I want to preface this blog post by saying, everyone is entitled to their own opinions regarding the food choices they make. I’m not here to tell you what to eat, I only ask that you be an informed consumer. My main takeaway is to educate you about what you’re putting into your body — the rest is up to you! If you read this blog post, understand the ingredients and what it does to your body, and still love and choose to consume these products, then by all means! I am not here to bash any brand or company, only to bring awareness. The health food industry is overwhelming. Ingredients are confusing. I’m just here to shed some light, and provide you with healthy alternatives.
There are millions of protein bars, protein powders, supplements, superfoods… you get the gist. Based on their marketing, they all look too good to be true — that’s because more likely than not, they are. They may be certified gluten free, grain free, vegan, sugar free, low carb etc. etc.. but what does that really mean? Truthfully, it means nothing. Fancy labeling is a marketing tactic companies use to get you hooked on their products. What you should TRULY be looking at is the ingredient label!
This. Is. Everything.
Lets start with the basics — When you first look at an ingredient label, the very first ingredient is the main ingredient in that product. The second ingredient is the second most used, etc.
So, lets analyze some ingredients
I’ll start with protein bars. These are some of the popular brands advertised as “healthy”, but let the ingredients speak for themselves. Again, this is in no way meant to bash any brand or company, I would just like to bring awareness to the ingredients used. Some of these products are far worse than others, so I ordered them from “worst” to “best” in terms of ingredients.
Ingredients: Protein Blend (Whey Protein Isolate, Milk Protein Isolate), Isomalto-Oligocaccharides, Almonds, Water, Erythritol, Coconut, Cashews, Sea Salt, Natural Flavors, Lo Han Guo, Stevia
If there was one brand I had to tell you to stay away from, it would be this. This is MY personal opinion, and you are entitled to your own. But, lets look at the ingredients.
Propriety Blend: First of all, when a company labels something with “blend or proprietary blend”, it means they do not have to disclose how much of which ingredient is used in their product. This is a marketing tactic used by companies — to trick consumers into purchasing something that contains very little of the active ingredient being marketed. For example, a company could advertise a Whey Protein Powder, but upon looking at the ingredients, it may say “proprietary blend of: milk protein, whey protein, rice protein”, and then go on to list the “inactive ingredients”. The proprietary blend could be 1 tsp of whey protein and the rest milk protein. THEN, the inactive ingredients (which are often fillers like sugar and chemicals) could be the majority ingredients left in the product. More or less, you have no idea what is actually in that product, and more likely than not, the ingredients are not what you think you’re buying.
Isomalto-Oligocaccharides: Although the company above notes IMO’s are a source of “100% natural prebiotic fiber” in their nutrition label, it could not be further from natural. IMO’s are only naturally occurring in foods like soy sauce, honey and miso, not in this highly processed fiber syrup. The IMO’s in this bar have undergone a heavy manufacturing process, combining various starch sources with enzymes, and 13 hours later yielding a slightly sweet syrup known as Isomalto-Oligosaccharides. You are much better off obtaining your fiber sources through whole food ingredients, which will properly feed your gut flora. IMO’s will only reach a small portion of your gut, and may lead to many digestion issues. (Have you ever had one of these bars and felt immediately bloated after… just food for thought).
This bar claims to have no sugar, but contains stevia, lo han guo and erythritol
Stevia: Similar to IMO’s, there is a natural form and there is a HIGHLY processed form of stevia. You can guess which form is in basically every “sugar free” product on the shelf. Yup, the highly processed form. Just to shed some light into how processed: the natural form of stevia is a green plant. The product you’re buying on the shelf or consuming in your products is a clear liquid, or white granulized form. In order to concentrate stevia from its natural state to the popular liquid or powder form, “toxic chemicals and artificial chemical enzymes are used, such as methanol, kerosene, alcohol, chlorine, ash, acids, titanium dioxide, arsenic, preservatives, chemical stabilizers, and emulsifiers”
If that weren’t bad enough, stevia is usually accompanied by maltodextrin in order to cut the harsh aftertaste. Maltodextrin is typically derived from Genetically Modified feed corn using chemicals and bleach in a highly synthetic process. So while you may not be getting sugar, you are feeding your body chemicals. If you’re so convinced commercialized stevia isn’t harmful, try cutting it out for just 1 week. When you reintroduce it, I promise, you will notice a difference.
Lo Han Guo: Lo Han Guo, more commonly known as Monk Fruit, is another no-calorie sweetener which comes from a fruit, rather than a plant. Like stevia, it too is highly processed in order to yield a powder that is 100-200 times sweeter than table sugar. When you see monk fruit or Lo Han Guo on a nutrition label, you’re not getting the fruit itself, you’re getting its artifically derived form.
