Are Protein Powders and Bars Good for You?
With the re-emergence of low-carb diets, protein powders and bars have gained popularity as a healthy, convenient snack.
Here, we look at how to include supplemental protein in a healthy way, the different types of protein commonly used in protein powders and bars, and key ingredients to avoid when purchasing a protein supplement.
How much protein do I actually need each day?
The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) recommends that adults consume between 10 to 35% of their total calories from protein. In a 2,000 calorie diet, that's between 200 to 700 calories from protein each day, or 50 to 175 grams of protein per day, since each gram of protein is 4 calories.
Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D., explains that the more accurate measurement would be to use the USDA Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, since it is calculated using body weight. To determine the RDA of protein for the average adult, add .8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. Using this formula, a 150-pound adult should consume approximately 54 grams of protein each day.
For athletes, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming between 1.2 to 2 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight to meet the body’s increased metabolic demand. Additionally, research indicates that older adults may also need to increase protein in their diet to protect against age-related muscle loss.
Are protein bars and powders healthy?
"Convenience-wise, when you need it, you can get somewhat of a ‘balanced meal’ from a protein bar or shake, as long as it’s got an adequate balance of protein, carbs, and fats," says Williams. “[But these] are not superior sources of protein. They can be used to supplement the protein you are getting from food, but should not be your primary source of protein.” The bulk of our diet, including protein, should come from whole food sources.
While protein powders and bars can be included in a healthy diet, it is important to remember that both fall into the category of processed foods. Protein powders are ultra-processed, and while some protein bars and snacks are minimally processed, (think: LARABAR or RXbar) most are highly processed.
What protein powders and bars do well, as Williams notes, is provide convenient protein. Additionally, protein supplements can be helpful to individuals who have trouble gaining or maintaining a healthy weight, or for vegans and strict vegetarians who struggle to get adequate protein from whole food sources.
What's in protein bars and powders?
Protein used in powders and bars is typically derived from two categories: dairy or plants. Here, we look at three of the most common types of protein used in protein powders and bars.
During the cheese-making process, milk is separated into solids (curds) and liquids (whey). Whey is then filtered and dried to create a powder that is high in amino acids (protein) that are essential in building and repairing muscle tissue.
Whey is a complete protein and has traditionally been the preferred protein used in powders and bars for athletes and active adults. Its essential amino acids are quickly absorbed by the body, and research suggests that whey protein supplementation after resistance training can improve recovery and body composition.
Because whey is produced from dairy, those who have dairy allergies or sensitivities or those avoiding dairy in their diet, should not consume whey protein products.
Casein is also a dairy-based, complete protein derived through the cheese-making process. Where whey is formed using the separated milk liquids, casein is formed using the solids. It is then dried to form a powder.
The amino acids found in casein are released more slowly than those found in whey, so casein supplementation prior to bed is being studied as a way to potentially help reduce muscular breakdown and improve muscular recovery.
It’s important to note that for those looking to use protein powders and bars for weight loss, casein is slightly higher in both calories and carbohydrates than whey. And like whey, it should not be consumed by those who have a dairy allergies or sensitivities.
Soy, brown rice, pea, hemp, chia, quinoa, nuts, and seeds… the list of available plant-based sources of protein used in bars and powders is growing. These plant-based protein powders and bars are friendly for vegans and vegetarians, those with dairy allergies and intolerances, and those who want to eat more plant-based.
There is some debate over whether plant-based protein supplementation is as effective as whey protein supplementation to build and repair muscle. However, a recent study suggests that supplementation with pea protein produced similar results to supplementation with whey protein in body composition, muscular strength, and recovery.
What protein snack ingredients should I avoid?
While there is still much debate on the specific ingredients that are best or worst when choosing a protein powder or bar, there are a few ingredients that are widely considered as ones to avoid.
One thing your protein powder or bar does NOT need is added sugar. Most people who are using protein powders or bars are looking for a healthy snack. Choosing a powder or bar that contains added sugar immediately defeats the purpose.
There is conflicting research on both the potential health benefits and risks associated with artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, saccharine, and aspartame. Choosing protein powders and bars that utilize naturally derived sweeteners would always be the better option.
Like added sugar, trans fats — often listed in the ingredients as a hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil — are to be avoided. They raise your “bad” cholesterol and lower your “good” cholesterol and should not be included in any health product.
A note on sugar alcohols
These low-to-no-calorie sweeteners are found in a wide range of sugar-free or low-sugar sweets, including protein powders and bars. They are considered safe for consumption and allow consumers to enjoy a sweet treat without added sugar.
However, they have been linked to gastrointestinal distress, especially if consumed in large quantities. If you have celiac disease or a sensitive stomach, it may be best to avoid them entirely. Otherwise, use in moderation, start with small amounts and see how your body responds.
Moderation and quality are key
As with most things, moderation and quality are the keys to using protein supplements as part of a healthy diet. Aim to get most of your protein through whole food sources. And when you are looking for the convenience of a protein-packed smoothie or a bar for your snack, do your research on the company, read the ingredients labels, and enjoy in moderation!