Are energy bars, protein shakes and other foods advertised as "health foods" good for us? Answer: More often than not, NO they aren't.

Processed foods are generally not good for us, regardless of how they are advertised. I’ve lived with roommates who firmly believed that they were on wholesome, perfectly nutritious diets all the while subsisting on Power bars, frozen TV dinners from the health food section of our local grocery store and Gatorade. Just because a product is advertised as a health food does not make it one! A trip to the grocery store quickly confirms this simple, yet often forgotten principle. In fact, many of the foods advertised as “energy bars” or nutrient packed “protein powders” are some of the most dangerous foods you could possibly consume. Take for instance PowerBar’s Triple Threat Chocolate Peanut Butter Crisp. Putting aside the fact that the name of this bar doesn’t sound healthy to begin with (albeit it does sound decadently delicious), let us pretend that we fall for the claim that this bar provides “long lasting energy” as marketed on the packaging. Now, let us begin to become enlightened about why this PowerBar can do no such thing and doesn’t even taste decadently delicious for Pete’s sake.  

Energy bar. Flickr: D'Arcy Norman

The first ingredient is corn syrup. Corn syrup, only slightly better than it’s cousin high fructose corn syrup, is the nutritional equivalent of sugar. The next ingredient is soy crisps, a combination of soy protein isolate and rice flour. Mmm, tasty. Soy protein isolate is a highly processed soy product that retains none of the original nutritional value of the natural soybean and raises levels of insulin like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) in the blood, subsequently hastening the growth of our cells and the aging process. The manner in which soy protein isolate is processed and manufactured is freaky too. It involving acid washing it in aluminum tanks. I’m not sure what the purpose of acid washing is, but I do know that a significant aluminum load manages to make its way into the final product. Nitrites and chemical flavoring are also used to add flavor. These chemicals have been linked to the development of certain cancers, allergies and even Alzheimer’s disease. So far we would be damaging our cells with a big helping of processed sugar and cancer causing processed junk. Let’s see what else this “energy” bar has to throw our way. Next we’ve got a chocolatey coating. Oh look, more sugar! Some oil and whey! Mmm. More wholesome goodness for us to chew on. Whey is the liquid remaining after cow’s boob milk has been curdled, so not only is it bad for us, but it’s gross too. Just like soy protein isolate, whey is a processed protein which raises IGF-1. Excess protein is simply not lifespan favorable.

After reading the ingredient list (see actual list below), it becomes obvious that the ingestion of this “energy” bar will provide no more energy than if we simply blended a bunch of sugar, processed proteins, salt and oil. Even though calling it a “drop dead prematurely” bar would probably not be the best marketing strategy, it would be much more accurate. There is a restaurant in Dallas, Texas called Heart Attack Grill, which I’m told is quite successful, so I don’t know. Perhaps a “drop dead prematurely” bar would do quite well in grocery stores. It might peak the interest of children around Halloween.   

Ingredients

CORN SYRUP, SOY CRISPS (SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, RICE FLOUR, ALKALIZED COCOA), CHOCOLATEY COATING (SUGAR, FRACTIONATED PALM KERNEL OIL, COCOA, WHEY, NONFAT MILK, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL VANILLA FLAVOR), WHOLE OATS, DRY ROASTED PEANUTS, SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, INULIN (FROM CHICORY), NATURAL FLAVORS (CONTAINS PEANUT, MILK, SOY LECITHIN), RICE CRISPS (MILLED RICE, SUGAR, SALT, BARLEY MALT), SALTED PEANUT BUTTER, VEGETABLE GLYCERIN, AND LESS THAN 2% OF PEANUT FLOUR, ALMOND BUTTER, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, MINERALS: CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, POTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, FERROUS FUMARATE (IRON), VITAMINS: ASCORBIC ACID (VITAMIN C), VITAMIN B6 HYDROCHLORIDE, RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2), THIAMINE MONONITRATE (VITAMIN B1). CONTAINS ALMOND, MILK, PEANUT AND SOY INGREDIENTS. MADE ON EQUIPMENT THAT ALSO PROCESSES WHEAT.

The moral of this short blog post is that processed foods advertised as health foods are not necessarily healthy. The less you use foods that come in packages, boxes or wrappers, the better. There are a few processed products that make the nutrient density, body lovin’ cut, but we need to do our homework and read the labels if we decide we are in the mood to open a can or unfreeze a TV dinner.   

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Comments (16) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Stephanie - October 19, 2011 3:42 PM

This is why I like your father's canned soups...and why he should expand that line. Because I can pop open a can without any worries whatsoever! As a college student, those soups are a great addition to my life.

Great post, Talia!

