candy wrappers

Candy Bars in Pretty Wrappers: The Awful Truth about Protein Bars

by JJ Virgin on April 8, 2014

This is a special guest blog from my friend Jini Cicero, a Los Angeles-based celebrity fitness expert. You can learn more about Jini at Be sure to like her Facebook fan page

“This is nothing more than a nutrient-enriched candy bar,” I said to a coworker who happened to be in my crossfire, tossing the wretched bar on my desk. “I can’t believe they had the gall to ask our gym to sell this crap.”

My nutrition and fitness colleagues understand the constant product peddling I endure at my job. Oftentimes they’ll provide a hyperbolic explanation that their cream, capsules, powder, or bar will help you burn fat, build muscle, or turn back the clock 10 years. Whatever.

Many times, I’ll politely take a sample. In this situation, I took two protein bars, one in chocolate cherry and another in apple pie. They certainly sounded delicious. I put them aside on my desk and reached for one as a mid-afternoon snack.

Reading the wrapper’s lengthy ingredient list ignited my fury, and I dramatically tossed the bar aside. Among those ingredients included:

  • Soy protein isolate, a very cheap form of (often genetically modified or GMO) protein often used in inferior bars and shakes. If you want to know how bad soy protein isolate is, check out Dr. Kaayla Daniel’s book The Whole Soy Story
  • Hydrogenated something or other (“hydrogenated” anything is trans fat)
  • Fructose as the main sweetener. Dr. Joseph Mercola calls fructose “far more deadly” than sugar.
  • A bunch of stuff I couldn’t pronounce
  • Cheap synthetic vitamins and minerals (such as dl-tocopherol, the synthetic form of vitamin E)

Clever marketing allows manufacturers to pass this stuff off as health food. It doesn’t make it past me.

Protein bars, energy bars, whatever you want to call them: For the most part, they’re what my friend JJ Virgin calls adult candy bars. If you think most of them are healthy – well, you’ve probably fallen into their brilliant marketing trap, and I’m here to pull you out.

Wipe Off that Halo

Listen, I understand why folks love protein bars. They’re super portable for those mornings you had a fight with your boyfriend and breakfast is the last thing on your mind. They travel well in planes, cars, or on the subway. They make a great pre-workout snack or mini-meal. And they taste good, or at least promise to.

Protein bars also create a halo effect that make you feel like you’re eating something healthy. Manufacturers make all sorts of clever claims on the bar wrapper, but often what’s inside isn’t always healthy.

You see, many commercial protein bars contain soy and other GMO ingredients. High-heat processing de-natures (damages) that already-cheap protein. They’re often loaded with chemicals and other preservatives that give them a shelf life of nearly forever (even if they shorten yours). And then there’s the sweetener.

The Sugar Trap

Sweetness adds palatability to protein bars, and manufacturers often go for one of two options.

One is sugar, often as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or fructose. Some will opt for “healthier” sweeteners like agave or honey, but don’t be fooled: Sugar is sugar, and you’ve got to read the nutrition label to understand how many grams of sugar you’re getting.

Some manufacturers craftily create two or more servings from one tiny bar, thereby making the bar look like it has less sugar than it actually does. Don’t be fooled.

Ironically, sugar overload will trigger cravings when these bars are supposed to curb your appetite. If you eat a sugar-loaded energy bar at 3 and suddenly start craving pasta around 5, that hunger and craving are the repercussions of your blood sugar crashing.

The other sweetness route involves sugar alcohol or artificial sweeteners, both of which have a low glycemic impact and allow manufacturers to make all sorts of “healthy” claims like “no sugar added” or “low carb.” Some sugar alcohols like xylitol can be healthy but create gastric upset in excessive amounts. Artificial sweeteners are never healthy.

To Bar or Not to Bar?

Recognizing their demand, several professional lines now offer higher-quality protein bars with better ingredients. Are they really any better than commercial bars?

I hear several opinions about protein bars. Colleagues like Sean Croxton argue to “just eat real food.” Raw nuts and seeds – naturally rich in protein, fiber, healthy fats, and nutrients – make perfect snacks without a protein bar’s preservatives and other junk that give it a long shelf life.

Another opinion is not to snack at all. Do your meals right, have a post-workout protein shake, but otherwise stay away from snacking. JJ Virgin points out every time you eat you raise insulin levels, so especially if you’re trying to burn fat, you might want to consider de-snacking.

I get it though: Sometimes you’re going to snack. You’ve had a substantial lunch when you’re driving to your 3 p.m. client, you suddenly get a pang of hunger, and your sweet tooth kicks in. A low-sugar, smartly designed protein bar would be your perfect option here.

While I steered clear of anything with artificial sweeteners, massive amounts of sugar, and other junk, I researched and taste-testing the top bars – I know, it was a hard job! – and created my top four Jinifit-approved protein bars:

  1. Quest Bars – Quest Bars pack an impressive 20 grams of high-quality protein, though if you’re dairy sensitive, be aware that protein comes from whey and milk. I also love the whopping 18 grams of fiber and just one gram of sugar in every bar. The natural line comes sweetened with stevia and erythritol (both thumbs-up sweeteners), so stick with those rather than the sucralose- sweetened regular line.
  2. Kind or Luna Bars. These real food-based bars contain no nasty chemicals or artificial sweeteners, impressive amounts of fiber and healthy fats, and some of them are relatively low in sugar. (A few Kind Bars, for instance, boast just four or five grams of sugar per bar. Nice.) They taste amazing and are very easy to overeat, as I recently found out at the airport when one dark chocolate Kind Bar became three. Know thyself here: That sugar and calories add up quickly.
  3. Virgin Diet BarsJJ Virgin [originally] created these fabulous low-sugar cashew butter-based bars that pack protein, fiber, and healthy fats. They’re chewy, are made with the highest-quality ingredients, and have a unique, satisfying texture. Available in Cinnamon Cashew Crunch, Dark Chocolate Cherry, and Coconut Cacao. [We have now added three new bars: Dark Chocolate Coconut Fiber Bar, Mint Chocolate All-In-One Protein Bar and the Mint Chocolate Coconut Fiber Bar…so yummy you may mistake them for candy bars!]
  4. Papa Steve’sThese have become my favorite post-workout bars because each one packs an impressive 20 grams of high-quality whey protein. They’re produced in small batches and – because they contain no preservatives – must be refrigerated. Yah for real food! They still contain some sugar and can become easy to overeat, so split this bar in half and share with a friend.

Several readers shared definite opinions about protein bars. Some love ‘em while others stick with real food or avoid snacking. What’s your stance here? Share your comments.