How do you get your protein? The question once asked of vegetarians, athletes and bodybuilders is null and void because the answer is: everywhere.

While its macronutrient cousins, fat and carbohydrates have gone in and out of fashion, protein has emerged as a symbol of health and fitness. Slap a “high-protein” label on virtually any product for an automatic “health halo” and, many food producers believe, a spike in sales.

Fuelling a macronutrient obsession: Protein bars.Credit:James Brickwood

In your standard supermarket aisle, you can now find high-protein Weetbix, Special K, oats, breads, milks, tinned tuna, powders, snacks and flours.

And as service stations, convenience stores and vending machines health wash their offerings, protein bars have become ubiquitous. Sold as a healthier snack alternative, meals on the move and post-workout recovery, are they any better?

“The high-protein snack bars have tapped into the science that shows protein is more satiating than fats and carbohydrates,” says Professor Stephen Simpson, the academic director of the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. “Therefore if you satisfy your protein appetite you’re less likely to eat excess calories.”

In fact, it was Simpson, and colleague David Raubenheimer, who came up with the “protein leverage hypothesis”, which suggests that protein could help to solve the obesity crisis.

We blind taste-tested 10 protein bars, here’s how they ranked:

Along with weight-management, protein also supports our immune system, our hair, nails and bones as well as muscle growth and repair. “And [protein bars] are certainly more nutritious than the average confectionary snack bar,” says nutrition scientist and accredited practising dietitian, Dr Joanna McMillan.

But, more is not more.

Eat too much protein too often, and you risk accelerated ageing and “a whole range of problems” including metabolic health issues in middle age, Simpson says, noting that the high-protein diet as a “therapeutic device” should be targeted and short-term.

Almost all Australian adults (99 per cent) already meet or exceed the recommended dietary protein intake of about 46 grams for women and 64 grams for men.

“We have a perfectly good protein appetite control system if we put it in a whole food environment,” Simpson says. “You’ll start craving more umami and savoury flavours when you’re short of protein.”

In the world of processed foods, however, this system can become easily duped. It can make us “particularly susceptible to savoury-flavoured junk which isn’t high in protein” like cheesy corn chips, or we can consume more protein than we need via protein-dense bars.

“People are definitely way too obsessed with protein,” McMillan says. “We can easily meet our needs from whole foods, even if you’re a vegan.”

Still, she says: “They may have a place in sports nutrition for athletes and very active individuals who need the convenience of food they can pop in their training bag, so I don’t completely write them off.”

How then do you choose from the plethora available?

Along with the high-protein label, many bars have jumped on the low-carb, keto wagon, but that doesn’t make them any better warns Alex Thomas, a clinical accredited sports nutritionist and founder of the Sports Nutrition Association.

“Ingredients like sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, polydextrose all act very similarly to carbohydrates when you ingest them – that’s how [food marketers] hide it and say ‘low-carb’ – but they can upset your stomach… and they don’t taste as good.”

The fewer ingredients, the better says McMillan, who adds that bars without additives, refined oils or sugars are “hard to find”.

“Are there emulsifiers, flavourings or additives? Refined oils or sugars? Many of these bars are glorified confectionary bars.”

The protein source itself also makes a difference to its healthiness.

“Personally I’d eat a couple of eggs, slice of cheese or have some nuts and yoghurt for my snack protein,” says McMillan who, when pressed, would choose a meat-based, jerky-style protein bar: “they are at least whole food options – but they aren’t to everyone’s taste.”

Indeed. Though Thomas would also opt a jerky-style bar first, in a blind taste-test of 10 mostly sweet protein bars (ranging from 10 grams to 55 grams of protein) the savoury meat-based bar had the lowest ranking from staff at Good Food and The Sydney Morning Herald. In order of taste preference, staff ranked the CLIF Bar first, followed by Body Science High-Protein Bar; Musashi Recovery; Beauty Food Collagen Cookie; Bounce Ball; Blue Dinosaur Lamington Bar; Quest Chocolate Chip and Cookie Dough; Botanika Blends Vegan Protein Bar; Amazonia Raw Bar; and Chief Bar.

After meat, the experts suggest whey protein – a market worth $13.5 billion globally – which is extracted from milk and is fast absorbing, can improve muscle synthesis and repair after exercise, McMillan explains. “But the studies are usually with whey in a protein shake… the same might not be true in bar format. And other ingredients like fat may slow down the digestion and absorption.”

She isn’t “a fan” of bars with soy protein isolate either. “It ditches the other parts of the soybean that may be beneficial to health and is the isolated extracted protein. That’s not the traditional way of eating soy.”

Thomas adds that proteins using isolates, instead of concentrates, typically taste “a bit watery” and: “Collagen is good for skin and nails, but it’s not going to help you with recovery or performance.”

As for Simpson, who says mixing types of protein, particularly plant-based protein is important for optimal health and who avoids snacking and the snack industry altogether, he says: “They are marginally better than eating a Mars bar. Except they’ll give you less pleasure probably.”

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