When you first introduce someone to the Paleo diet, undoubtedly you mention that there is to be no consumption of processed foods, such as protein bars; this is one of the key tenets of the Paleo diet. However, as the Paleo diet has grown and developed it has been monetized. This happens in every formerly underground niche. Once you reach a certain level of success/notoriety, you are no longer underground.
And we all know what that means – cash grabs, gimmicks, sub-par information, flat-out lies, and vastly distorted concepts and principles of something that was once supposedly ‘pure’. This is, in my opinion, what has happened with the seemingly rapid development of “Paleo” protein bars. A bit of a contradiction in and of itself, no?
[Sidenote: You might want to check out our post on the truth behind Paleo Protein Powders.]
Besides the glaring conceptual flaw in designing a processed food for a decidedly “non-processed food” diet, there are various ingredient issues right down to the biochemistry of certain nutrients. Almost all of the so-called “Paleo” protein bars use dates or honey as their main ingredient. To start with, should sugar really be your MAIN ingredient? And is sugar as bad as it is made out to be?
Sweeter Than Sugar
In case you haven’t taken biochemistry, I will take you through this problem, albeit briefly. To start, dates are more than 95% sugar. Of that sugar, most of it is fructose. 55 grams, to be exact. Honey is 40% fructose, and is one of the foods highest in fructose (only behind soda). You’re probably familiar with the word “fructose” from its use in high fructose corn syrup. Fructose in fruit is metabolically the same. Fructose has only one transporter in the human body, which in the liver and is called GLUT5.
This is in direct contrast to glucose, which is the main sugar found in nature, and can be used by every cell in your body. Glucose is so important that your body will make it if you do not intake any. This is done by a process called gluconeogenesis. Fructose is not made by the body, is not needed by any cells, and is essentially useless. But it is almost twice as sweet as glucose, which means we like it. Quite a bit, actually.
Fructose, since it is only metabolized in your liver, is processed entirely differently than glucose. This 2008 study shows that fructose stimulates “de novo lipogenesis” (“new fat creation”) much more than glucose, and that it also makes it much more likely for fat ingested at the same time to be STORED as fat and not burned as energy. Fructose is processed nearly identically as ethanol (alcohol) in the liver – and does almost the same damage.
Fructose, only processed hepatically, produces the following by-products:
- free fatty acids
- very low density lipoprotein (VLDL)
All of these are dangerous. Free fatty acids, when seen in elevation in the bloodstream, are linked with peripheral and hepatic insulin resistance. VLDL is the very bad form of cholesterol that you want to avoid, especially when not in the large, fluffy form. Triglycerides need to be kept in a normal range, or a myriad of problems will result.
Ghrelin, which, in short parlance, is your hunger hormone, is lessened by glucose ingestion. It is NOT lessened by fructose consumption. This means that 100 calories of fructose is not “seen” by your satiety hormone leptin and you are very likely to overeat as a result.
Excess fructose consumption (which is promoted by the consumption of the dates and honey used to sweeten these bars) is very problematic. Since the liver cannot process large amounts of fructose, triglycerides get sent into the bloodstream, which is a very dangerous thing to be doing if you want to avoid heart disease. The risk of becoming insulin resistant is also very high with excessive fructose consumption.
A short summary of the problems associated with the metabolism of fructose:
- nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
I will end the brief biochemistry lesson here. The worst offense of these pre-made bars: they are very close to pure candy. They promote overconsumption, they aren’t real food, and should be consumed with caution, if at all.
So…What’s In It?
You may be wondering what exactly you are consuming, when you eat a pre-made “Paleo protein bar.” Most bars are made with egg whites, whey or beef protein powders/isolates. These powders are the epitome of “processed.”
Since a labeling of “organic” would be the sole caveat to any of these powders (which is very rarely, if ever, seen) this means you are getting some pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Processed in high heat, with likely poor sources of eggs, whey or beef, the protein itself is FAR from ideal. I won’t even mention the fact that whey protein is dairy-derived, which in the original Paleo sense is completely outlawed.
