The majority of protein bars on the market have some sort of marketing message on the front of the package claiming to have the highest level of protein – because many people think that is all that matters in a bar. But what they don't often name are the 25 or more other ingredients you'll get along with that protein.You may find yourself scratching your head in confusion as you try to decipher what on the label is food, and what's merely "phood."
Here are the ingredients to avoid:
1. Soy protein isolate: Many bars include this highly processed substance as the main source of protein. The chemical process used to isolate protein from the rest of the soy bean often leaves behind toxic substances like aluminum, hexane and nitrites. At one point it was considered a waste product from soy bean oil processing, that was until someone realized they could make money off of it by labelling it a great source of protein and adding it to your post workout snacks. To make matters worse, the majority of soy grown today is genetically modified, but in Canada you do not have the right as a consumer to know this because GMO foods are not identified as such. Over the years in my practice, I have seen many people sensitive to soy protein whoexperience negative symptoms such as digestive problems, and headaches.
2. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS): Although made from the same basic compounds as other sugars, glucose and fructose, the ratios and biochemistry of HFCS is anything but natural. These chemically processed and unbound sugars are quickly absorbed directly into the bloodstream, causing insulin to spike and the high level of fructose goes straight to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (which creates unhealthy fats like triglycerides and bad cholesterol). So what does this all mean for your body? Simply put, it creates one heck of a mess for your metabolism, increases abdominal fat storage and has been known to contribute to diabetes, obesity, fatty liver and cardiovascular disease according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And just to confuse you, labels may list HFCS as "glucose/fructose."
3. Fractionated/hydrogenated palm kernel oil: You can thank this ingredient for the creamy chocolate coating on your protein bar. It is very high in saturated fat which makes it a pro at being shelf-stable. It is not the saturated fats that you should fear, however, it's the processing. There are a few methods of extracting oil from the kernel, including extreme heat and the use of chemical solvents. It is often used as an alternative to trans-fats in margarine, processed foods and even shows potential as a biodiesel fuel! This stuff is best left in your car, not in your tummy. Even though its not-so-evil sibling, palm oil, is better for you, I still suggest you avoid any product with palm oil altogether, as it is an unsustainable crop, causing major deforestation and displacing animals from their habitat in places like Indonesia.
4. Artificial sweeteners: Eating excess sugar isn't good for you, but turning to artificial sweeteners is not the answer either. Your body is unable to recognize these substances as any different from regular sugar. The problem with this is that when your gut receives a carbohydrate, as is the case with an artificial sweetener, the brain expects nutrition. Artificial sweeteners contain no nutrition whatsoever, leading to more cravings for sugar. Excess sugars and refined carbohydrates convert to fat.
5. BHT: Butylated hydroxytoluene. Not a very appetizing sounding ingredient is it? This lab-made chemical preservative is added to food to prolong shelf life, but it may have negative implications for us. It has the ability to cause serious allergic reactions, endocrine disruption, thyroid and kidney problems and may have carcinogenetic effects on the body, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.
6. Natural flavourings: It's natural so it's fine, right? Think again. The term "natural" is meaningless because it's not regulated in Canada. Once again it comes down to the methods of processing. Natural flavouring is a very broad term which leaves a big grey area around what you are actually eating. As long as it started with a natural ingredient, companies are able to do whatever they want to it and still call it natural, regardless of how many chemical solvents or denaturing processing are used.
Still, there are some good guys in the protein bar aisle! Look for plant-based proteins such as hemp, pea, brown rice or chia, all easily digested and hypoallergenic. Choose natural sugars from dates, cranberries, dried apples, coconut sugar or honey (and stick to under 10 grams of sugar per serving.) Your best bet: Bars with only a handful of ingredients.
Stick to real food. Apply this rule not only to protein bars, but any food you put in your mouth.
Joy McCarthy is a certified holistic nutritionist (CNP, RNCP), founder of the wellness clinic, Joyous Health, and a faculty member at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. The author of Joyous Health: Eat & Live Well without Dieting, she is also a nutrition expert on Global TV's The Morning Show and CBC's "Steven & Chris." You can follow her on Twitter here, Instagram here and on Facebook here.
An earlier version of this article referred to Butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA. It now refers to Butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT. However, these chemicals are used interchangeably in protein bars.