The Big Protein Lie and Other Dirty Secrets

You’d be hard pressed to miss a military tank, flanked by a crowd of bulging biceps brandishing pickets with the slogan “we want healthier snacks”, travelling across the country earlier this year. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was an admirable effort, championing healthier snacks — on the face of it, this would seem to be the case. The reality is not quite as rosy.

This was a stunt from the functional food&bev brand Grenade®. They are one of many new wave functional health brands pushing indulgent protein snacks, touted as healthier than the current offerings on the market.

Grenade®’s marketing campaign featuring a military tank and brand ambassadors touring the country

In this article, we’re going to dive into this new wave of functional snacks, the health claims and whether or not they’re here to stay.

It’s fair to say protein bars and protein enriched foods have finally left the confines of health food stores and exploded into mainstream supermarkets. This is due in part to a continued awareness of protein’s importance in the diet. In the UK, 27% are now using sports nutrition products*, rising to 39% who exercise more than once a week, a recent Mintel report suggests. This new love affair with protein and functional snacks is helmed by millennials and Gen Z, with over 42% of UK consumers aged 16–24 having consumed sports nutrition products.

In the last 2 years, over two dozen protein bars have launched — from health-centric paleo bars all the way to mainstream confectionery with the likes of Mars getting in on the act. It’s not just protein bars that have had all the fun, breakfast cereals imbued with additional protein, yoghurts and even crisps now proudly display the magical word protein on their packaging.

However, some of these foods, are hiding some dirty little secrets.

A few caveats before I dive in: firstly despite some of these products not living up to their claims and missing the mark, their combined effort must not be overlooked. They have paved the way for future brands to enter the market and created an environment of continued improvement, the polar opposite to the confectionery market of old. Without these initial efforts from the likes of Grenade, PhD, Fufill, Optimum Nutrition and many others, we would be much further behind.

Secondly, this is written from a place of love, experience and desire to see these products succeed and evolve. Six years ago, I launched a no added sugar chocolate range. To say it was incredibly difficult is an understatement, especially as the war on sugar hadn’t quite begun, I know the struggle and that compromises have to be made in order to bring a product to market. I still work with FMCG, including my own — this should give credence my feet are very much planted in the food and drink industry.

Protein: All is not what it seems

First of all, let’s tackle protein — what is it, why do we need it and is the protein in these foods the same as whole foods? If you’re familiar with protein and it’s function in the body, you can skip straight onto the examination of packaged foods below.

What is protein and why do we need it?
From a chemical standpoint, protein is composed of amino acids, these are organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. Amino acids form the basic elements of protein, and proteins are the building blocks of muscle mass. When consumed, protein is broken down into amino acids. Proteins and amino acids are used for nearly every metabolic process in the body.

All are not Equal
Proteins from different sources vary greatly in the types of amino acids they contain. There are 20 amino acids your body needs to build proteins for normal growth, maintenance of the immune system and overall health — 9 are called essential amino acids. They are called essential as they cannot be made by your body and must come from your diet.

This is where things get interesting:

Animal proteins such as whey, meat and eggs, contain a good balance of all the amino acids that we need (insects are also packed full of protein with a great amino balance). Whereas some plant proteins are low in key amino acids. That’s not to say you can’t get all nine from plants: legumes, such as soybean and pea contain all 9 as well — just not as many non-essential amino acids. This is why vegetarian and vegan protein powders will use a combination, such as rice and pea to maximize the amount and quality of amino acids. Many brands now use the phrase “complete protein” as in the protein source contains all 9 essential amino acids — this is a step in the right direction as it aids the consumer in comparing products.

This leads us onto brands infusing or bolstering their products with protein, and as we just covered, there are different types of protein, and despite the word “protein” emblazoned on the front of pack, this doesn’t mean it’s complete or indeed even a good source of protein.

The protein bandwagon

Even though the line between conventional sports nutrition products and lifestyle foods with a functional slant has blurred, there is still a distinct difference between the two.

