If I said that I checked every ingredient list to make sure what I was eating was “clean” all of the time, I’d be lying. When I’m hungry or in a hurry, sometimes I’ll grab a protein bar and tear into it without even glancing at the label. But I may pay for it later, with an upset stomach, cravings or (worst case scenario) an allergic reaction.
Many protein bars on the market are no better than candy bars–satisfying hunger initially, but not really providing the nourishment or energy you seek. Making sure you choose a high-quality bar with wholesome ingredients – including a healthy balance of protein, carbs and fats – will do your body good. To avoid unpleasant digestive and other negative health effects, here’s what I try to avoid:
Sugar alcohol is probably one of the most popular sugar replacements in protein bars and other sugar-free foods. While it’s low in calories and has minimal impact on insulin levels, sugar alcohol isn’t well absorbed in the digestive tract and can wreak havoc on your digestive system, causing bloating, cramps, gas or diarrhea. If you do consume something with sugar alcohols, make sure the levels are low.
High frustose corn syrup
This type of sugar is chemically processed and quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, meaning it may cause insulin to spike. Consuming too much can also lead to unbalanced metabolism and increased abdominal fat storage. Instead, choose products that are naturally sweetened with raw honey, maple syrup or an herbal sweetener such as stevia.
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
If you can’t pronounce it, do you really want to eat it? Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is a chemical preservative added to food products that contain oil in order to extend their shelf life. But some studies have shown a link between BHT and cancer. It may also cause allergic reactions and thyroid or kidney problems.
Everyone knows that too much sugar isn’t good for you, but excess amounts of artificial sweeteners isn’t ideal, either. The problem with artificial sweeteners is that when we consume them, our bodies don’t recognize the substance. We think we’re satisfying a sweet tooth when, in reality, we’re only strengthening the craving for sugar. My choice is usually regular sugar in low doses; the body knows how to metabolize natural sugars.
Most soy that is grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. So if you’re trying to follow a non-GMO diet, you’ll want to avoid protein bars (or shakes or other snacks) made with soy protein. Besides the GMO factor, soy protein is chemically processed and may contain traces of toxic substances like nitrites, aluminum and hexane.
What to look for in a protein bar:
The fewer the ingredients the better
Naturally sweetened with honey or small amount of real sugar
Oats or whole grains
Less fat than protein (fewer than 10 grams of fat is best)
Nuts and/or seeds
Some of my favorite bars: