It’s been a while since we tore apart—figuratively, not literally—a food label. So here goes. A little something light to start your week.
Up today: Exo bars. To be specific, Exo bars that are marketed as protein bars.
Now, I’m not here to bash these things. On the contrary, if you like to keep something semi-wholesome, with ingredients you can understand and pronounce, in your handbag, gym bag, or desk drawer at the office, you could do a whole lot worse than these. However, if what you are actually looking for is protein, then these “protein” bars may not exactly be the way to go. Let’s see why.
As we can see right here on the label, these things are free of grains, gluten, dairy, and soy. Nice! Nothing wrong with that. But let’s turn this baby over and take a look at the ingredients and nutrient breakdown.
For a bar weighing 60g—just a little over 2 ounces, we’ve got 10 grams of protein. Not bad, actually. We’ve also got 14 grams of fat, and … wait, what? 26 grams of carbohydrate. Even though I hate (hate, hate!) talking about “calories,” the whopping 290 calories of this teeny, tiny bar break down as follows: 40 calories from protein, 126 calories from fat, and 104 from carbohydrate. Is it just me, or is it a little disingenuous that they’re marketing this as a protein bar? To emphasize: I’m not saying this is a “bad” thing to eat; I’m only saying that it’s misleading to call it a protein bar. Does it have some protein in it? Yes. But it has far more fat and carbohydrate.
Let’s see why this “protein” bar has so much fat and carbohydrate, shall we?
Like I said, at least we can pronounce and understand these ingredients. The more gastronomically skittish among you might not want to eat cricket flour, but at least you know what it is and where it comes from. (Sort of.) I’m not saying no one should eat these things, ever. I think they can be a perfectly great snack—if you are, say, hiking the Appalachian trail and maybe need a little more carb (and fat) than the average sedentary person, particularly if this carb and fat comes in such a tiny, lightweight, easily portable package that will not add to the weight of the gear you’re already hauling on your back. However, if you are a desk jockey and the most physical activity you get during your day is clicking the mouse and watching the clock, then I assure you, you do not need this amount of fat and carbohydrate together, especially not for just 2 ounces of food. If you want protein, eat a can of tuna. If you want protein and fat, eat a hard-boiled egg, or a can of salmon with the skin. So yes, there is a time and place for this kind of convenience food, but as always, like nutrition researcher Bill Lagakos says, context matters.
Just for fun, let’s look at a different flavor of Exo bar, this time, blueberry vanilla:
Samey-same: 60g/2.1 oz, free of grains, gluten, soy, and dairy. Another 10 grams of protein.
Ingredients and nutrient breakdown:
260 calories, broken down as follows: 40 from protein, 92 from carb, and 144 from fat. But this is a protein bar. Right, yes. I see it so clearly now. ;-)
Again, the main source of protein—the pulverized crickets—is the fifth ingredient, after almonds and 3 carbohydrate items (two of which contain “apple juice concentrate,” which probably makes them even sweeter than they would be on their own). The fats come again from almonds, flaxseeds, and coconut. Really, you could do a lot worse than these bars. I’m not saying these are terrible and no one should ever eat them. I’m saying don’t always trust the snazzy buzzwords on the front of a package. Always look at the ingredients and the carbohydrate load (if you happen to be watching your carbs).
These remind me of a few other labels we’ve taken to task, for similar reasons – advertising as high in protein, when what they’re actually high in is sugar:
And let’s not forget products that wear “health halos” – complete garbage masquerading as health food:
Takeaway lesson: There are very few foods that are definitively “good” or “bad.” Context matters. Are you lean, insulin sensitive, healthy, and active? Are you competing in an ironman triathlon? These Exo bars might be perfect for you. (If you are not a fat-adapted athlete. But even if you are, these are still okay.) Are you insulin resistant, sedentary, and looking to lose a few pounds? Then perhaps you might do well to avoid eating things that are primarily dried fruit, combined with a bunch of fat, and a little bit of protein. There's really not much wrong with these bars; I just wouldn't call them protein bars.
Disclaimer: Amy Berger, MS, CNS, NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician. Links in this post and all others may direct you to amazon.com, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.