Life Protein bars: Big market, weird flavours and a bad case of dry mouth

Protein bars: Big market, weird flavours and a bad case of dry mouth

Loving the goodness. Health and science writer John Elder investigates why protein bars are booming. Photo: Zona Black
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I’m not a financial adviser and really, I have no clue about money at all. Still, I can see a winner. And the future lies in protein bars – virtual rare steaks you carry around in your pocket and tuck into after a big workout at the gym.

What do I know?

According to market researchers Ibis World, the “health snack food production industry” has performed well over the past five years and is set to keep rocking.

“Industry revenue is expected to grow at an annualised 5.7 per cent over the five years through 2018-19, to be worth $2.1 billion,” says Ibis World’s report on the industry published last November.

“Industry revenue has been boosted by rising health consciousness and increased participation in gyms and fitness centres over the period. Consumer concerns about obesity and time-constrained lifestyles have also driven demand for convenient and healthy snacks over the past five years.”

I’m actually a health and science writer, and initially went looking for concerns about artificial sweeteners, and flavours and how whole foods might be a healthier option. Go here if you want to read that sort of thing in extended form.

Six protein bars taste tasted by John Elder, more than 6000 kilojoules in total. He’s still not feeling the best. Photo: John Elder

However, I spoke with Ali Disher, Advanced Sports Dietitian with Newcastle firm Compeat Nutrition. I asked if there was any evidence  that protein bars have somehow trojan-horsed from the realm of sports and fitness and into mainstream consumption?

“They’ve certainly exploded in the market over the last five to 10 years off the back of paleo and low carb-style regimes, in the sense that any product that omits or drastically reduces the carbohydrate content is seen to be a healthier alternative and has been cleverly marketed as such,” Ms Disher said.

“Many consumers still rely on nutrient tables to inform product choices, and while some protein bars may look impressive based on the numbers, the ingredients lists are astronomically long. In some cases protein bars contain large amounts of unnecessary or even harmful ingredients in large quantities such as artificial sweeteners, fillers, and stimulants.

“Furthermore a lot of these bars while marketed as a healthy, low carbohydrate option often pack a punch in terms of overall calories. How their serve sizes are depicted can also be easily misconstrued; some of the larger protein bars serve more as a meal rather than a snack, and it can be trying to only consume half of a bar in one sitting, given the density and convenience of foods in this form.”

Dear Lord, no wonder I feel so appalling. I just ate six different bars. Not the lot, but enough to make a clay elephant. Here’s my review.

Koja NANTUAL Peanut Butter, 30 grams

The “real ingredients”: peanut butter, organic rice malt syrup, roasted bean paste, tapioca flour and pink salt.

Energy 509 kilojoules 

Protein 5 grams

Fat 10.7 grams, including 2.8 grams saturated 

Carbohydrate 10.9 grams, including Sugar 4 grams.

Taste test: Has a creamy paste texture, the more you chew it, the sweeter and richer it gets, some nice nut fragments. Two bites, about a third of what is a small bar, was enough. Anymore for me was too rich. Without looking at the ingredients, and even with the nut fragments, it would be hard to explain what you’ve just eaten. Doesn’t really taste like peanut butter. It’s a small bar and the protein component is a quarter of what is recommended.

Musashi, calls itself The Way but also Recover, 90 grams

Ingredients: Musashi high protein blend, 56 per cent of the bar, made up from calcium caseinate, hydrolysed collagen protein , soy protein isolate, whey protein isolate, soy protein nuggets, tapioca starch, salt, emulsifier [471]; milk chocolate; assorted flavours and sweeteners. Makes no attempt to say it’s 100 per cent natural.

Energy 1410 kilojoules 

Protein 45grams (there’s 25 grams of protein in 100 grams of steak)

Fat 6.8 grams, including 4.1 grams saturated

Carbohydrates 2.5 gram, including 2.2 grams sugar

Sodium 201 milligrams

Maltitol 6.6 grams

Glycerol 6.6 grams

Maltitol is a sugar alcohol, and should have been counted as carbohydrates. Sugar alcohols are found naturally in some fruit and vegetables but are typically manufactured. They are a sugar substitute with about half the calories.

Glycerol is an artificial sweetener.

