NEW YORK – In the late 1980s, two distance runners who were living together in the San Francisco Bay Area blended vitamins, oat bran, milk protein and corn syrup in their kitchen, concocting what would become a PowerBar, one of the first modern protein bars.
By the mid-1990s, it was a phenomenon – what one writer for The New York Times called “a high-octane snack for yuppies and fitness freaks”.
Today, though, protein bars are everywhere, and their branding has expanded far beyond exercise fanatics. They are presented as healthy snacks on the go or even as part of a self-care routine.
Grocery stores, petrol stations, bodegas, gyms and pharmacies now carry colourfully wrapped hunks of whey protein, marketed as energy-supplying health foods, despite coming in flavours such as cookie dough and lemon cake.
The global market for protein bars is growing quickly and is expected to swell to more than US$2 billion (S$2.67 billion) by the end of 2026, according to the financial analysis site MarketWatch.
“We’ve just gone completely off the rails with protein in recent years,” said food historian Hannah Cutting-Jones, director of the food studies programme at the University of Oregon.
Manufacturers of these products would have you believe these can improve your health and workout.
The website for Clif Bar shows people hurling kettlebells or racing through the rain; and Gatorade describes its protein bar as “scientifically designed for athletes”.
Others seem to brand themselves under the squishy umbrella of wellness. Their marketing features photos and videos of serene women writing in journals, with tips for preventing burnout on the side.
Despite the advertising, though, nutrition experts say protein bars are not all that healthy.
“You can put ‘keto’ or ‘protein’ on a candy bar and sell it, and people don’t even question it,” said Dr Janet Chrzan, an adjunct assistant professor of nutritional anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Protein is an important part of people’s diet.
There is no question that bodies need protein for building, maintaining and repairing muscles, said registered dietitian Anthony DiMarino with the Cleveland Clinic’s Centre for Human Nutrition.
Protein also makes up hair, skin, nails and organs; and the amino acids in proteins help brains to function.
Perhaps because of that, protein stands alone in the world of wellness.
Over the past 40 years, fad diets that vilify sugars, fats and carbohydrates have come in and out of fashion. But many of the most popular diets, past and current, prioritise protein, associating it with weight loss, Prof Chrzan said. “We value protein so much that it’s the central thing on our plate,” she added.
People also instinctively associate protein with fitness, said Dr Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. When they eat protein bars, “people think they’re doing something good for their health”, she added.
You would be hard-pressed to find an American who needs more protein, though, said Dr Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Most meat eaters get far more than the recommended daily dose of protein (which is about 0.9g per kg of body weight). And those who do not eat meat can get enough protein from plant sources including tofu, nuts and legumes.
Are protein bars health foods?
Protein is likely to fill you up more than simple carbs will, Prof Rimm said. That may be because protein helps the body release hormones that keep hunger at bay.
But many protein bars are also full of sugar.
A chocolate chip Clif Bar, for example, contains 16g of added sugars, more than what is in a serving of Thin Mints. A Gatorade protein bar in the chocolate chip flavour contains 28g of added sugars, twice the amount in a Dunkin’ Donuts chocolate frosted doughnut with sprinkles.
“By and large, they’re highly processed, high in sugar and salt – kind of a ‘Frankenfood’,” Dr Cutting-Jones said.
Prof Rimm agreed. Many protein bars are just “candy bars with a lot more protein”, he said.
Protein bars might make sense for someone who needs to increase his or her protein intake – for example, a vegan who does not get enough protein from his or her diet, or someone who just had an intense workout, Mr DiMarino said.
But for the average person, adding another punch of protein into your diet – particularly when it comes with a lot of added sugar – is not going to make you healthier.
“It’s a snack for when you’re in a pinch,” said Ms Stephanie Urrutia, director of performance nutrition at the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of California, Los Angeles, such as “if you’re going up the side of the mountain, if you can’t grab a full meal”.
But it is not meant to be an actual replacement for a meal, she said.
Some bars are worse than others.
Not all protein bars are created equal in terms of their ingredients and nutritional content.
If you do want to reach for a protein bar, pay attention to the nutrition facts label. Opt for those with ingredients that you recognise, Prof Nestle said. “If they’re largely nuts and fruit – that’s not bad,” she added.
If you are having a protein bar as a snack or post-workout supplement, aim for one that has roughly 200 calories a serving, Mr DiMarino said, with fewer than 5g of fat and 5g of added sugar. And the amount of protein it contains can vary from bar to bar, but he said you might want to aim for one with 15g to 20g a serving.
You also might consider opting for a different snack that is just as portable and nutritious, Prof Rimm said, such as grapes, a banana, an apple or yogurt with berries.
Prof Nestle suggested a handful of nuts and Mr DiMarino recommended tuna or hard-boiled eggs, which are high in protein but not processed.
But you likely do not need to stress about ensuring you are meeting, or exceeding, your daily protein allotment.
“People just need to relax about protein intake,” Dr Cutting-Jones said. NYTIMES