Why your protein bars and powders may not be as healthy as they claim
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- A study of “sports foods” has found that one-third of the products – most commonly the protein bars – had incorrectly calculated kilojoules.
- Despite the popularity of these foods and their increasing availability outside of gyms and off sports fields, they are rarely evaluated.
- Currently it is up to manufacturers to ensure the information on the packaging is accurate.
So-called “sports foods” like protein powders, bars, ready-to-drink beverages and snacks come with many claims: bulk, shred, energise, perform, recover, guilt-free, gold-standard. Many of them should also say ultra-processed, misleading and less nutritious than they suggest.
The sales of sports foods in Australia have increased by 195 per cent since 2011, as part of a global market projected to muscle-up to $118 billion by 2030. But new research suggests the industry is having a laugh at our expense.
Sports foods are not as healthy as they make out. In fact, they’re often not healthy at all. Credit: Getty
The study, published in Frontiers in Nutrition this week, analysed the nutrition content, ingredients and claims on the packaging of 558 products sold in Australian supermarkets, pharmacies, health food stores and gyms.
Lead author Celeste Chapple is a former personal trainer and competitive powerlifter who saw how prolific the use of supplements and sports foods were within the industry.
And despite the popularity of these foods and their increasing availability outside of gyms and off sports fields, they are rarely evaluated. Rather, it is up to manufacturers to ensure the information on the packaging is accurate. So, as part of her PhD at Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Chapple decided to conduct an audit of the sports foods being sold in the mainstream.
Chapple and her team found that nearly half of the products didn’t have the mandatory labelling to indicate that they are not suitable for children under 15 years or pregnant women, and that they must be consumed under medical or dietetic supervision.
After adding up the energy content of the protein, fat, carbohydrate and fibre listed, they found that one-third of the products – most commonly the protein bars (69.2 per cent) – had incorrectly calculated the kilojoules. Over half had under-calculated and some were incorrect by 30 per cent.
“I’m not sure how they came up with the numbers,” says Chapple. “There hasn’t been a review done of these foods for a very, very long time. So, I think that they’ve managed to fly under the radar and, as with a lot of things to do with food labelling regulation in Australia, it’s not really looked at until there’s a problem.”
Clinical sports nutritionist Sally O’Neil says, from her own experience developing a sports food company called Fit Mixes, nutritional information panels (NIPs) can be made in minutes “with a high degree of human error and/or manipulation”.
“To generate a NIP, a company must enter individual ingredients and how many grams of said ingredient amount to ‘one serve’ before a calculator spits out a table that is approved for use on packaging,” she adds.
It means even educated customers can be misled. “I’ve spent much of my career asking clients to understand food labels, so they can make informed choices when it comes to what they fuel their bodies with, but even then, the food industry is failing them,” says O’Neil.
Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia and sports dietitian for the Newcastle Knights rugby league team, Trent Watson, says the findings are unsurprising.
“It’s more about the dollar than the benefit that’s provided,” he says. “It’s not going to take away from supplement companies promoting and making those claims because it sells product.”
And though he says some athletes do use sports foods, primarily because they are training for many hours each day and struggle to get enough energy in, they are used sparingly and with the guidance of a dietitian.
For those going to the gym three days a week for an hour, it’s possible to get enough protein by including chicken breasts, tuna, eggs and chickpeas in our diets, Chapple says. Adding in sports foods is just unnecessary kilojoules, often with a bunch of additives and sugar alternatives (the researchers identified 19 different sweetener types commonly being used). All for a premium.
“Aim to consume no less than 80 per cent of your daily nutritional needs from whole foods,” adds O’Neil. “Where a supplement is required, look for isolated products, such as 100 per cent creatine monohydrate, rather than a blend of ingredients. That way you can limit the chances of the nutrition panels being vastly incorrect.”
Not only vastly incorrect, but rarely healthier than confectionary bars.
“I think there’s a perception that they’re healthier somehow,” Chapple says. “And that they have some magical properties. But ultimately, these are an ultra-processed food.”
A spokesperson for Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) says they are currently reviewing Formulated Supplementary Sports Foods and expect the findings to be released in 2024: “The review aims to ensure regulation within the code regarding formulated supplementary sports foods is clear, functions well and considers possible future innovation. It will consider all elements of regulation including definitions, composition and labelling requirements.”
“FSANZ sets the standards in the code but does not interpret or enforce them – this is the remit of jurisdictional food agencies in the states and territories.”
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