Monday, November 7, 2011

Guest Post: Healthy protein bars?

Today I have the pleasure of sharing a great post on protein bars, and why there's still room for improvement, by Michael Shaw. Michael is a writer who tracks alternative health products, including gluten-free healthy pancake recipes, and refined sugar-free goods, at his website No Flour, No Sugar Diet.

I like to eat just as healthily as the next guy or gal, and that of course means a good daily dose of fruits and veggies, healthy grains, and limited processed and/or packaged foods. When it comes to afternoon snacks, fresh fruit and some nuts and raisins or dates is a good way to go, but every now and then I like to mix it up a bit and have a healthy protein bar, or ‘health bar,’ as they’re becoming known more recently. They’re definitely more exciting than dried fruits and nuts every day.

As I’ve written about in my protein bars reviews, a lot of the offerings on the market these days amount to nothing more than glorified candy bars. There are very few exceptions to this standard…one of them is Lärabar, which has more than 20 varieties of bars, most of which are limited to a handful of ingredients, just dried fruits and nuts, maybe a little coconut or lemon as well. But no chemicals, preservatives or additives (a few of their bars do contain Fair Trade Certified chocolate chips, but if you want to avoid refined sugar, most of their bars are free of it).

So how does one improve upon such simplicity? It doesn’t really seem possible. Good Greens, meanwhile, which is a recent entrant into the health bar arena, is bypassing the simplicity route in favor of the wellness route: they’ve injected their health bars with so many superfoods that each bar claims to provide “100% of Your Daily Fruits & Vegetables.” And indeed, each bar is packed with so many vitamins - A, C, and E (100% D.V.), Iron (20%), and Niacin/B3 (100%) - that you may feel like eating whatever you want for the rest of the day. But that would be just a tad silly, wouldn’t it?

A guy I knew several years ago would joke how he always started his day off with a vegetable smoothie full of healthy greens such as spinach and kale and the like. He hated the taste, but rationalized that he could eat donuts(!) the rest of the day. I was never sure if he was kidding or not. Here’s where Good Greens one-ups my friend with their health bars: they provide an impressively wide variety of vitamins and minerals (Magnesium 20%, Selenium 20%, Chromium 60%), all delivered in a sweet-tasting bar. Their flavors include chocolate raspberry, chocolate peanut butter, chocolate coconut, and wildberry.

But there’s a downside to that delivery system: the sugar. While Good Greens bars are gluten-free, vegan, and 72% organic, the first ingredient of the chocolate raspberry, chocolate peanut butter, and chocolate coconut bars is dairy free dark chocolate, whose own first ingredients is, brace yourself: evaporated cane juice. So yes, while you do get to all those great superfoods (which come in the form of their Z-52 formula), you get them by way of what is nothing more or less than a refined sugar, which is pretty problematic in my recipe book.

The Wildberry bar, meanwhile, is just a tasty, in a fruitier way, but avoids the ‘dairy free dark chocolate’ treatment. Its first ingredient is Fruitrim, a fruit juice and natural grain dextrin (whatever that is) mixture, followed by sunflower butter and the Z-52 Superfood Powder. Whereas the other Good Greens bars have 14 grams of sugar out of 50 total, the Wildberry bar has 12. Some of that sugar comes from the Fruitrim, and others come from agave syrup, whose qualities as a sweetener I discuss in my Unrefined Sugar guide.

While Larabars do have more grams of sugar per bar – anywhere from about 18 to 24 grams per 48 gram bar – they come only from unrefined sugars, and while I am excited about the taste and the full range of nutritional boosting one gets from a Good Greens bar, I’m a little less than charmed by the agave syrup, the brown rice syrup and the ‘natural dextrins,’ not to mention the evaporated cane juice.

For their next generation of bars, I’d like to see Good Greens look into developing a healthier delivery system for their superfoods powder- maybe by using stevia, or some luo han? Or perhaps organic maple syrup? On the other hand, if you’re not a no-sugar purist, maybe 12 or 14 grams of sugar – from whatever source – is a very reasonable price to pay for a filling snack with a panoply of nutrients. On paper it seems fine. But sugar as the first ingredient? To me that’s still a red flag.

Thank you Michael for this great post! I definitely would love to see more bars that use stevia or just plain dates as their sweetener. Perhaps Don't White Sugar Coat It and No Flour No Sugar should collaborate more often! Be sure to stop by Michael's blog for more great content!


Kevin Liu said...

Hi Elizabeth/Michael. Thanks for the insightful post.

I'd chime in by saying that whenever I consider buying some sort of protein or snack bar, I always ask myself why I'm eating it in the first place. My nutrition looks pretty different depending on whether I'm looking for a meal replacement or a post-workout recovery food.

One way or another, whole food can be used a lot more often than you might think. You mentioned nuts and seeds. I'm also a fan of DIY beef jerky, dehydrated fruits/veggies, or a whole avocado tossed in my backpack (with a spoon, of course).

And here are my more detailed thoughts on protein bars and the various types of sugar and how they affect health.

Elizabeth Jarrard said...

Thank you so much for your points Kevin! I'm a huge fan of whole food recovery with any of the foods you mentioned. Your pieces on protein bars and sugar also rock. :)

Jess said...

larabars are the way to go! I also love NRG bars.

Daniel said...

The Larabar is still on my to do list to review. I've built a whole site about gluten free protein bars and I keep adding.
Seems like every brand is jumping on the gluten free band wagon. Some with more or less success.