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Are protein bars really good for you?

More and more people in urban India are looking to supplement their fitness routine with protein snacks. But are they really any good? 

Protein bars and snacks are increasingly the healthy choice for Indians.
Protein bars and snacks are increasingly the healthy choice for Indians. (Istockphoto)

Every week when Kolkata-based entrepreneur Pragya Chopra, 43, goes to the supermarket she picks up cartons of protein-rich Yoga Bars. Through the day she snacks on these 20gram protein Yoga Bars instead of biscuits or bhujiya whenever she drinks her chai or is feeling peckish. “It’s healthier,” she reasons.

And she isn’t alone. Millions are looking to eat their way to fitness even if they can’t make time for exercise or other health activities, say fitness experts and nutritionists. A recent IPSOS survey found that 72% of Indians were aware of their bodies’ nutritional needs and 91% would like to explore healthier alternatives for snacking.

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This trend of choosing what is called the “better for you” products has led to a significant number of new product launches in the last three years. Across urban India, protein-infused bars, snacks (even chips) and drinks have flooded the stores, while the category has literally exploded online. The one thing driving the growing popularity of protein bars, snacks and drinks is people’s desire to eat healthier and the belief that eating right is half the battle won in their fitness journey. The seemingly endless content on social media about better ways to achieve weight management or anti-ageing routines makes healthy eating a top priority among consumers, says KunalMutha, founder of plant-based milks brand Only Earth. 

The importance of this segment was evident when the chocolate behemoth Mondelez, the parent company of the popular Cadbury’s brand, launched their Fuse Fit bars with protein in India in September. “Consumers are now increasingly looking for on-the-go snacks that could be for mid-morning hunger, mental stimulation or even to break fatigue, as they spend most time at home… We truly believe that there exists untapped potential for the category that we are well poised to fulfill,” says Anil Viswanathan, senior director (marketing), Mondelez India. Another global player, Hershey’s, isn’t missing the party either. It has launched its plant-based milks under the Sofit brand and, like Mondelez, is trying to make its chocolates healthier too.Not to be left out, the homegrown brand Rawpressery has just launched ready to drink coffee shake with 18% protein.

Also Read: Is the festive season getting in the way of your fitness?

With the covid-19 pandemic easing up, there has been an emerging preference for health and wellness across the spectrum. This has pushed the niche category of sports nutrition into the mainstream food and beverage segments, feels Ankit Desai, marketing director of The Hershey Company, India. “The covid-19 pandemic has exponentially heightened the focus of consumers on foods and beverages that are protein-rich, immunity-based, include natural-ingredients,” he says. 

Mutha is noticing that people are becoming more thoughtful about their snacking choices. They are also placing a lot more emphasis on a quality lifestyle when shopping for quick and affordable fit food items. “While there clearly is increasing consumer desire for healthier products, innovation is propelling this market forward as producers and manufacturers are experimenting with new protein sources and advanced processing technologies,” says Desai. He adds that the fastest growing subcategories of beverages and snacks with a high source of protein claim are dairy, ice-cream, biscuits, baking ingredients and mixes.

Also Read: Should you lose weight or should you lose fat?

An interesting point that Yogabar co-founder Anindita Sampath makes is that even if one is not into fitness, one knows that these snacks are a healthier option than the traditional Indian snacks. “They want to avoid the guilt one feels after consuming something unhealthy,” says Sampath, adding, “It’s a combination of ‘healthy eating’ and convenience that’s driving the sales of protein drinks and snacks.” 

There are plenty of protein-rich foods in various traditional Indian diets. But there is a lack of understanding and education about nutrition as well as the fact that our eating habits are tailored for taste rather than nutrition, argues Sampath. And, with increasing interest in fitness and workout regimes, people are looking for a protein quick-fix, she says.

Also Read: How to get the correct nutrition balance for optimal fitness

Though Sampath says people are looking to address their body’s increasing protein needs,science shows that our body only needs a fixed amount of protein and all the extra protein that is ingested by way of “healthy” snacks or supplements is not digested or used by the body but flushed out as urine.

 “Presently, people associate high protein with being healthy,” says Simrun Chopra, a ‘deep health’ coach and founder of fitness brand Nourish With Sim. “People have this notion where they associate protein with weight loss. [Brands] target people who believe that they need more protein… protein is the key to weight loss, muscle gain, etc…None of this holds true,” she says. 

Also Read: Why the oldest weight loss diet is still the best

Chopra blames this rise on the aggressive marketing of what she calls “halo foods”. “From the packaging to the key words (used by halo foods), this is the equivalent of clickbait tactics. The consumer makes a purchase decision based on where a product is placed and how it is packaged,” she says. Chopra adds that she never recommends energy, health of protein bars to her clients as they are always loaded with sugar and are usually very high on calories. 

Whatever the case, consumers are increasingly becoming conscious of their diet and lifestyles and are trying to remain fit by consuming nutritious snack alternatives, confirms Desai. “This trend is going to become our way of living in the future,” adds Sampath.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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