3. Pure Protein - Chocolate Peanut Butter

INGREDIENTS: Chocolate Coating (Maltitiol, Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil, Whey Protein Concentrate, Cocoa (Processed with Alkali), Calcium Carbonate, Natural Flavors, Soy Lecithin, Sucralose), Hydrolyzed Collagen, Peanut Flour, Protein Blend (Whey Protein Hydrolysate, Whey Protein Isolate, Glycerin, Maltitol Syrup, Soy Crisps (Soy Protein Isolate, Tapioca Starch, Salt), Water, Peanuts, Peanut Oil, Sucrose, Salt, Natural Flavors, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin and Mineral Blend (Ascorbic Acid, D-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate, Niacinamide, Tricalcium Phosphate, Zinc Oxide, Copper Iodide, Cyanocobalamin), Sucralose, Soy Lecithin, Milk Protein Isolate, Wheat Germ, Almond Butter.

- Maltitol, Sucralose, Glycerin, Maltitol Syrup, Sucrose: Sweeteners that may cause indigestion.

- Whey Protein Concentrate, Whey Protein Hydrolysate, Whey Protein Isolate, Soy Protein Isolate, Milk Protein Isolates: potentially contain heavy metals.

- Soy Lecithin: May contain unmeasured trace amounts of crude oil byproduct.

Along with the Soy Protein Isolate, may provide too many estrogens for the individual consuming it.

- Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil: May deplete heart health, definitely depletes

Southeast Asian rainforests, supports human rights abuses including child labor and forced labor.

- Natural Flavors: (twice!) Anywhere from 1 to 100+ Mystery Ingredients!

4. Fiber One - Caramel Nut

INGREDIENTS: Roasted Peanuts, Chicory Root Extract, Soy Protein Isolate, Sugar, Vegetable Oil (Palm Kernel, Palm, Canola), Whey Protein Concentrate, Corn Syrup, Rice Flour, Cocoa Powder, Water, Vegetable Glycerin, Rice Starch, Oligofructose, Skim Milk, Fructose, Maltodextrin, Soy Lecithin, Salt, Mono- and Diglycerides, Disodium Phosphate, Barley Malt Extract, Caramel Color, Carrageenan, Natural Flavor, Mixed Tocopherols added to retain freshness.

- Soy Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Concentrate: potentially contain heavy metals.

- Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Oil: May deplete heart health, definitely depletes

Southeast Asian rainforests, supports human rights abuses including child labor and forced labor.

- Sugar, Corn Syrup, Vegetable Glycerin, Oligofructose, Fructose, Maltodextrin, Barley Malt Extract: really, so many ways of saying sugar.

- Soy Lecithin: May contain unmeasured trace amounts of crude oil byproduct.

Along with the Soy Protein Isolate, may provide too many estrogens for the individual consuming it.

- Natural Flavor: Anywhere from 1 to 100+ Mystery Ingredients!

- Disodium Phosphate:

Made from phosphate rock combined with soda ash, then crystallized and purified into a powder. May be harmful for individuals with diminished kidney function.

- Caramel Coloring:

The production process sometimes uses ammonia; animal studies have shown cancer growth for the ammonia-treated product. Caramel Coloring producers are not required to disclose whether or not their processes involve ammonia.

- Carrageenan:

An extract of Chondrus Crispus, a red seaweed also known as Irish Moss. While the seaweed itself is a healthy whole food, recent studies have linked food-grade carrageenan with malignancies and gastrointestinal problems.

5. Kellogg's Special K Bar - Chocolate Peanut Butter

INGREDIENTS: Coating (Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil, Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Whey, Nonfat Milk, Soy Lecithin, Sorbitan Monostearate, Salt, Artificial Flavor, Polysorbate 60), Soy Protein Isolate, Peanut Butter (Peanuts, Hydrogenated Rapeseed and Cottonseed Oil, Salt), Corn Syrup, Inulin, Fructose, Sugar, Rice Starch, Polydextrose, Rice Cereal (Rice, Wheat Gluten, Sugar, Defatted Wheat Germ, Salt, Whey, Malt Flavoring, Calcium Caseinate, Vitamin C [Ascorbic Acid], Reduced Iron, Vitamin E [Alpha Tocopherol Acetate], Vitamin B6 [Pyridoxine Hydrochloride], Vitamin B1 [Thiamin Hydrochloride], Folic Acid, Vitamin B2 [Riboflavin], Niacinamide, Vitamin B12), Dextrose, Contains Two Percent or Less of Calcium Carbonate, Soybean and Palm Oil with TBHQ for Freshness, Glycerin, Sorbitol, Salt, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Soy Lecithin, Mono- and Diglycerides, Xanthan Gum, Polysorbate 80, D-Alpha Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Niacinamide, Zinc Oxide, Reduced Iron, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Vitamin A Palmitate, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Thiamin Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Almond Flour, Partially Defatted Peanut Flour, Wheat Starch, Vitamin B12, Folic Acid, BHT for Freshness, Vitamin D.

- Sugar, Corn Syrup, Fructose, Polydextrose, Malt Flavoring, Dextrose, Glycerin, Sorbitol: Sugar, sugar, and more sugar!

- Partially Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Oil, Vitamin A Palmitate:

unhealthy for your heart, unhealthy for the earth, unhelpful for human rights.

- Soy Protein Isolate: May contain toxic heavy metals.

- Soy Lecithin: May contain crude oil byproduct residue.

- Natural & Artificial Flavors: Anywhere from 1 to 100+ Mystery Ingredients!

- Sorbitan Monostearate: An emulsifier that in high doses can cause liver enlargement.

- Polysorbate 60: But doesn't it sound so appetizing? This chemical is added as a

thickener, and has been shown to cause cancer in animal studies.

- BHT: A fat preservative that has been linked to cancer growth.

- TBHQ: Also known as tertiary butylhydroquinone, it has been recommended to be avoided by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, over speculation of

its potential for cancer formation.

So, all of that being said, there's no need to feel worried or guilty about having eaten any of these products. The food industry revolves around keeping these ingredients as disguised as possible, while exaggerating the healthful qualities of the product. Rather than discourage you from eating tasty protein snacks, I hope that this post has helped to clarify why it is worth your while to prepare these foods at home whenever possible. And again, stay tuned for my next post! I am on a search for DIY protein bar recipes that focus on whole-food ingredients lists that look nothing like the lists above -- and taste better, too!

Thank you for reading.

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