Snack Production Series: Protein Bars

IFIC’s 2022 Food and Health Survey showed that people really enjoy snacking—and that enjoyment is not likely to change. Specifically, last year’s survey showed that nearly three in four respondents (73%) reported snacking at least once a day. In comparison with our 2021 survey, snacking frequency has increased substantially—in 2021, 58% of respondents reported snacking at least once a day or more.

One popular snack that offers both nutritional complexity and a variety of flavor is the protein bar. Protein bars have grown exponentially in flavor, texture, and ingredient options in the past decade, and many people (and about 30% of our 2022 survey respondents) reach for some form of nutrition bar as their go-to snack daily. But while many of us enjoy protein bars, how much do we actually know about their ingredients? Read on for more insights about how to enjoy a protein bar that’s right for you.

First Things First: Why Protein?

Dietary protein plays a vital role in every cell of our bodies: Proteins provide energy, catalyze metabolic reactions, and provide structure to our tissues and organs. Protein is also an essential nutrient for maintaining muscle strength, bone health, and blood sugar control. In addition, protein-rich foods contain many of the vitamins and minerals needed to support the body’s defenses and promote quicker healing. The composition of amino acids in the protein content of foods is especially important to consider, since our bodies need amino acids to make vital proteins for different body functions. Animal-based protein (such as whey) is considered to be “complete,” since it contains all the essential amino acids, which our bodies cannot make on their own. In comparison, most plant-based proteins are lacking in one or more essential amino acids (soy-based protein is an exception to this rule).

Many people look to protein bars to consume a specific number of grams of protein per day and to promote healthy dietary habits and muscle development. For example, it has been recommended by the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN) that people who regularly exercise consume 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram (g/kg) of bodyweight per day to maximize their muscle’s protein synthesis.

Raising the Bar

In addition to providing many vitamins and nutrients, protein bars offer a range of grams of protein per serving. Some offer just a small amount (five grams or so), while some bars offer up to 25 grams. The protein sources for bars can come from either plant or animal origins and vary depending on the manufacturer. Popular sources include wheat, rice, soy, pea, and whey. However, some more novel sources of protein include algae, pumpkin, sunflower, and hemp. Researchers have recently studied bars made with all of these sources to examine how the protein source impacts taste, shelf stability, texture, palatability, nutritional value, and other factors. The study noted that in comparing the plant protein-based bars with the animal protein-based bars and looking to see which scored better in bar characteristics such as taste, moisture, shelf stability, and various other desirable attributes, “proteins of plant origin can be successfully used in the food industry as an alternative to WPC (whey protein concentrate), however it is not possible to clearly indicate which type of protein is the best option.” The research also found great news for chocolate lovers—the chocolate coatings on protein bars help deliver textural stability, moisture-level maintenance, and taste appeal.

Calories That Count

Many of us want to enjoy the protein content and flavors and textures of protein bars while also remaining mindful of their calorie and sugar contents. To satisfy this need, some protein bars deliver sweet taste without excess calories by containing low-calorie sweeteners (LCS). LCS provide a safe and regulated way for us to enjoy sweet tastes and skip added sugars. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the use of eight types of LCS, six of which are fully FDA-approved—acesulfame potassium, advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose—and two of which (monk fruit extract and stevia leaf extract) have a status known as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). Another type of sweetener source with less calories are sugar alcohols such as maltitol, erythritol and glycerin. Some protein bars are also sweetened with honey or agave syrup (which contribute to the calorie count).

As with most foods, another calorie contributor in protein bars is dietary fat. There are healthy fats that can come from the nuts and seeds that may be in a bar, but you may also want to see if there is oil or butter listed in a bar’s ingredients. Protein bars carry a range of fat content (about 4–25 grams/serving), and the fat content from oils or butters can help with stabilizing the other ingredients in the bar as well as maintaining moisture and shelf life. Common oils found in protein bars include palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, coconut oil, and canola oil. Be sure to look at your bars’ Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list so that you can balance the benefits of protein intake alongside other ingredients such as sweeteners and fats.

A US Department of Agriculture FoodData Central search will show you over 2,000 different protein bars that are sold at US retailers. As examine this variety of options to incorporate more protein into your diet, you will likely find the “right” protein bar to help you satisfy your hunger with great flavor as well as great nutrition. Keep these insights in mind as you browse for your next protein bar—and enjoy snack time!