I have proactively taken January and part of February to get things right with this big ol’ hunk of meat doctors tell me is my body. I started working out more, laying off the booze, and once a day I’ll even force myself to eat one of the worst foods on the planet: a protein bar.
Protein bars are sad as hell. Utilitarian and joyless, they are defined only by the aggressively dull words protein and bar. No whimsy, no merriment. You know how some food sounds good? Like butter chicken, wedding soup, or an apple fritter? Well, imagine if soup were called vitamin liquid and sandwiches were called ingredient towers. That’s the mechanical world in which protein bars operate.
A literal bar of nutrition is a lonely meal eaten by astronauts in deep space isolation for months on end. Ripping off a square shank of nutrients with your teeth is the type of dystopian meal eaten by characters in The Last of Us (you know, that show where people can’t seem to find a reason to live). No, protein bars aren’t sad—they scare the shit out of me, and eating them makes me feel less human.
Yet here I am, gnawing on one right now, because they do something, right? They’re full of healthy (ugh) protein (ugh), and they fill you up. I’m not happy about it, and not just because of the chewy, nondescript taste or the compacted protein powder flavor that makes me want to cough—even the names of these things gets me down.
Product names like RXBAR and Larabar sound so distant and unappealing. RXBAR’s packaging lists exactly what’s in the wrapper, a design choice that’s meant to be transparent but ends up feeling robotic: “3 egg whites, 6 almonds, 4 cashews, 2 dates, No B.S.” Too engineered.
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Then there are the products that seem to insult the customer’s intelligence. Primarily marketed toward men, these protein bars could easily be named something like “Jacked” or “Swole.” In fact, some of them come close to being named exactly that.
These are the protein bars I see most readily available at the local grocery store, and every time I pick one up, they make me laugh. “Wow, I bet you go to the gym,” the marketing seems to imply. And apparently, that approach works.
Below are the five bars I find most offensive, as a person who regularly (and reluctantly) eats protein bars.
Made by the CLIF Bar company, the conceit with the name Builders is that you’re sculpting your body. You know, get ripped on cookies and cream! I actually do really like the branding of a CLIF Bar and the utility of having a few in my backpack while I’m hiking. “Builders,” though, sounds like you’re supposed to eat these things so that you can get big enough to kick somebody’s ass. These bars are bulkier than most, very filling, and come in lots of great candy bar flavors like Vanilla Almond and Chocolate Peanut Butter. There’s also a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough protein bar that includes caffeine, if you’re feeling extra deranged. Side note: They all taste like somebody started to make a candy bar and then died halfway through.
Whenever I see a Think! keto protein bar I feel insulted, as if the product is talking down to me. “Think, stupid!” Like I’m incapable of making sound nutritional decisions on my own. To name a protein bar this way—as a call to action to use one’s brain—is downright condescending. And, unfortunately, I’ve been eating these like I’m being paid to endorse them.
Think! has 20 grams of protein per bar and alleges 0 grams of sugar, though each bar contains 11 grams of sugar alcohol. I did some light research on sugar alcohol, and the consensus seems to be that it’s slightly better for you than sugar; it’s got fewer calories and seems to avoid the negative effects of sugar like tooth decay and accelerated blood sugar. It’s a flavorless, thick, dense bar, but it’s my flavorless, thick, dense bar. I eat it because something so flavorless staves off hunger pangs. In short, it makes me hate food.
The company is called Barebells Functional Foods. Food that serves its function! Finally! I was tired of eating things that proved to be nutritious and fun to eat. I haven’t tasted Barebells, but I like that they are covered in cookie crispies, much like a Nestle Crunch bar. Like Builders, Barebells has even more direct gym-rat branding. Though the bar itself touts nutrition and function, I can’t help but feel like I’m being instructed to go do some tricep pressdowns (I just Googled “strength exercises”). Barebells definitely isn’t the bar for me, a guy who wants quick protein but doesn’t want to go to the gym.
As I was editing this post, I had to double check to make sure that my earlier joke about hypothetical “Jacked” bars didn’t reference a product that actually exists. Turns out, there’s something better: a protein bar from the hilariously named Jacked Factory. See what I’m saying about mechanical vibes? Nothing sucks the fun out of eating like seeing the word “Factory” on your food. I can’t help but think this bar is for people earnestly using the word “jacked,” instead of guys like me who say it ironically—usually about other people who are jacked.
Huel. You know, as in human + fuel. Christ, the only thing less catchy than naming a protein bar “Fuel” would be to name it Huel. (Also, is anybody else thinking of Huell from Breaking Bad every time they say the name out loud?) The company also does a bunch of weight management products like hot and savory mac and cheese, pasta, and chili, all of which comes in enticingly modern MRE packaging, because nothing feels more gratifying than ripping open your hard-packed square of rations and eating like a soldier. Huel is absolutely disconnected from any joy surrounding the art of eating, separating the human being from any modicum of happiness they might experience through a prepared meal.
There’s one exception to the list above, and that’s Aloha, a plant-based bar that’s a respite from the industry’s predictable branding. Aloha is tropical, inviting, and, best of all, doesn’t sound like provisions for a sentient AI program.