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Protein is hot. Not regular protein-rich foods like meat, chicken, fish, milk, yoghurt, eggs, legumes, and grains nuts and seeds – it’s protein supplemented bars, balls, bites and shakes that are hot. And if that’s not enough protein-supplemented product, you can top up your protein tank with protein boosted breakfast cereals, protein noodles, protein bagels, protein cookies and protein coffee and protein water.

Protein balls
The food industry has really embraced protein. They love its health halo. It’s a gift to the bottom line which is why they are adding it in truckloads to all sorts of processed and ultra-processed foods. In 2014, the protein supplemented foods market in Australia was valued at A$545 million dollars and predicted to keep growing by around 10% a year.

“When the Box Says ‘Protein’, Shoppers Say ‘I’ll take it” was the headline of a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal. Protein mania has partly come about because with so many people now regarding carbs or fats (and sometimes both) with suspicion in the current nutrition wars, protein has emerged as the last macronutrient left standing. “The whole macronutrient fixation is a boondoggle that has been calamitous for public health,” says Dr David Katz. “First they told us to cut fat. But instead of wholegrains and lentils, we ate low-fat junk food. Then food marketers heard the message about cutting carbs and sold us protein-enriched junk foods instead.”

“When we talk about protein,” says Katz, “we are dissociating the nutrient from its food source.” It certainly looks that way in the high protein snack aisle we discovered researching this story. Here are our tips to help you make better choices.

  • “When the Box Says Protein”, read the nutrition information panel (NIP). 
  • Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight from the most down to the least. 
  • Wise up on label lingo – what the highly processed ingredients in packaged foods, are, and on how these ingredients are made. 

 What did we find when we went shopping?

There are certainly protein bars packed with ingredients you may have at home. The Health Food Guys’ vegan Cacao Goji Raw Protein Bar contains: “Organic Wholegrain Bio-Fermented Raw Brown Rice Protein, Organic Raw Tahini, Crushed Raw Almonds, Organic Rice Syrup, Organic Chia Seeds, Organic Dates, Organic Coconut Nectar, Goji Berries, Raw Cacao Powder”. What’s “Bio-Fermented Raw Brown Rice Protein”? It’s a protein powder like soy and whey protein powders, and like them is used as a base for shakes, smoothies, bars and other protein-supplemented products.

We also found bars where the ingredient topping the list is something you’ll have at home like nuts. Carman’s Coconut, Yoghurt & Roasted Nut Gourmet Protein Bars contains “Nuts (Peanuts 17%, Cashews 10%), Soy Protein Blend (Soy Protein Crisps [Isolated Soy Protein, Tapioca Starch, Salt], Soy Protein Powder [Soy Lecithin]), Glucose, Honey, Seeds 9% (Sunflower Seeds, Pepitas, Sesame Seeds), Yoghurt Compound 9% (Sugar, Vegetable Oil, Milk Solids, Yoghurt Powder 4%, Emulsifier [Sunflower Lecithin], Food Acid [330], Natural Coconut Flavour), Coconut 7%, Sunflower Oil, Natural Coconut Flavour.”

However, while nuts at 27% “(Peanuts 17%, Cashews 10%)”, top the list, we don’t actually know if there are more nuts than soy protein in the bar by weight, because the manufacturer has used two kinds of soy protein powder and they are listed separately and without percentages.

There are also products where anything you are likely to find at home like cocoa powder or unsalted butter is at the end of the list. For example, Aussie Bodies Protein FX Lo Carb Mini Protein Bar Choc Caramel, described as an indulgent guilt-free low carb protein snack, contains: “Aussie Bodies® Protein Blend (29%) [Whey Protein Concentrate, Whey Protein Isolate, Soy Protein Isolate, Soy Protein Crisps (Soy Protein Isolate, Tapioca Starch, Salt, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin)], Protein Milk Chocolate (22%) [Maltitol, Cocoa Butter, Milk Solids, Cocoa Liquor, Soy Protein Isolate, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Flavour], Polydextrose, Glycerol, Maltitol, Caramel (5%) [Glucose, Sweetened Condensed Milk (Milk, Sugar, Lactose), Vegetable Fat, Unsalted Butter, Salt, Emulsifier (471)], Resistant Starch (Starch, Maltodextrin), Cocoa Powder, Unsalted Butter, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Flavours.”

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