If you are interested in health and fitness it’s likely you have, or will at some stage consider purchasing a protein bar as a snack, an alternative post-workout recovery option or just a practical meal replacement for times of need. Given the popularity of protein bars at present, the market is awash with different options. But which do you choose?
We've picked the brains of expert performance nutritionist Matt Jones to help debunk the myth that all protein bars are created equal. Protein is more than just a number.
A key consideration when purchasing a protein bar is obviously going to be the protein content of the bar. In opting for a protein bar over it’s chocolate relative it’s likely you are already aware of the health and body composition benefits of protein. It is also likely that you have purchased it in an attempt to maximise muscle growth and repair.
Research to date has clearly indicated that a dosage of 20 – 30 grams of high quality protein is sufficient to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is essentially the creation of new proteins within the muscle. Imagine a factory within your muscle, responsible for producing protein. When you eat a protein source at meals or snacks that protein is broken down to its constituent amino acids, which serve as building blocks that the factory uses to generate new muscle. When the amount of protein consumed is between 20 – 30 grams and the amount of leucine present is around 2 – 4 grams then the factory works at maximal capacity, full guns blazing. So a protein bar containing 20 – 30 grams of protein is obviously a good start.
Look out for Leucine
However, note that the research mentions “high quality”. The quality of a protein refers to the concentration of amino acids within the protein, particularly the essential amino acids, more specifically the branched chain amino acids and even more specifically than that the amino acid leucine. Leucine is a key player in the muscle protein synthetic process, in fact to date it is considered the trigger. It is well known that animal proteins, including meat, fish, dairy and eggs are of the highest quality as a result of their high concentrations of leucine. Animal proteins have a higher concentration of leucine, roughly 9 – 13%.
PLANT BASED PROTEIN
Plant based protein is a good source of protein, but not as high quality as the aforementioned animal protein, with only 6 – 8% concentration of leucine. The concentration of leucine is slightly lower, thus the required dosage to maximise muscle protein synthesis is likely greater than the 20 – 30 grams mentioned previously. Plant based protein is generally cheaper than animal protein, as it can be produced is larger quantities and takes less manufacturing. It is therefore common for companies to include plant based protein in their protein bars as a means of cost-effectively bumping up the protein content, while also enabling them to include the words ‘high protein’ in the branding. Which is fine, but if you are investing in a bar to serve a purpose, it better had serve that purpose.
Another factor worth considering is the vitamin and mineral content of the bar. Not only can a protein bar serve as a great stimulant of muscle growth and repair but it may also provide other nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fibre valuable to health. For instance a ‘natural’ protein bar such as a Fori bar will provide a host of vitamins and minerals as the bar is close to its natural form. Where other bars have often been highly processed leaving little more than the protein, meaning many companies have to fortify the bars, essentially re-adding synthetic vitamins and minerals to the bar prior to packaging.
Please be aware that not all protein bars are created equal. To get the biggest return on your investment simply look for a natural bar, made of animal protein with around 20 – 30 grams of protein. Consume this as a snack during the day, between meals or post-exercise for the greatest effect.