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a quality protein bar | Kate's Real Food

Decoding Ingredients: What to Look for in a Quality Protein Bar

Written by Registered Dietitian, Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RDN

In the last couple of years, there has been a huge boom in the health market. Consumers are jumping onto the latest health craze and excited for the next trend to come crashing in. However, something that has stayed constant has been the need to stay healthy and get enough protein while always on the move. There have been countless shakes, supplements and powders created for those who are looking to up their protein game. But these products often fall short when it comes to ingredient list, sourcing, sustainability and quality. 

Protein bars have stepped up in recent years with innovation and creativity but ingredients are even more under scrutiny. Consumers are looking to move farther away from chemically made powders or animal-based protein sources and more towards real food, plant-based protein bars instead. 

Unfortunately, we live in a time when there are a lot of unnecessary fillers and additives in our food system. Protein bar additives and preservatives are super common in the ingredient list so it is up to consumers to always read food labels. If there are unrecognizable words on the ingredient list, it’s probably not something you should put into your body. A high quality protein bar selection should have ingredients that are simple and contain only foods that you are familiar with.

Protein Sources and Their Benefits

Let’s learn a bit more about protein. Protein is a macronutrient needed for a litany of functions and processes in the body. It’s especially important when it comes to cellular and muscle growth and repair. Thankfully, protein comes from many different sources, such as plants, vegetables, grains, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy. Whey and casein are the two proteins found in milk and happen to be the most widely studied and researched protein powder. Whey protein benefits span the gamut from muscle growth, lowering blood pressure and even enhancing antioxidant capacity. There are advantages to using casein protein especially prior to sleep as research has found that casein protein can help increase muscle protein synthesis overnight. 

However, the increase in demand for plant-based protein sources has been a noticeable trend in recent years as consumers are looking to support animal welfare and sustainability. Examples of common plant based protein sources are pea protein, hemp protein, soy protein and each contain various benefits such as immune boosting, memory enhancing, and anti-inflammation. The key thing that differentiates the various protein sources found in protein bars is finding a source that is easy for you to digest. Because each protein source has a standout nutrient, whether it’s iron, magnesium or vitamin K, it’s a good idea to occasionally switch up where you are getting your nutrients from. That way, your diet doesn’t have any nutritional gaps. 

Sweeteners in Protein Bars

A few years ago, seeing sugar, honey and natural sweeteners in protein bars was borderline blasphemy! That’s because consumers were so focused on foods that were low in calories and were seeking out non nutritive sweeteners instead in their protein bars. They were subbing in zero calorie sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose or sorbitol in order to keep nutrition facts and labels reading 0g of carbohydrates and 0g of added sugar. For example, sugar alcohols, like xylitol and sorbitol, do not contain calories and don’t cause blood sugar levels to go up which is why they are desirable for folks looking to manage their blood sugar levels. What we didn’t know back then was that these artificial and zero calorie sweeteners were great short term, as they were not impacting blood sugar levels, but they were negatively impacting the brain. 

When artificial sweetener gets broken down in the gut, the brain continues to look for something sweet. Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners do not satisfy what the brain is seeking and that’s when cravings and sugar urges come into the picture. These non-nutritive sweeteners affect the brain activity involved in taste and reward. Although everyone reacts differently, some people may feel less satisfied and ultimately empty until they start reaching for more calorie dense foods. 

Even though non nutritive sweeteners don’t affect energy levels or blood sugar levels, they do affect the gut microbiome in which they are metabolized. The byproduct of their metabolism, known as metabolites, have the capacity to impact brain function. While this remains highly individualized depending on the person, sometimes the ingestion of these types of sweeteners can result in a higher proclivity towards anxiety, depression and fatigue. 

Natural sweeteners like honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup or agave nectar, are the better way to go when it comes to sweeteners. Unlike artificial sweeteners, these natural sources provide the body with useful and helpful vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as well as gut healing properties. Plus, these natural sweeteners are derived from nature, not from a lab, which is always a plus, especially when it comes to the taste factor. When it comes to protein bar ingredients, pure sweetness from honey compared to the doctored sweetness from sugar alcohols makes natural sweeteners the better choice. 

What Other Ingredients Should You Look for in a Protein Bar?

Fiber content matters so much in a protein bar because the soluble and insoluble fiber components are going to support the protein in helping to slow down digestion and keeping bellies full. Because fiber travels through the gut slowly, it not only releases good bacteria along the way, but it keeps our systems regular. By promoting regularity, our digestive systems continue to be a well-oiled machine! 

Ensuring that bars contain dietary fiber is crucial for supporting digestive health. Opting for protein bars that incorporate genuine fiber sources, such as oats and almonds – similar to those used in Kate's Real Food – is an excellent approach to maintain authenticity in your dietary choices.

Healthy fats in snacks are a pillar in crafting something that will actually keep you full. Thankfully Kate’s Real Food ingredients contain almond butter and peanut butter which provide another level of satiety and fullness to the high quality protein bar. The nutrients that stem from these healthy fats range from vitamin A to vitamin E, both of which help enhance and protect eye health and keep joints healthy. Other fats like MCTs in protein bars are quite common however they are not considered heart healthy fats as these fats typically stem from dairy products. The best thing to do is find healthy fats in protein bars from real, wholesome nutrients because those are the most beneficial to our health in both the long and short run.