Grahame SD - October 19, 2011 4:13 PM

Nice analysis of the yuchy ingredients. You really make the point of how unhealthy these "health" bars are.

MacSmiley - October 19, 2011 5:18 PM

Reminds me of Soylent Green. :-P

Mark Osborne - October 19, 2011 5:19 PM

They tend to have tons of protein and power bars floating around free at running events. Sometimes I'm tempted - maybe a quick energy boost will help me on my run - but I am always repelled by the ingredients. Actually it's shocking to me how bad these things are!

Shelmax - October 19, 2011 5:50 PM

Wow. I now know energy bars don't live up their claim. So, what about fiber bars?

MIke Rubino - October 19, 2011 6:16 PM

Good comment , most of these bars are just candy bars with some "protein" added to allow the maker to call them somewhat healthy . better off staying away. But if I were going to go into the business I think Drop Dead on the Spot Bars might be catchy.

Mark - October 19, 2011 8:48 PM

Does anyone have any information concerning fiber one bars? They do have a fairly high amount of fiber. What about fiber one cereals?

mike crosby - October 19, 2011 9:18 PM

I love it Talia. Short little post, but big on understanding.

Imagine the thousands/millions thinking they're eating health food. How sad.

Martha - October 20, 2011 9:46 AM

This is a very important article, and I appreciate it very much. I often print these out and hang them up on the community information board in our office lunchroom, as well as printing them out to give to friends and family. I know people read them, too, because they will often bring up and discuss the topic with me. My only complaint is that the "printer friendly" version isn't very much. The pictures always show up huge. For this article, in the printer-friendly view, the bottom half of the first page is blank, because the giant picture shows up at the top of the second page. Is there a way DiseaseProof can optimize the printer-friendly version any better?

Carrie (Carrie on Vegan) - October 20, 2011 11:04 AM

Great post Talia and so true. I know plenty of people who start their days with frankenfoods like these. Not eating would be more healthful than eating processed junk.

Courtney - October 20, 2011 11:19 AM

Informative article, I didn't realize how much processing goes into the soy protein isolate, definitely a turn-off! What would you consider to be the "best" option if you had to choose a granola/energy bar? I really like the Lara bars, but the caloric value is too high for me.

Stacy - October 20, 2011 2:34 PM

I too, like the Lara bars and was buying them for my kids for a dessert. I was buying all the new flavors and then got to the ones with chocolate chips!!! Yummy! But then I read the ingredient list and found that the ones with chocolate chips have sugar added. I thought maybe they'd use cocoa nibs or something but no. So I don't buy the chocolate chip ones anymore. I make my kids a recipe I found in Vegetarian Times called Raw Chocolate Chia Energy Bars. It has almonds, dates, cocoa, chia seed, almond extract, and vanilla extract. It is SO good!

MacSmiley - October 20, 2011 4:00 PM

From what I can tell, Lara Bars are composed of real food, dates/dried fruit and nuts. Easy to overeat but not bad in a pinch.

StephenMarkTurner - October 21, 2011 12:57 PM

That PowerBar is truly cruddy. Reminds me of 'The Simpsons' where Homer climbs a mountain, eating bars made of apple cores and old shredded newspapers.

Most LaraBars are pretty good, but I have noticed the bar recipes in Dr F's books (also the Thrive books by Brendan Brazier). These things are quite easy to make.

Peskarik - October 28, 2011 5:20 AM

Sure, there is a lot of processed stuff in those foods, but then again, you do not know what's in "healthy" foods like vegetables, milk, fish, meat, chicken either. Or canned soupes for that matter. IF you want healthy food - you are born 100 years too late, or you should live on a garden somewhere and grow everything on your own.

Subsisting on vegetables (like Carrie on Vegan, I guess that name tells a lot) is not healthy either. Also, look at Steve Jobs, he is dead due to cancer and he was vegan. All this research on what is cancerogenous is questionable and inconclusive. Anyway, 50% of your health is due to genetics in your family line.

I do use low-carb protein bars and I do use whey protein shakes, they help me get in shape and stay in shape and they work. At the same time I also eat lots of vegies, fish, chicken breasts, lentils, normal oat meal. And I do read ingredient lists carefully!

Subsisting on processed food only, or subsisting on vegetables only - both are extremes and stupid, there is a middle way where even a hamburger or a piece of cake (both packed with processed stuff) have a place. The idea is to live and enjoy life, you will end sooner or later, despite what you eat.

Mike - November 3, 2011 1:02 PM

Great post Talia. Good for you for calling out the Powerbar junk-food ingredients. You go!. -Mike

p.s. Maybe you could do a similar post on those insane Energy Drinks? I can only imagine the junk in them.

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