For ease, lets separate these into two categories, as I don’t think it’s fair to compare them directly: the first group of products appeal to the nutrition-conscious consumer — consumers aware they need to make healthier lifestyle choices, whereas the sports-centric products appeal more to the nutrition-savvy — consumers with a deeper interest in product claims, better understanding of macronutrients, going beyond simple front of pack highlights.

First up: Nutrition-Conscious/Health-Aware

As nutrition-conscious consumers are searching for products and brands that aline with their mindset, brands are keen to fill the void, as is illustrated by a 2017 Deloitte survey revealing 88% of companies have introduced products that had been formulated or reformulated to lean in towards healthier diets and lifestyles.

A brand of note tackling this would be Kelloggs, their new strategy aims to do this with their Special K range. Kelloggs have ditched the antiquated ‘diet heavy’ branding — the renowned red swimsuit and measuring tape which featured prominently on pack and in its advertising. Kellogg’s is now focused on positioning the purported health credentials of Special K.

Kellogg’s is also looking to bolster its foothold in the functional fitness-centric arena with its acquisition of RX-BAR for a cool $600m earlier this year.

There’s more sugar in these bars gram per gram than protein to justify leading with protein.

How much protein?

So how does Kellogg’s stack up? In short, not well — the front of pack is prominently displayed with the word protein. However, we need to read the fine print to realise it is only a “source of protein” as at 3.9g of protein per 28g bar, this isn’t high enough to be called “high in protein” in line with approved standards from EFSA — which I’ll add are outdated in their own right in any case. Technically there is a complete protein in these bars, yet the small volume of protein is not worth the drawbacks that come in the form of glucose syrup, dates and fructose, all appearing in the ingredient list before soy protein isolate.

This is a similar theme throughout these nutrition-aware products, with the likes of British supermarket Morrisons ‘Protein Bread’ containing 4.4g of protein per slice, yet the protein source is incomplete as this is bolstered by additional incomplete wheat protein.

My personal favourite is Graze’s ‘Bites’ range. The “protein” bites are made up of mostly oats, margarine and golden syrup (not a great start). Per 30g bar, 7g is sugar, 5g is protein. This to me seems a great deception when 83% of the product is not protein, yet the product claim on pack is protein first. This is the same trend across Graze’s ‘superfood’ bites — with sugar appearing more than 4 times in the ingredient list. Possibly the most puzzling on pack item, is the addition of the ‘nutritionist approved’ claim. Not sure what nutritionist approved 5 uses of sugar along with margarine and felt it stood up to a superfood.

The R&D department was on holiday

Some of these companies have been caught out in the act misappropriating and abusing the word protein. Mars Wrigley Confectionery landed in hot water earlier this year when they were hit with a class action lawsuit alleging it misrepresented the nature and quality of its Snickers Protein Bars.

Lenny & Larry’s not so healthy cookies

It’s not just the big boys that can fall foul, startups have also taken some heat. Protein cookie brand Lenny & Larry’s, recently had to pay £3.8m ($5m) to settle a lawsuit over protein claims. Ouch.

It would seem consumers shouldn’t place too much trust in front of pack claims and should instead investigate packaging a little deeper in future. The same goes for brands wanting to jump onto the protein bandwagon, research and verification are important before deploying products with outlandish claims.

What about all this Sugar Free stuff?

Next up: Nutrition-Savvy/Health-Savvy

Most fitness based and sports-centric brands do a decent job with the protein side of their products usually complete protein in the form of whey or a vegan combination, the area they tend to either struggle with or tend to verge on the lazy side is with the sweetener aspect.

Brands get around using sugar by substituting it for sugar alcohols — there are many, including maltitol, sorbitol, lactitol, xylitol and erythritol to name a few. They are similar but behave in different reactions across taste, absorption and interaction with the body.

The most popular sugar alcohol being used across products today is maltitol*. Once reserved for the back aisle of pharmacies under the bright light of a “diabetic” shelf, maltitol has become the darling of the fitness industry. Sadly, maltitol is very much a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Maltitol is typically used in low-carb (also net/impact carbs) or “sugar-free” products such as diabetic sweets and protein bars because of the similarity to sugar. The similarities cover texture, mouthfeel, sweetness level and the behaviour with other ingredients. Brands that use maltitol as their primary sweetener in their products include Atkins, Grenade, Phd Smart, Maximuscle, Warrior and many others.