There are MANY other points to detract from the ingestion of these bars, but for brevity’s sake I will list only one last item. The “best” nut, as far as omega 3 to 6 ratio goes, is the macadamia nut. Almost every other nut possesses a sky-high amount of inflammatory omega 6 – including every nut used to flavor these popular bars. Not one bar listed contains macadamia nuts.
Benefits of Paleo Protein Bars?
So…what IS good about “Paleo” protein bars? For one, they are convenient. No doubt we all have times in life (traveling, meetings, running late, illness, etc.) where we simply cannot get REAL food. This is one spot where the idea of a bar comes in handy. This will allow you to stay “Paleo” even when stuck on an airplane for 10 hours or win a hotel room in the middle of nowhere.
There is one point that I will not argue against is that these bars taste good. When you are used to a fairly low carb diet, a dose of 25g of sugar (like the amount found in the blueberry flavor of an RXBar®) tastes really, really good. Especially since we are getting that sugar almost entirely from fructose. Remember – it is almost TWICE as sweet as glucose.
Protein Bar Products
Now on to the individual bars, to point out the pluses and minuses found within.
Arguably the most famous of the “Paleo” bars, RXBars® are “Whole30®” approved, meaning you can officially eat them while doing Dallas and Melissa’s 30 day elimination diet. This was an interesting choice. RXBars® contain the following ingredients:
- egg white protein
- dried wild blueberries (infused with apple juice concentrate)
- dried blueberry powder
- blueberry oil
Hmm. Egg white protein? Dried fruit? Apple juice concentrate? Dried blueberry powder? Blueberry oil? Not seemingly normal choices for their otherwise stringent elimination diet. If carrageenan isn’t okay in coconut milk, how are these pre-made bars okay to consume? Not to mention the 25 grams of sugar that are NOT found in an apple or banana, but rather are found in a processed food.
Now, I really like Dallas and Melissa. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting them, and besides being really, REALLY tall, they are very nice, very kind, and very smart people. I thought I’d give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. However, I am not the only one who has noticed this if you take a look at the comments found on their own site.
Anyway, this doesn’t change my perception of them, it just shows how popular these bars have become and that they are simply recognizing the need for travel-friendly foods that are still “Paleo.” Plus, these bars have the unique feature of a re-sealable pouch, so you can eat half of a bar and then easily seal it back up to eat later. That’s innovation.
NoGii® has come out with a Paleo protein bar as well. They offer various flavors – all low in protein, high in sugar, and in essence are just nuts covered with fruit. These bars are the definition of “cash grab.” They are a corporate entity, modifying an existing product to try and capture market share. Not my favorite choice, by far. Note the berry-flavored bar – which has FIFTEEN different ingredients. Anything but “Paleo.”
The Paleo Diet Bar®
Relatively newer on the marketplace, is The Paleo Diet Bar®. Endorsed by Dr. Loren Cordain himself, who, you could argue, is the one person who may deserve to profit from a Paleo bar. These bars unfortunately have an almost identical formula to RXBars®. I’m not sure where “organic strawberry juice concentrate” falls on the “don’t eat dried fruit” scale, but I digress. The formula is the same, but the backing gives these bars an ethical boost.
Rise’s Almond Honey Protein Bar®
An interesting choice, Rise’s Almond Honey Protein Bar® has only 3 ingredients: almonds, honey and whey protein isolate. Hard to argue with simplicity. Unfortunately that is their only truly “Paleo” flavor. In my opinion, this is by far the most simple, and truly “Paleo” bar on the market.
AMRAP’s Refuel Bar®
AMRAP’s Refuel Bar® is another entry into the marketplace, and possesses a slightly different formula. Unfortunately, the nutrition facts end up looking almost identical to our previous bars. Not a bad choice, but not the best, either.
This brings us to our last item to review today, EPIC Bars®. Differing from the other bars on our list by containing not only grass fed meat but also bacon(!), these bars are similar in texture and taste to beef jerky, only softer. Another candidate for “most Paleo” of the processed bars currently on the marketplace, EPIC bars win some points for originality.
So what is your opinion on these so-called “Paleo” protein bars? Would it be better to just eat grass fed jerky, or maybe a Primal Pac®? Let us know in the comments.