Protein bars: love them or hate them, there’s no denying that they’re an incredibly popular way of boosting your protein intake. Whether you’re eating one after a gruelling workout or having one as a nighttime treat (no really, we have known people to microwave a Quest bar or similar dessert-flavoured protein bar), it’s worth knowing exactly what you’re eating. Dr Daniel Fenton from London Doctors Clinic guides us through the hidden ingredients you might find in your average protein bar…

So what are you actually eating?

Protein powders, bars and supplements are widely used amongst gym goers, bodybuilders and professional and amateur athletes alike, with the ultimate aim of improving physical gains, endurance and to assist in muscle recovery after exercise.

There is no doubt that proteins and amino acids are essential nutrients required for normal muscle growth, development and maintenance and there is a multitude of studies that look at the effectiveness of supplemental protein. The vast majority suggests that there are indeed benefits including the enhancement of muscle mass and performance.

However, this does not happen in isolation. This requires intensive, regular exercise in order to note significant gains. It is interesting to note that in previously “untrained” individuals that muscle mass and strength are negligibly influenced by protein supplementation in the first few weeks of resistance training. As the frequency and intensity of training increases, protein supplementation will begin to play a role.

Diet is an absolutely essential part of muscle development and supplements are there to do exactly that, to supplement and not replace normal protein. 

With such a vast array of products on the market it is often difficult to choose if you should take a supplement, and if so which one, and also to weigh up the risks and benefits.

I would suggest you aim to choose a low fat, low carbohydrate, high protein powder. While you require all three to aid muscle development, balance is key.

It is truly amazing how different the contents of each protein bar is. While the protein and amino acid content may be high, there are a few hidden ingredients you should be mindful of.

Artificial sweeteners 

Including sucralose, aspartame, saccharin to name but a few. 

Whilst the presumption is that these are better for you than sugar, this is not quite true. There is no good evidence that they reduce weight gain, type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome and some studies actually show an increased risk of adverse health outcomes. They can also leave a nasty aftertaste, so despite artificial sweeteners cutting down on calories it might be worth considering buying a more natural brand.

Milk powders

Milk powders are a cheap bulking agent and widely used in protein powders and bars. They are high in lactose sugars which is terrible if you are lactose intolerant. This can contribute to gastrointestinal upset including which can cause bloating, and loose stools.

Oils and fats

Oils and fats are added to protein supplements to increase richness; they are non-essential ingredients which can contribute to hypercholesterolemia, aka high cholesterol. It is a fairly common phenomenon to see high cholesterol levels in bodybuilders and athletes despite their immense fitness levels and generally healthy eating, and this is a likely contributing factor. 

Protein bars are undoubtedly an easy way to get a protein hit and may be a worthwhile use of your calorie budget if you find a brand you like with ingredients that don’t pose a problem for you, however it’s definitely worth taking the time to scrutinise them a little closer.

What are your thoughts on protein bars and powders? Do you find them a handy source of post-workout protein or are they just another form of junk food disguised as a healthy weight loss must-have? Let us know over on the forum.