Americans love protein. We not only love whole food sources of protein, such as steak and cheese, we love protein bars and protein shakes and even add protein powders to our drinks. Protein bars, such as the Protein 10 Baked Bars shown below, are an easy to grab snack that will satisfy hunger, a sugar craving and boost protein intake. With 10 grams of protein on the front of the label, this bar appeals to nutritionally minded individuals, as well as athletes. But, is this the best choice? Let's take a look:
Ingredients in Protein 10 Baked Bars
Whole grain rolled oats, INVERT SUGAR, soy protein isolate, peanuts, FRUCTOSE, whey protein isolate, BROWN SUGAR, oat flour, semisweet chocolate chips (SUGAR, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla extract), glycerin, HONEY, TAPIOCA SYRUP, enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, SUGAR, soy lecithin, rice starch, palm oil, canola oil, palm kernel oil, natural flavor, MALTED BARLEY EXTRACT, salt, xanthan gum, sodium bicarbonate, cocoa (processed with alkali), nonfat dry milk, tocopherols, corn starch, modified corn starch, cellulose gum, almonds, cashews, vegetable oil (peanut, cottonseed, hydrogenated soybean and/or sunflower seed).
Processed Protein + Sugar + Food Additives
Although each bar contains 10 grams of protein per serving, each bar also contains:
By eating this bar, we might be getting 10 grams of protein, but we get even more sugar - 13 grams per serving. Sugar is shown in all caps in the ingredient list above because with 43 ingredients, it's difficult to identify the seven different types of sugar found in this bar.
On average, women need 46 grams of protein a day and men need 56 grams of protein a day. The amount of protein needed per day varies from individual to individual and is a controversial topic. Vegetarians, pregnant women and athletes need more protein. To read more, visit our Protein Recommendations page.
Sources of Protein
To meet protein needs, choose whole food sources rather than a processed snack bar. Protein amounts in some common whole foods are shown below.
Single Nutrient Effect
Protein 10 Baked Bars are classic nutritional doublethink. The use of baked and protein on the front of the package implies the product is healthy, yet we know a chocolate peanut butter bar is more like a cookie than a health food. It's easy to be drawn to the amount of protein in the bar. This is called the single nutrient effect. The single nutrient effect creates a focus on one nutrient we think we need and allows us to ignore every other ingredient in a product, even if we know the other ingredients may be unhealthy.
To avoid falling for the single nutrient effect, always check the ingredient list when shopping. If you don't recognize the ingredients or there are more than 5 ingredients, put it back on the shelf.
Do granola bars grow on trees? What about cereal puffs? Do sausages roam in the wild? To assess a food product the question to ask is not, "is it healthy?". Instead, ask yourself "how close does this food resemble its natural state?". What did it look like in nature? The further away a product appears to how it existed in nature, the less healthy. Your granola bar may give you the impression that it’s all-natural, but very little in that granola bar appears as it did in nature.
With every step of processing there is a loss of naturally occurring nutrients
and a gain in food additives.
Visualize food existing on a spectrum, with whole food on the left and processed food on the right. With every step of processing, a food shifts to the right. In the image above, a whole green apple is on the left and a green apple flavored gummy bear is on the right. Apples grow on trees, green apple gummy bears do not. Sure apple cinnamon crunch cereal might be a smidgen better for you than apple puff snacks, but they are still closer to a gummy bear, than an apple.
If You Don’t Recognize It - Don’t Eat It
The terms used on food labels can be confusing, and making your way through an ingredient list can be overwhelming. What in the world is polydimethylsiloxane? Is isoamyl acetate safe to consume?* Instead of researching every single food additive, make it simple.
Avoid foods with:
If a food has more than one ingredient and you do not recognize the ingredients, consider it a food-like product. The goal is to eat on the left of the food spectrum, with whole food on the left and processed food on the right.
If a food has to tell you it’s healthy, it’s probably not healthy.
Manufacturers sell health by using key terms on their packaging. Some terms selling health include:
• nature, natural, naturally flavored
• good source of “nutrient X”
• vitamins added
• non fat, low fat, reduced fat
• low calorie
• trans fat free
• no high fructose corn syrup
Reduced fat, low fat and non fat are all ways of telling you that the manufacturer took out a naturally occurring fat and replaced it with sugar, starch or other food additive (2). Low calorie generally means an artificial sweetener has been added.
