Are protein bars glorified candy?

If you’re committed to a nutrition and training program there’s a good chance that you have at least one supplement bottle on your kitchen counter. New products seem to hit the market every day and promise results. Choosing quality products that fit your lifestyle is tough to do without a little educated and unbiased guidance, especially when it comes to clean and portable sources for those of us on-the-go.

Todd is the owner of Active Nutrition and my go-to resource for supplement advice. He’s been involved in the industry for over 15 years and is an encyclopedia of information on supplementation and clean nutrition. He’s also an honest straight-shooter, and has educated me and introduced me to some of my favorite clean nutrition sources. I recently visited Todd at his Castro location to talk industry trends, choosing quality products, and how he really feels about all of the protein bar brands flooding the market.

If you live in San Francisco, swing by Active Nutrition in the Castro, and Todd will hook you up. You can also visit one of the other three store locations in Northern California or if you’re out of state, check out the website.

How did you get started in the supplement and nutrition industry?

I’ve been involved for over 15 years. I was fascinated with human performance and supplements and that really piqued my interest. The way that people could hack their nutrition and transform their physique really appealed to my inner geek. I watch our industry carefully and pride myself on being ahead of the curve.

The supplement industry is booming. How do you stay current  with the latest trends and evaluate the quality of new products coming to market?

I spend a lot of time learning about new ingredients, raw materials, and how they interact with the human body. If you enjoy knitting then you’re reading every knitting website out there. I feel the same way about this industry - learning everything about nutrition and supplements is my passion and my livelihood. I approach my research like an analyst and immerse myself in white papers and other independent peer-reviewed research. I read as much information as possible and find the common denominator.

You will always find opposing views. One person might say a product makes you lose weight while another one says the same product slows down your metabolism. Usually, you find it’s two competing companies trying to undermine each other in the social media world. That’s how a lot of misinformation gets spread. The nutritional supplement industry is filled with vipers and snakes and has a bad reputation. Many of the ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’ are those with the deepest pockets. They are the ones who can buy the most full page ads in Muscle & Fitness. That’s scary.

I could claim that protein made from soft-shell crab is the most anabolic recovery drink on the market and easily convince consumers with a clever marketing and advertising campaign. So much of what’s out there is hype, fluff, and complete bullshit. You’ve gotta separate fact from fiction or you’re in trouble.

For example, beef protein isolate is very popular right now. What people don’t realize is that a lot of this beef protein is coming from overseas, mainly China. Because the sourcing isn’t regulated or disclosed, it could easily be obtained from rural regions without quality control. After processing, the product could potentially be laced with carcinogens or pests or rodent droppings. Lots of nasty stuff.

When people rave about beef protein I ask, “What is the source of the protein? Is it grass fed and pasture raised or is it crap that’s sitting around in some slaughterhouse?” You really have to know where this stuff is coming from. This is where consumers need to do their due diligence. Read the labels and ask where raw materials are sourced. Many companies who claim their product is made in America get their raw materials from overseas and that’s a problem. Cutting costs often means cutting quality and too many companies are pulling the wool over your eyes in the name of market share and company profit.

The worst myth of all time is that protein bars are a source of clean supplementation. Anyone who is working for a great physique will not achieve it living off of protein bars. You might as well stick your head in the toilet because it’s the nutritional equivalent of just eating shit.

How does the consumer know where the ingredients come from?

You don’t. That’s the worst part when it comes to being a consumer. There is no full disclosure on the package. The label shows the macronutrients of the product but it won’t tell you if it comes from the US, Canada, or China. I’d like to know whether my protein comes from New Zealand and is grass fed or if it’s D-grade shit coming from a garbage pile. Do your research or talk to an unbiased source before you purchase a new product.

Do people want to know? Do customers ever ask you about the source of supplements?

I’ve noticed more people than ever who are reading labels and asking questions about the sourcing and quality of their supplements, especially the above 40-crowd. Younger folks who grow up on a steady stream of bro-culture and magazines seem to only be interested in the newest hype without really looking under the hood. We see a real delineation between educated consumers and those impressed by flash and sizzle. There’s a definite correlation between the younger crowd and how susceptible you are to advertising hype.

What are your thoughts on protein bars that can be found on the market?

Most protein bars are absolute fucking shit! They are glorified candy bars with corn syrup solids, fillers, binders, and inferior protein, and lots of soy derived ingredients. They have the nutritional value of garbage.

A good protein bar consists of a clean source of protein, whether whey or vegan, is organic, free range or pharmaceutical grade. It has a natural, low glycemic sweetener that causes a minimal spike in your insulin levels. Finally, it contains a clean fiber to satiate you and fat that is derived from medium-chain triglycerides - preferably from almonds, walnuts or non-GMO peanuts.

Are there any protein bars that you recommend? What should a consumer look for?

There are a few quality bars on the market. Look for brands that contain predominantly protein and whole food ingredients.

Check the labels for:

  • 10 ingredients or less

  • Protein content between 20 - 30g

  • Lower carbohydrate count than protein

  • All natural, non-GMO ingredients

  • Low sugar content - ideally, the lower sugar content the better. Best to not exceed 1/3 of the total protein ratio of the bar. A bar containing 20g protein, should not have more than 6 or 7g of sugar.

  • Ingredients you can pronounce. Whey protein, rice protein, oatmeal, peanut butter, greens, apples...

  • Avoid soy. Soy is complete shit.

It's important to understand labels

What is the logic between 20 - 30g of protein in a bar?  

20g of protein hits the sweet spot for bars. I’m a firm believer the body should never take in more than 30g of protein every 90 min, because that’s the comfortable rate that can be digested by the body without stressing the kidneys and GI tract. In some cases more is possible, but if you have a propensity for kidney stones or stomach issues in your family history, you could possibly exacerbate that.

If you need carbs you can grab an apple, but convenient protein for those on the go is difficult to hack. What do you suggest for those that want a convenient, portable protein bar alternative?

Find an organic protein shake that is naturally sweetened when on the go. If possible, throw in a scoop of a high ORAC  (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) green superfood powder. When you need more of a meal replacement, add a handful of nuts (brazil nuts, walnuts, etc.) or a tablespoon of coconut oil or almond butter. This clean, whole food combination will satiate you, helps crank up a bit of energy, and keeps your cognitive function up without crashing and burning you to the ground. Be alert, not inert.


Thanks, Todd. It’s always a pleasure. I look forward to our next discussion about another good or bad, tasty or not so delicious supplement. And to all of you, if you love protein bars so much that you can’t live without them consider making them at home. There are plenty of recipes that can be found online. Combine healthy ingredients into a delicious treat and know what  you put in your body.

Do you have any favorite protein treat recipes? Share them with me below in the comment section or tag me on Instagram @mindsets_fitness.


Anka Urbahn