Taste test: A sedentary man should aim for about 56 grams of protein a day. Most of that can be found in this bar. Overwhelmingly sweet on the first bite with weird chemical notes, dries your mouth out very quickly, the paste texture shrinks down to a kind of honeycomb-like stickiness that gets in your teeth. Second bite reveals bitterness. Probably great on a trip to the moon, as something to talk about.

Blue Dinosaur, Protein Chocolate Bar, 60 grams

Ingredients: Free range egg whites, beef collagen, MCT oil, Dates, maple syrup, raw organic cacao

Energy 1075 kilojoules

Protein 25.1 grams (same as 100 g steak)

Fat 11.3 grams, including 10.6 grams saturated

Carbohydrate 13.6 grams including 10.6 gram sugars

Dietary fibres 2.2 grams

Special warning: Might contain date pits

Taste test: My fave so far, not so sweet, pleasant bitter under-tone, nice muddy colour inside, more of the sticky paste texture but gets the saliva going. Could eat more than two bites, probably the lot. But would I go out of my way to buy one for personal use? No time to ponder, other bars await.

Gomacro, Macrobar, Protein Pleasure, 69 grams

Ingredients: Organic brown rice syrup, organic peanut butter, organic protein blend (organic sprouted brown rice protein, organic pea protein), organic ufed brown rice, organic fair trade chocolate chips, organic coconut sugar, organic cocoa, organic cocoa butter, organic peanuts.

Energy 1210 kilojoules

Protein 11 grams

Fat 11 grams, including 3 grams saturated

Carbohydrate 35 grams, including 14 grams sugars

Dietary fibre 2 grams

Taste test: So, everything’s organic and this may or may not explain why the gomacro has very little flavour or sweetness. I like it because it’s hardly there at all, apart from the paste texture, the stickiness, but even these are muted. So I keep biting and chewing and waiting for something to happen. Oh, that odd diagnostic protein-bar flavour – what I think of as chemical – is there. Like you get after a teaspoon of flavourless cough medicine. Still, I feel I could enter a relationship with this bar, as you do with someone who just sits there, smiling mysteriously.

Quest Bar, 60 grams

Ingredients: Protein (milk protein isolate, whey protein isolate), prebiotic fibre (soluble corn fibre), almonds, chocolate chunks (whey protein isolate, chocolate liquor), cocoa butter, sweetener (erythritol), flavour enhancer (sea salt), sweeteners (sucralose, steviol glycosides), water, sweetener (erythritol), graham cookies (whey protein isolate, prebiotic fibre (soluble corn fibre), coco butter, milk protein isolate, natural flavours, flavour (cinnamon), flavour enhancer (sea salt), raising agent (sodium bicarbonate), thickeners (cellulose gum, xanthan gum),sweetener (sucralose), palm oil, natural flavours, flavour enhancer (sea salt), colour (calcium carbonate), sweeteners (sucralose, steviol glycosides).

Warnings: Not suitable for children under 15 or pregnant women. Should only be used under medical or dietetic supervision.

Energy 823 kilojoules

Protein 25 grams

Fat 9 grams, including 3 grams saturated

Carbohydrates 4 grams, including less than one gram sugars

Sugar alcohol (erythritol) 5 grams

Taste test: Is there a doctor in the house? No? Oh well, I’ll eat it, anyway. On the other hand, it looks the least appealing. What I would call an assemblage of toilet bowl colours. Sweet, bitter – just like the rest. But there’s something that makes me want to rinse my mouth out. Maybe I’m polluted by the health warning, or the heavy presence of sugar alcohol. It just feels wrong.

Hemp Protein Bar, Coconut and Passionfruit, 60 grams

Ingredients: dates, cashews, hemp, organic brown rice syrup, oats, freeze-dried passionfruit, desiccated coconut, coconut oil, prebiotic fibre (chicory root), vanilla (natural extract), Himalayan pink salt.

Energy 1050

Protein 6.8 gram

Fat 11.3 grams, including 4 grams saturated fat

Carbohydrate 28 gram, including sugars 13.9 grams

Taste test: Being an old hippie, I saved this one for last, thinking at the least it would make me frisky, then sleepy and then hungry for pizza. And, in fact, me likey. Some tasty fruit acids, followed by earthy flavours. It still suffers a little from the dry-mouth quality of all these bars, offset by the best kind of salivation (off your lips). There is a vague dope-seed taste for the sake of nostalgia. Afterward, though, that cough mixture chemical lingered longest.

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