Are protein bars and powders damaging to gut health?

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

Are protein bars and powders damaging to gut health? GettyImages/bymuratdeniz
Are protein bars and powders damaging to gut health? GettyImages/bymuratdeniz

Related tags Gut health microbiome protein powder protein bars

High-protein products and gut health represent two of the biggest food trends of the last decade, but is one bad for the other?

The high-protein food trend has become hugely popular with consumers, in recent years, leading to the launch of a whole host of high-protein products. From high-protein yoghurts to high-protein shakes, food and beverage manufacturers have fully embraced the high-protein trend.

“Protein is a major focus for consumers,” said a spokesperson for market insight provider, Innova Market Insights.

But is the high-protein food trend potentially damaging to the other major food trend sweeping the market, gut health​?

Are high-protein products damaging to gut health?

Recent years has seen the food and beverage market flooded with high-protein products, satisfying growing consumer demand. However, some health professionals believe some protein foods and beverages, such as protein bars and protein shakes, are damaging to gut health​. So why is this?

“Handy but harsh on your stomach, protein bars are often packed with isolated fibres and sugars that don't digest well and instead ferment in your gut to cause bloating, gas, or diarrhoea,” explains Chris Dubberley, a gut health expert from Incontinence Shop. “Ingredients like chicory root fibre and maltitol, commonly found in these bars, are notorious for unsettling more sensitive stomachs.”

Protein bars, in particular, have been marketed as an energy-boosting snack for before, during or after exercise. But Dubberley says it’s important consumers ensure they choose their protein bar carefully.

“Athletes should be particularly mindful of eating protein bars to avoid digestive issues during exercise. I suggest trying protein bars with whole ingredients and minimal added sugars to help your gut health.”

Gut health - protain bar - GettyImages-skynesher
Are protein bars and powders damaging to gut health? GettyImages/skynesher

How is the sugar in some protein bars damaging to gut health?

Consumption of sugar has been linked to a number of health issues, including weight gain and diabetes. In particular, ‘free sugars’, which are any sugars added into a product rather than naturally occurring in it, are cause for concern.

“Free sugars contribute to the overall energy density of diets and higher intakes of free sugars threaten the nutrient quality of the diet by providing significant energy without specific nutrients, leading to unhealthy weight gain and increased risk of obesity and various noncommunicable diseases,” said a spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO).

Furthermore, sugar can have a very specific impact on the gut microbiome.

“Sugar consumption causes changes in the gut microbiota that can lead to inflammation and decreased immune-regulatory properties, which can pave the way for more serious health problems such as metabolic disorders and inflammatory bowel diseases,” said Jack McKenna, communications associate of scientific journal publisher, MDPI.

What is the gut microbiome?

Each of us has trillions of microbes or bacteria living in our gut. These are collectively referred to as the microbiome. The two most common species of helpful bacteria found in our gut microbiome are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Maintaining a healthy balance between the helpful (good) bacteria and the unhelpful (bad) bacteria is fundamental in supporting a healthy digestive system, with the gut now understood to be central to health, containing more than 70% of our immune system.

Gut health - Protein shake - GettyImages-Kindamorphic
Are protein bars and powders damaging to gut health? GettyImages/Kindamorphic

How is protein powder damaging to gut health?

While overconsumption of ‘free sugars’ is generally acknowledged to be detrimental to health, protein powders should be observed in more detail. The reason for this being that the ingredients they contain can vary significantly.

“Some protein powders have little added sugar, and others have a lot (as much as 23 grams per scoop). Some protein powders wind up turning a glass of milk into a drink with more than 1,200 calories,” said a spokesperson for Harvard Medical School.

And, as with protein bars, protein powders can also be detrimental to gut health.

“The vast majority of protein powders, drinks and bars all have refined sources of protein (protein isolates) along with several food additives such as sweeteners and emulsifiers meaning they are all ultra-processed and may have a negative impact on the gut,” said a spokesperson for The Gut Health Doctor Clinic.

In addition to this, there are concerns that consumers could become reliant on protein powders for their daily protein intake, rather than eating natural foods such as meat, fish, nuts and seeds. This could be damaging to the gut and overall health.

“A varied diet is key to maintaining healthy gut flora, so overloading on protein powder can throw off your gut's microbial balance. Some protein powders' added sugars and flavourings might also disturb your blood sugar levels and balance, promoting harmful bacteria growing in your gut,” says Dubberley. “While protein is needed for muscle repair, relying too heavily on supplements could lead to a fibre-deficient diet and poor gut health.”

On a more positive note, many protein powders do contain vitamins and minerals such as creatine.

“Creatine is like a guardian for your gut cells,” explains Dubberley. “It provides the energy they need to fend off damage from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), reducing inflammation and bolstering the gut's defences. This support can mean less discomfort and a healthier gut, keeping the barrier strong and preventing unwanted substances from entering the bloodstream.”

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