Protein bars Healthy or hype?

We all know we can tick our daily protein intake off through whole foods like eggs, yoghurt and nuts – or at least make a good shot at it. But hands up who, when tight on time, has found themselves reaching for a shop-bought protein bar?

And why wouldn’t you? After all, they have 'protein' in the name, so they must be healthy, right?

Well, much like those 'protein' Snickers bars you may have spied in your local newsagent, the snacks can sometimes be more marketing ploy than mad nutrition. But, that's not to say there are zero that do pack a health punch – it's about knowing what to hunt for, on the back of the label. Good job we’ve got your protein 101 right here for you.

What is protein good for?

Let’s start by going back to basics. What is protein and why are we so obsessed with it, anyway?

Protein is essentially a multi-tasking macronutrient. (Macronutrients being essential and required by the body in large amounts to sustain life – so they’re pretty much vital. Fat and carbs are also macronutrients.)

Protein is made up of amino acids and, when broken down, it helps to power your muscles and maintain your metabolism – amongst other things:

• Protein supports muscle growth, muscle building and muscle repair

• Protein slows digestion, supporting steady energy and ideal weight

• Protein can help prevent hunger pangs

• Protein helps maintain a strong immune system

• Protein is good for balancing mood

• Protein is responsible for healthy hair, skin and nails

Each gram of protein contains around four calories and you should be aiming for 10-35 per cent of your daily calories to come from protein. Translate this as roughly 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight or up to two grams per kg if you’re super active.

Meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy foods are the obvious protein sources – but soy products, lentils, nuts, beans, seeds and hemp are vegan-friendly choices.

What do protein bars do?

In a nutshell – they give you protein. Which means they place you right on track to reap the health benefits mentioned above.

Although most of the meat-eaters amongst you will be able to hit your daily protein targets through your diet, alone; if you are vegetarian, vegan or very athletic, ingesting sufficient protein can actually require a little extra thought.

Your protein requirements increase significantly with your level of activity because protein is essential for repairing tissue, boosting energy and building muscle.

And, when it comes to plant-based proteins, because they’re not all complete proteins – as in they don’t contain all the essential amino acids the body needs – you’d need to include a variety of plant proteins at every meal to match your nutritional requirements, if you’re meat-free. (As an FYI: meat, dairy, quinoa, chia and soy are all complete proteins).

Protein bars are ideal if you need to supplement your diet with more protein.

Are protein bars good for you?

It depends. Some protein bars are packed full of synthetic ingredients that you can’t pronounce or identify, and which offer very limited nutritional benefit. Or they might be packed full of sugar. And, although various sugars are processed slightly differently in the body, bringing slightly different health risks, generally sugar is still sugar. The best protein bars are all-natural, full of nutrients and low in sugar.

What is the healthiest protein bar?

Think of this as your protein bar shopping list.

Before looking at protein values, it’s best to scrutinise sugar contents and ingredients. Many protein bars are date-based and, although dates are “natural”, they contain between 60-80 per cent sugar (depending upon variety).

Which means? Well, that many protein bars contain more sugar than chocolate biscuits.

As a starting point, bear in mind that 22.5g of sugar per 100g is considered “high sugar” by NHS standards.

But it’s not as easy as opting for “low sugar”. Maltitol, a common lower sugar snack bar sweetener, carries a laxative warning (read the fine print) because it’s indigestible and can cause stomach upsets and bloating.

Ideally, find protein bars that are sweetened with lower glycaemic-load fruits such as cherries, berries, or plums. And as a rule, we always recommend that the protein to sugar ratio should at least be equal (or higher in protein).