From bars and brownies to yoghurts and milk, it seems the trend for protein-enhanced foods has gone from a niche market for body builders to an everyday snack to have with your 3pm cuppa. Between 2010 and 2016 there was a 498% increase in high protein products launched in Ireland. So what is all the fuss about? Why are we all on a quest to eat more protein these days?

Why do we need protein? 

Most of us know that protein is needed for growth and repair of cells and tissues, as a building block for enzymes and hormones and to support the structure of our body – bones, muscles, skin, cartilage. 

So why are so many of us reaching for a protein boosted bar, or choosing a protein fortified breakfast cereal instead? As most things in nutrition, it probably comes down to the notion of weight loss and the quest for the body beautiful. Protein can help us feel fuller for longer, so may help regulate our appetite, but are these processed bars and drinks the right way to go about it? 

Not such a healthy snack?

Last week, safefood published a report looking at the nutritional content of 83 high-protein snack foods and drinks available for sale in supermarkets on the island of Ireland. These foods ranged from protein bars, yoghurts, yoghurt-style products and milk drinks. 

Chocolate was found to be the main ingredient in almost 40% of the protein bars surveyed, with many also being high in saturated fat and containing added sugar and salt. The research also found that over 1 in 3 people (37%) surveyed think protein bars are “healthy”. 

  • 38% of protein bars contain chocolate as main ingredient
  • 77% are high in saturated fat
  • 1 in 3 people perceive them as being “healthy”

Take a closer look at the nutritional value of your favourite protein bar and you will likely find it contains the same (or more) calories than your favourite chocolate bar too, so despite their healthy image, these bars, shakes and other protein fortified foods are unlikely to be doing your health, or your waistline, any favours. 

Healthy alternatives: 

I am all for eating enough protein, and am an advocate of a low sugar, low GI style diet, but I think there are better foods to snack on to keep us going. Most of us don’t need a protein supplement, energy bar or fortified drink as part of our everyday diet. 

Look at the ingredients list of some of these foods, and they read more like a science experiment than something you can eat. Overly processed, and flavoured with sugar and salt the notion that these protein snacks are healthy is very far from the truth of the matter. 

Protein is found in a wide variety of plant and animal based foods, including eggs, meat, fish, chicken, nuts and seeds, pulses, nut butter, quinoa, tofu and dairy products. We do not need to go looking for it in a chocolate bar or breakfast cereal. 

Do yourself a favour and EAT REAL FOOD – not this processed rubbish. 

Whether you munch your bar mid-afternoon as an energy booster, or grab a protein boost after your workout to help make the most of your training regime, try some of these ideas for size: 

  • If you need a chocolate boost… try some really dark chocolate (70%, 85% or higher if you dare!), with a handful of brazil nuts.
  • If you like a dairy snack …try natural yoghurt with berries and seeds. 
  • If you start your day with a protein boosted cereal… try swapping to eggs a few days a week, or add a tablespoonful of seeds to your porridge.
  • If you like protein milk … drink a glass of milk instead.

This blog post first appeared as an article in The Irish News on Saturday 23 November 2019.