One of the biggest issues with maltitol is that brands can use the claim “no added sugar” and “sugar-free,” regardless of the fact that it still affects blood sugar in a very demonstrable way, though this does differ across individuals. Your pancreas can’t distinguish the difference between maltitol and sugar, thus it gets treated as a sugar, raising your insulin needs.

Maltitol is a carbohydrate with calories, there is no getting around this —despite the packaging claims of “low-carb” or “just 3g net carbs”. When maltitol enters the body, even though all the calories are not absorbed, it still maintains 2-3 calories per gram, similar to sugar’s 4 calories per gram and it still triggers an insulin response.

To understand this correctly, we need to look at glycemic index (GI) or more specifically glycemic load (GL). The GL is a measure of how a carbohydrate affects blood sugar levels, taking both the type (GI) and quantity (grams per serving) into account, for a list of foods and their GI, Harvard has a good one. Foods with a high glycemic index cause rapid spikes in blood sugar — the all too familiar buzz after taking a swig of sugar loaded soft drink or tearing into that bag of pick ‘n’ mix and feeling the hit of sugar. The spike in blood sugar triggers the body to release insulin.

Maltitol is manufactured in a few different forms, syrup and powder. With the syrup having a glycemic index of 52 which is very close to table sugar at 60, the powdered form is around 35, the latter is still coming in higher than most other sugar alcohols, though it is considered on the lower side of the GI.

Maltitol has 75–80% the sweetness of sugar and calories, it’s not much of a leap to say the benefits of this sweetener are massively overstated and not worth the expense or the trouble. But wait, there’s more bad news.

“Eat two at a time. Three if you’re brave. But for the love of God and all things on this earth, DO NOT EAT ANY MORE.” — Review of Haribo’s Sugar Free Gummy bears

Products containing maltitol must clearly display this warning: “Excessive consumption may cause laxative effects”. What’s counted as excessive? Approximately 50g, which is approximately a 100g “sugar-free” chocolate bar.

Many consumers complain of the laxative effects maltitol is responsible for - upon consumption, symptoms associated include cramping, bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea, and in some cases severe abdominal pain.

Here’s an extract from the Institute of Dentistry, University of Turku, Finland

“Despite the many positive effects of sugar alcohols, their consumption is frequently linked also to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and abnormal flatulence [9, 12], which affect quality of life negatively and result in a considerable economic burden in terms of health-care costs.”

If you want to read some horror stories that accompany consuming too much maltitol, I direct you to Amazon reviews of Haribo’s Sugar free gummy bears. WARINING: graphic descriptions of the events are probably NSFW and also pretty disgusting.

The strangest thing about products containing maltitol on the market today is that they are counted as healthy or healthier. This is rather odd considering the overall ingredients of most of these products is sub-par.

A healthier chocolate spread?

Even though maltitol is a carbohydrate, due to the current legislation, many products are allowed to calculate these out of the net carb counts and artificially deflate the sugar impact, thus many consumers are now ingesting additional hidden carbohydrates unbeknownst to them.

The spreadable brand Jim Jams is another company pushing the healthier angle. The main two ingredients are maltitol and vegetable oil — specifically rapeseed and palm oil. There is nothing healthy or healthier about these two ingredients. Add to the fact that this is aimed at children and their tolerance for sugar alcohols is halved. Careful monitoring of dosage is definitely advised on this one.

It’s not all doom and gloom, this movement of healthier snacking is certainly here to stay and can only improve with time and a better understanding of ingredients both from manufacturers, brands and in turn consumers. I’m optimistic about the future, but more transparency and better quality ingredients are needed from brands big and small, to move this revolution forward.

What do you think, did I miss some brands or products you’d like to see? Let me know in the comments below.

*Some sugar free products also use artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame, Sucralose, Acesulfame k and others — but as these are non-caloric and technically have a minimum impact on insulin, so I have omitted these. Further, some protein bars such as Quest and Fulfill include only erythritol and stevia as sweeteners, which has a minimal effect on blood sugar.