The FDA does not have a formal definition of the word natural. The FDA is currently soliciting comments about the term natural due to consumer concerns regarding genetically engineered ingredients and high fructose corn syrup in products with natural labeling (3). At this point in time, natural on a food label doesn’t really mean anything.
Gluten-free is important for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. It's important to keep in mind that gluten-free processed foods are still processed foods. When gluten comes out, a food additive, called a gluten replacement, is added in. Some gluten replacements include xanthin, pectin, agarose, oat B-glucan, carboxylmethylcellulose, hydroxypropylmethylcellulose, psyllium, gum arabic and locust bean (4).
If a manufacturer removes partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat) from a product, they will add in another type of processed fat or fat replacement. If the product is "free from high fructose corn syrup", you can be sure there is another sugar sweetener or artificial sweetener. In the fat free product shown above, three of the first four ingredients are sugar (sugar, invert sugar and corn syrup). If you accept the cookie cakes as healthy, because they are fat free and high fructose corn syrup free, yet at the same time understand that they are dessert foods with added sugar and food additives, you have engaged in nutritional doublethink. You have simultaneously accepted two contradictory beliefs about this food.
if fat comes out -> sugar is added in
When you are trying to decide if a food product is a whole food, ask yourself, “Does it grow on a tree or a bush? Does it grow in the ground? Does it roam in the wild?” If the answer is no to all of these questions, the product is most likely “not healthy”. The product will not help you lose weight, it won't reduce your risk of heart disease and it won't lower your cholesterol, despite what the label tells you.
Most foods consumed today are not really food. People consume food-like products. Avoid foods selling health. Don’t be seduced by “low fat” and “low calorie” claims. Read the ingredient list. Buy food with only a few ingredients and ingredients you recognize.
* Polydimethylsiloxane is a synthetic, silicone ingredient used as an anti-caking and anti-foaming agent. Due to silicone causing immune system changes in animals, this food additive has a "C" rating. Isoamyl acetate is an artificial flavoring agent that naturally occurs in bananas. Because high amounts have caused headaches, fatigue and fast heart rates, this food additive has an "F" rating (5).
The way plants and animals are bred, grown, stored, processed, packaged, shipped and prepared impacts the naturally occurring nutrients in those foods. A low-fat, all-natural food product may imply “healthy and fresh”, yet the food contained in that product is merely a shadow of it's former self. Once a whole food is disassembled, extruded, emulsified, macerated, liquefied, pasteurized and/or irradiated, it's reassembled, many times into a playful shapes and sold with a bright and bold "natural and healthy" label. Food processing is not the only factor affecting the food we eat.
Plant breeders have bred sugar in and nutrients out of plants (1). Many of the nutrients lost in this process are phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals. Every plant naturally produces several hundred phytonutrients. These naturally occurring plant chemicals are involved in cell communication, metabolism and enzyme function. Phytonutrients protect us from damaging free radicals, promote healthy cholesterol levels and inhibit tumor growth (2). As a result, plant food has more sugar and fewer phytonutrients before it even reaches the manufacturing plant.
Chickens are bred and raised to have large breasts, but not flavor. The hard, bland chicken meat of today has not only lost flavor, but also nutrients (3). Both animals and plants are disassembled and then reassembled to create a product appealing to consumers. With every step of processing, naturally occurring nutrients are lost (4). As nutrients are lost, flavors and other food additives are added in (3, 5). Food additives can negatively impact our health. Artificial sweeteners are popular food additives and may actually lead to (as opposed to prevent) obesity and obesity related diseases, such as diabetes (6).
The packaging used to keep these products fresh and safe contains substances that can migrate into foods and beverages (7). Canning results in substantial nutrient loss (8). Loss of nutrients and the addition of synthetic chemicals to our food can impact our health. For example, exposure to the synthetic estrogen bisphenol-A (BPA), found in the lining of canned food, is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity (9).
Different types of food preparation methods result in nutrient loss. For example, boiling and frying has been shown to cause significant losses of vitamin C and chlorophyll (10).
The type of food we eat changes the type of microorganisms existing in our gut. Researchers demonstrated that consumption of artificial sweeteners change the type of the microorganisms in the gut and this change is associated with metabolic diseases, such as prediabetes (6).
Our complex food system has had an impact on our food and our health. This blog will explore the factors affecting what we eat and how those factors impact our health.
Christine Dobrowolski is a nutritionist and whole-foods advocate.