Raise the bar
In the late 1980s, two long-distance runners who were living together in the Bay Area of the US blended vitamins, oat bran, milk protein and corn syrup in their kitchen, concocting what would become a PowerBar, one of the first modern protein bars. By the mid 1990s, it was a phenomenon called “a high octane snack for yuppies and fitness freaks”.
Today, though, protein bars are everywhere, and their branding has expanded far beyond exercise fanatics. They’re presented as healthy snacks for when you’re on the go or even as part of a self-care routine. Grocery stores, gyms and pharmacies now carry colourfully wrapped hunks of whey protein, marketed as energy-supplying health foods, despite coming in flavours such as cookie dough and lemon cake. The global market for protein bars is growing quickly and expected to swell to more than USD 2 billion by the end of 2026, according to the financial analysis site, MarketWatch.
“We’ve just gone completely off the rails with protein in recent years,” said Hannah Cutting-Jones, a food historian and director of the food studies programme at the University of Oregon, US.
Manufacturers of these products would have you believe that they can improve your health and your workout. The website for Clif Bar shows people hurling kettlebells or racing through the rain; Gatorade describes its protein bar as “scientifically designed for athletes”. Others seem to brand themselves under the squishy umbrella of wellness. Their marketing features photos and videos of serene women writing in journals, with tips for preventing burnout on the side. Despite the advertising, though, nutrition experts say that protein bars aren’t all that healthy.
“You can put ‘keto’ or ‘protein’ on a candy bar and sell it, and people don’t even question it,” said Janet Chrzan, an adjunct assistant professor of nutritional anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in the US.
Protein is an important part of our diet. There’s no question that our bodies need protein for building, maintaining and repairing muscles, said Anthony DiMarino, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. Protein also makes up our hair, skin, nails and organs; and the amino acids in proteins help our brains function. Perhaps because of that, protein stands alone in the world of wellness. Over the past 40 years, fad diets that vilify sugars, fats and carbs have come in and out of fashion. But many of the most popular diets, past and current, prioritise protein, associating it with weight loss, Chrzan said. “We value protein so much that it’s the central thing on our plate,” she said.
People also instinctively associate protein with fitness, said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, US. When they eat protein bars, “people think they’re doing something good for their health,” she said.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an American who actually needs more protein, though, said Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the US. Most meat eaters get far more than the recommended daily dose of protein (which is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight). And those who don’t eat meat can get enough protein from plant sources including tofu, nuts and legumes.
Are protein bars health foods? Protein is likely to fill you up more than simple carbs will, Rimm said. That may be because protein helps our bodies release hormones that keep hunger at bay.
But many protein bars are also full of sugar. A chocolate chip Clif Bar, for example, contains 16 grams of added sugars, more than what’s in a serving of Thin Mints. A Gatorade protein bar in the flavour chocolate chip contains 28 grams of added sugars, twice the amount in a Dunkin’ Donuts chocolate frosted doughnut with sprinkles.
“By and large, they’re highly processed, high in sugar and salt — kind of a ‘Frankenfood’,” Cutting-Jones said. Rimm agreed: Many protein bars are really just “candy bars with a lot more protein,” he said.
Protein bars might make sense for someone who needs to increase their protein intake — for example, a vegan who doesn’t get enough protein from their diet, or someone who just had an intense workout, DiMarino said. But for the average person, adding another punch of protein into your diet — particularly when it comes with a lot of added sugar — is not going to make you healthier.
“It’s a snack for when you’re in a pinch,” said Stephanie Urrutia, director of performance nutrition at the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at UCLA, such as “if you’re going up the side of the mountain, if you can’t grab a full meal.” But it’s not meant to be an actual replacement for a meal, she said.