- Protein bars have entered the mainstream.
- You can now find protein bars resembling brownies, flapjacks, and chocolate bars at most supermarkets and corner stores.
- But just because they’re high in protein, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good for us – some are very high in sugar and artificial ingredients.
- Not all protein bars are created equal, though, and it’s perfectly OK to consume them as part of a balanced diet to help you hit your protein target.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
Protein is big business.
The boom of the fitness and wellness industries means protein supplements are no longer the reserve of body-builders, and as such the market size is expected to continue growing by 7.5% year on year, reaching $48.77 billion by 2025.
The market is bulging, much like your biceps could supposedly be if you consume enough shakes, bars, and supplements.
Indeed, protein bars are now so mainstream that you don’t have to go to a specialist health food store or a gym to find them – just pop into any supermarket.
Whether we're looking to get "shredded," "tone" up, or lose fat, we're told protein products are the key to achieving our fitness goals.
It's certainly arguable that protein is essential for helping your body recover after working out, but are bars really the way to go about it?
Can protein chocolate bars, flapjacks, and brownies really be doing our bodies any good if they're full of sugar or artificial sweeteners?
"Glorified candy bars"
Oozing with caramel, covered in chocolate, with the squidgy texture of a brownie... if a protein bar tastes just like your favourite chocolate bar or baked good, it might not be that far off.
Nutramino's coconut protein bar, for example, is made with 30% milk chocolate and also contains sugar syrup, glucose syrup, sorbitol syrup, and glycerol, which are all essentially forms of sugar.
It tastes just like a Bounty, and is actually higher in calories per serving (although the portion size of the Nutramino bar is bigger).
"Lots of protein bars on the market are not as healthy as people assume," Rhiannon Lambert BSc MSc RNutr, a registered nutritionist and spokesperson for The Association for Nutrition, told INSIDER.
"Yes they are high in protein, but they are also often high in sugar and/or artificial sweeteners, which we need more research on."
As well as protein bars produced by fitness companies, mainstream confectioners also sell protein-boosted versions of classic chocolate bars such as Mars and Snickers, but don't go thinking these are better for you.
"Protein bars are seen as a 'health halo' food with most people (often wrongly) assuming that just because they are higher in protein they are healthy," Specialist Registered Dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine BSc (hons) PG Dip MSc RD told INSIDER.
"Being high in protein doesn't mean that the ingredients list is healthy though, or that the sugar content is low; a Mars Protein bar for example contains 15g (over three teaspoons) of sugar which is over 50% of our recommended daily 'free/added' sugar allowance."
You might find your craving for a Snickers is best satisfied by a Snickers - and the macros often aren't wildly different.
A Mars spokesperson told INSIDER: "At under 200 calories and with 10g of added protein, our new Mars 'More Protein' bar contains 40% less sugar and the Snickers 'More Protein' bar has 30% less sugar than our standard bars.
"For those looking for even more protein in a post-workout treat, we also have a version of the Mars and Snickers bars with 18g of protein, giving consumers even more choice to enjoy the great taste of the brands they love."
They may not help fat loss
Protein bars tend to be surprisingly high in calories, too: Myprotein's new six-layer protein bars, for example, clock in at 250 calories per bar, and Nutramino's Bounty-style chocolate coconut bar is even more at 290.
A spokesperson for Myprotein told INSIDER: "Whilst one bar contains 256 calories, it's low in sugar and saturated fats meaning I can curb my sweet tooth craving without having a standard chocolate bar before the gym," adding that the bars are also high in protein and fibre.
Of course, eating high-calorie bars can be factored into your daily energy intake without resulting in weight gain, but if you're looking to lose fat and are regularly chowing down on a protein bar rather than, say, a banana (around 100 calories) post workout with the thinking that it's going to help you slim down, you need to be aware of how much you're consuming.
If you want to lose weight you need to be in a calorie deficit, and with some of these bars reaching almost 300 calories per serving, that's a lot of extra calories to factor in.
Not all protein bars are created equal
It's worth doing your research when it comes to protein bars, as the health credentials of what's out there varies wildly.
The main reason people consume protein bars is to help their muscles repair after hitting the gym, but according to Ludlam-Raine, you need at least 20g of protein to do the trick.
Not all supposed protein bars contain this amount, despite lauding themselves as "high protein," so make sure to check the nutritional information.
Some are lower in sugar than others too, with the likes of Barebells and Carb Killa coming in at around 1.9g of sugar per bar and thus meeting the EU's requirements for being classed as "low sugar" (under 5g sugar per 100g for solids).
You can also get protein bars that are boosted with extra vitamins, such as Fulfil Nutrition, whose range of bars all provide your daily requirement of nine essential vitamins and minerals.
The pros to protein bars
Although some protein bars are far from being health foods, that doesn't mean they can't have a place in a healthy, balanced diet.
Indeed, there are certainly pros to protein bars: they're convenient, they'll help you reach your daily protein target, they'll keep you fuller longer than standard chocolate bars, and many are genuinely delicious.
You don't need to confine protein bars to being post-gym snacks either: "I personally enjoy Fulfil protein bars fairly frequently," fitness blogger and author of the "No BS" cookbook Lucy Mountain told INSIDER.
"And they're even better when microwaved for 15 seconds and enjoyed before bed!"
Should we eat protein bars?
The experts generally agree that, ideally, you want to be trying to get your protein hit from whole foods, which will likely be more satiating, too.
"I would recommend you look at the ingredients list first of your protein bar and then compare the sugar content of it to your favourite chocolate bar before making a decision as to whether or not it's something that you want to be consuming regularly," Ludlam-Raine said.
A tasty alternative, for example, would be a 175g serving of Greek yogurt with some fruit and a handful of almonds, which comes in at around 24g of protein.
"It's a good idea to prioritise getting the majority of your protein from your main food sources, and enjoy the odd protein bar as a little added 'boost' if needed," advises Mountain.
But provided you're clued up on what you're consuming, there's nothing wrong with eating a protein bar here or there.
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Sports Nutritionist, and author of "Eat. Lift. Thrive." Sohee Lee told INSIDER: "Protein bars can be a quick and convenient option if you're on the go, but be sure to read the nutrition label before you chow down.
"Some bars don't have nearly as much protein as they let on and can be chock full of carbs and fats. This isn't necessarily a bad thing unless you're watching your calories, though."
Lambert added: "If you enjoy them and consume them as part of a balanced diet, go ahead!"
INSIDER has reached out to Nutramino for comment.