Erythritol: Another zero calorie sweetener, in the form of a sugar alcohol. Just like the previous sweeteners, the variety of erythritol found in our foods is most definitely not the natural source. Erythritol occurs naturally in small amounts in foods such as fermented foods (like wine and beer) and fruits (such as grapes and watermelon), but the variety being added to foods is derived from GMO corn. The reason it contains zero calories is because its unable to be broken down. So… just what do you think happens in your body when you consume it? Numerous GI effects (cramping, bloating, diarrhea), headaches, nausea… shall I continue? It is also terrible for those that suffer from SIBO and IBS, irritating their already existing gut issues. One last thing, erythritol is also known as a toxic bug insecticide… yep. It literally kills bugs. Is that really something you want to ingest?
Last but not least, (just from this one bar)
Natural Flavors: This is a culprit that upon glance you wouldnt think twice about. I mean it says natural, so naturally… you’d assume it would come from real sources, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, the word natural means nothing. We think we are making the better choice when we see its free from artificial flavorings, but truthfully, theres not much of a difference between the two. They both contain the same chemicals. The only difference is, natural flavors (as the FDA defines) are “flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof” whereas artificial flavors can be synthesized in a lab.
An article from Healthline states, “in addition to their original flavor source, these mixtures can contain more than 100 different chemicals, including preservatives, solvents and other substances. Food manufacturers aren’t required to disclose whether these additives come from natural or synthetic sources. As long as the original flavoring source comes from plant or animal material, it is classified as a natural flavor”
So… in my opinion, I would rather buy something that says “blueberries” rather than “natural blueberry flavoring”.
If you still aren’t convinced, although rare, this is an example of a “natural flavor”
Castoreum: A slightly sweet substance found in the anal secretions of beavers. It is a “natural flavoring ” for raspberry flavored candy, strawberry / vanilla / raspberry ice-cream. It’s also used in alcoholic beverages, baked goods, gelatin, pudding, soft candy, frozen dairy, hard candy and chewing gum. The FDA recognizes it as generally safe, and therefore food manufacturers may instead refer to it as “natural flavoring” on their ingredient lists. Yep.
Ingredients: Almonds, coconut, dark chocolate flavored coating (palm kernel oil, chicory root fiber, sugar, cocoa powder, soy lecithin, natural flavor, salt) honey, glucose syrup, rice flour, unsweetened chocolate, soy lecthin, chicory root fiber, sugar, madagascar vanilla, sea salt
Soy Lecithin: If you look at most ingredient labels, you will find soy lecithin. It is a food additive typically used as a food emulsifier (to keep foods from separating), flavor protector, and to help extend shelf life. One of the main issues is that it’s typically derived from GMO Soy. It is derived as a waste product after soy oil goes through a “degumming” process, containing pesticides and solvents. It is then bleached, and undergoes a hexane extraction process to produce a lecithin with better color, odor, and flavor. In my opinion, I would rather contain real food – food that spoils and separates when it is suppose to, has a flavor and odor that is not chemically altered, and is not genetically modified.
Glucose Syrup: Made from the hydrolysis of starch, and also known as confectioners glucose. It is most often made from corn (which is then called corn syrup) potatoes and wheat. In order to be made, the starch is first stripped of any nutrients (fiber and protein), soaked (with sulfur dioxide if its from a grain), heated, undergoes hydrolysis (where cornstarch and enzymes are added to produce bacteria), isolated from the bacteria and removed of impurities, then finally evaporated. It holds zero nutritional value, and as you can see from the heavy process that it undergoes to make, is not natural.
Ingredients: Dates, Egg Whites, Almonds, Blueberries (Apple Juice Concentrate), Cashews, Natural Blueberry Flavor
I simply want to educate you on what you’re putting into your body. So HOW do you choose high quality products? It’s very simple, actually! First, when you look at the ingredient label, you should be able to both recognize and pronounce all ingredients. Second, look for REAL food ingredients. Third, in most cases, the simpler the ingredient list, the better!
You can find quality products, you just have to look. My favorite thing to do is to make protein bites at home, they are simple, made with real quality ingredients, and taste even more delicious than anything you can find on a shelf. Try my Tahini Oat Balls!
Let’s talk about Protein Powders real quick. I am very picky when it comes to protein powders, and the only brand I consume is Vital Proteins. I know they have quality products, their ingredients are simple and made from whole food sources, they have no fillers or additives, and they taste delicious! They have products for all types of food preferences: Vegan, Pescatarian, Dairy-Free, and those that have no Dietary Restrictions.
