Understanding Ingredients: What’s Really in that Protein Bar

There are thousands of so-called “healthy” products on the market, promising you fiber, protein, and every other macro and micronutrient under the sun. But if those nutrients are delivered in the form of man-made concoctions, do our bodies even recognize them in the same way as when we eat a fiber-rich vegetable or a protein-rich seaweed?

The standard North American diet consists of highly processed food made from highly manufactured ingredients, and all made as cheaply as possible. What’s worse is that the “natural” food industry is out there doing the exact same thing. And well-intended people who are trying to eat healthier are being completely duped by these “good for you” products.

Of course many of us rely on healthy conveniences such as meal supplements, protein sources, and on-the-go snacks but do we really understand what all those ingredients even are?  When one of my Fitness Train Passengers posted a pic of a protein bar she had found and was asking if it was “approved”, I couldn’t blame her for not understanding the myriad of foreign ingredients.

My Fitness Train Passengers are an amazing group of women who are dedicated to not just losing weight but really re-educating themselves and keeping the weight off for good. So a simple “I wouldn’t eat that bar” is not a sufficient answer for these girls. They want to know why — and so should you. For my simple answer: you just shouldn’t eat anything with that many ingredients. It’s bound to be just another box of heavily processed junk food under the guise of being healthy.  When buying pre-made food, many nutritionists say eight ingredients or less and I tend to agree.

But for the long answer: Here is information on a few of the biggest culprits in standard “healthy” products (found in the above protein bars) and why I think they don’t belong in a life-giving diet:

Soy Protein Isolate
This is by far one of the most common ingredients in protein bars, protein shakes, protein powders, and fortified protein snacks. You can even find soy protein isolate in “healthy” cookies, crackers and many other convenience foods. Although isolated protein seems like a good idea (they literally isolate the protein from the soy bean so that you get all the protein and none of the other calories), the process of isolating protein (in soy, dairy, hemp, etc) has been proven to raise one’s pH balance and create a more heavily acidic environment in the digestive system.  An acidic pH balance (rather than the opposite, an alkalized pH balance) has been linked to cancer. Researchers now know that cancer cells are unable to live in an alkaline environment but thrive and multiply in acidic environments.

To make matters worse, soy protein has to be processed at extremely high temperatures to reduce the levels of phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, a process that over-denatures many of the proteins in soy, making them unavailable to the body. So although that bar says 15g of protein, your body might not see it that way.

And as icing on the toxic cake, toxins are formed during the high-temperature chemical processing of isolated proteins, including nitrates, lysinalanine and MSG.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the effects of isolated proteins, I’ve written about this in greater detail in my former post, Why I Stay Away From Soy Protein Isolate.

Hydrolyzed Protein and Calcium Caseinate
While we’re talking about MSG, did you know there are at least 45 approved food additives that contain this well-documented brain toxin? Monosodium Glutamate is the technical name but there are many other food manufacturing processes that create free glutamic acid (the processed and harmful version of otherwise healthy glutamate) which acts as a neurotoxin, traveling into our brains and injuring (or sometimes killing) neurons.

Any protein (hemp, soy, whey, etc) that’s been treated with enzymes and thereby hydrolyzed will create free glutamic acid and an MSG reaction. The same goes with “Calcium Caseinate”.

Corn Syrup
One of the cheapest sweeteners on the market today, corn syrup is almost always made from genetically-modified corn crops.  But even if GMO crops don’t scare you, this Wikipedia explanation of how corn syrup is created should:

“Corn syrup is mainly produced by first adding the enzyme α-amylase to a mixture of corn starch and water. α-amylase is secreted by various species of the bacterium Bacillus; the enzyme is isolated from the liquid in which the bacteria are grown. …Glucoamylase is secreted by various species of the fungus Aspergillus; the enzyme is isolated from the liquid in which the fungus is grown. The glucose can then be transformed into fructose by passing the glucose through a column that is loaded with the enzyme D-xylose isomerase, an enzyme that is isolated from the growth medium of any of several bacteria.”

Call me old fashioned but the only “fungus” or “bacteria” I want in my daily diet is from mushrooms and good gut flora!

Maltodextrin
A sweetener made from corn (GMO!) and highly processed. Although supporters claim it’s safe because it’s derived from natural sources, I prefer to just eat straight-up natural sources and not derivatives. Sugar, alcohol, and drugs come from “natural” sources, too!  It has been claimed that maltodextrin leads to enlarged livers and kidney problems.

Sucralose
This artificial sweetener (and main sweetening ingredient in Splenda) is loved by dieters because it’s essentially calorie-free. The majority of sucralose is not broken down by the body (and therefore is non-caloric) but where does it go?! Most of it is excreted straight through the bowels while approximately 15-30% is processed by the kidneys and eliminated through the urinary tract. What part of that sounds healthy?!  If our bodies aren’t even able to digest it, why would you want to ingest it?

Inulin (Chicory Extract)
Inulin is a form of fiber, derived from chicory root.  It acts as the main source of fiber in these protein bars, but in a completely unnatural state. Even though there are plenty of documented benefits of inulin, many people question whether our bodies recognize the benefits at all.  The ingredients found in foods in their natural state work harmoniously together but inulin is an example of how food manufacturing has taken something out of it’s natural state and processed it for their own purposes.

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Although I’m an advocate for conventional calorie cutting, I’m also a big advocate for eating clean food, preferably plant-based and organic, as much as possible. I believe that successfully losing weight and keeping it off requires a complete departure from the standard North American diet and eating real, whole food on a consistent basis.  For someone who makes the transition, it takes time for the toxin withdrawals to end and the brain’s chemical responses to catch up, but within a few weeks, a diet of non-processed whole foods will always leave them feeling satisfied and the cravings for junk food suddenly disappear.  Like I always say, “deprivation is for dieter’s who don’t know how to eat well”.

Sure, cutting calories is important (if you’re currently over-eating and overweight) but if you’re eating nothing but protein bars and Slim-Fast shakes, weight loss will be temporary. It’s impossible to sustain this lifestyle and as soon as one stops “dieting” this way, they tend to put all the weight back on (and then some) because nothing in them truly changed.  If we want lasting changes in our body weight and our inner health, we need to be concerned with not only our caloric intake but the ingredients we’re ingesting, too.

When in doubt, don’t eat anything you can’t explain!

Domestically Yours,
Natasha Kay

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