Ingredients: Grass-Fed + Pasture Raised Bovine Hide Collagen Peptides
Ingredients: Bovine Hide Collagen Peptides, Coconut Water Powder, Vanilla Bean Powder, Hyaluronic Acid, Bacillus Coagulans
Ingredients: Marine Collagen (Snapper), Organic Wheat Grass, Coconut Water, Organic Alfalfa Lead, Organic Kale, Organic Barley Grass, Madadascagar Vanilla Bean, Organic Spinach, Bacillus Coagulans
As you can see from the ingredient labels, these are quality products. There are no hidden gums, fillers, sugars, flavors, or additives. All of their products come from quality sources, and there is no label trickery to be had. This is why I support companies like Vital Proteins, because what you see is what you get. I love their products because not only did they help me heal my gut, but they taste delicious, and know I can trust the integrity of the company. If you want to know more about why I take collagen, you can read this blog post.
Lets take a look at a couple other Protein Powder Brands:
I chose these two labels due to their marketing. The first brand advertises “No Added Sugars” on their front label, although they include Stevia. The second claims “No fillers, preservatives, or artificial anything” although right below it in the nutrition label it contains Stevia, Natural Flavors and Guar Gum. These brands are far superior to many products you’ll find on the market, but they still contain ingredients that are not ideal.
Ingredients: Pea Protein, Whole Flaxseed (micro milled), Acacia Gum (naturally occuring fiber), Hemp Protein, Sacha Inchi Protein, Organic Gelatinized Maca Root, Organic Broccoli, Inulin (from Chicory Root), Organic Spirulina, Organic Kale, Organic Marine Algae, Calcium, Dried Fruit & Vegetable Blend (Spinach, Broccoli, Carrot, Beet, Tomato, Apple, Cranberry, Orange, Blueberry and/or Bilberry, Strawberry, Shiitake mushroom), Chlorella Vulgaris (cracked whole cell), Papaya extract, Probiotics (Provides 1 Billion CFU Per serving), Antioxidant Fruit Blend (Grapeseed Extract, Organic Pomegranate, Acai), Mangosteen, Organic Goji, Organic Maqui, Contains 2 percent or less of: Natural Vanilla Flavor, Natural Caramel Flavor, Stevia Extract, Citric Acid
You may look at this nutrition label and think, what doesn’t it have?! But more is not always better! In this case, less is more. Your body can only absorb so many nutrients at once. In fact, the less ingredients, the better in terms of digestion. This has over 3o ingredients, and the 3rd most ingredient being Acacia Gum.
What is Acacia Gum? Acacia gum is derived from the sap of a acacia tree. It is probably the lease worst of the gums, but it is still a food additive. It is used as a thickening agent in foods, as well as a fiber supplement. In high doses it can cause bloating, gas and GI issues. It is not harmful in small doses, but I prefer to avoid additives when I can.
In addition to the acacia gum additive, it contains natural flavors, stevia, and citric acid. In my opinion there are cleaner brands on the market, but it’s definitely not the worst. I’d just like you to be an informed consumer and understand the ingredients!
Ingredients: Whey Protein Isolate, Coconut Milk, Cocoa Powder, Natural Flavors, Inulin (from Chicory Root), Guar Gum, Stevia Leaf Extract
Guar Gum: Guar gum is a soluble fiber derived from the guar bean, and used as a food additive. It is used in many products as it is able to absorb water, therefore acting as a thickening and binding agent in foods. The main issue with guar gum is its gastrointestinal side effects. Even at low doses, it can cause bloating, gas, stomach pain, and digestive issues. It is best to avoid if you have GI issues, especially SIBO or IBS. In my opinion, it is an unnecessary food additive. I would rather consume products free of gums, natural flavors and artificial sweeteners like stevia. There are many alternative products out there, you just have to do your research.
There are millions of brands out there, so I would just like you to be aware! My biggest takeaway is to read the ingredient label first and foremost! Skip the nutrition facts, the marketing gimmicks, and the calories. The most important factor is what the product is actually made from. In my opinion, you’re better off getting something that contains Pure Cane Sugar over Stevia, or Grass Fed Butter over Hydrolyzed and refined oils. At least your body can recognize those ingredients in their pure state. When ingredients are chemically processed and altered, your body is unable to recognize them, and it does so much more harm. And for what? The extra 50 calories you save when you consume a sugar-free bar loaded with highly processed stevia, instead of a bar made with Dates (which contains potassium, fiber, vitamins, minerals).
My last tip is to be prepared! Don’t put yourself in a situation where you have zero food options and are starving with no alternatives.
You can make energy balls at home to bring on the go.
Vital Proteins makes to-go packets of several of their protein powder products.
There will always be a store nearby with fresh produce — when you’re in a bind, grab a few pieces of fresh fruit and real nut butter.
There are always options! Choose to fuel and nourish your body. Take care of your body. Be an educated consumer.
At the end of the day, the decision is yours! But at least have all the facts.