The ‘clean eating’ and protein trends have spawned a new type of snack – energy and protein balls. Foodie blogs and Instagram are packed with pictures and accompanying recipes. There’s also a wide range being sold in health food stores and supermarkets.
They are billed as a healthy energy boost, targeted especially at gym-goers, young adults and busy mums (try searching for #energyball, it will almost always also be tagged #healthy).
But behind the obvious hype, do they offer any real nutritional health benefits?
At Nutrilicious we under undertook a full nutrition and health analysis to answer this question. Our team of dietitians assessed seven brands currently on sale in the UK – a total of 44 balls.
A summary of our assessment
Protein and energy balls trade on a healthy image that isn’t always deserved.
- One protein ball, three times a week = 26,000kcal a year, at an average cost of £312.
- None of the balls tested were low in sugars, very few were low in saturated fat – especially the balls with added coconut.
- Replacing part of the calories we burn off at the gym with a protein/energy ball negates the benefits of physical activity.
- More protein is not necessarily better. We generally don’t need more protein in our diet, rather we need to spread our intake through the day.
- Consumers would be better off tucking into alternative, cheaper snacks that provide a lower saturated fat, lower sugar, tasty protein/energy boost, such as a reduced fat hummus with red pepper crudités or a small prawn or chicken salad sandwich.
The analysis in depth
Are the balls ‘protein rich’?
By law, to be permitted to claim ‘a source of’ protein a product must provide at least 12 per cent of energy from this nutrient. To be a ‘rich’ source means that the product must provide at least 20% of energy as protein.
Of the 22 protein balls analysed, the majority are indeed ‘rich’ in protein, providing 20-28% energy as protein. Only five are just ‘a source of’ protein. The protein in these products comes often from whey protein, but also (especially in vegan friendly options) from the likes of hemp, pea protein, almonds, and so on, providing a source of plant protein.
However, despite being able to claim they are rich in protein, per serving they provide on average just 8.5g. The protein quantity varies significantly between brands, with some providing as little as 2.6g while others provide as much as 13g per serve.
Do we actually need more protein?
Even if the balls are providing a high level of protein, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Protein intakes in the UK are already above recommendations of 1g per kg body weight and excess protein consumed will simply be converted to fat in the body.
It’s not about more protein, but rather optimising our protein intakes. Rather than having more, we need to spread our protein intake better through the day, so our bodies can process it.
All the balls we analysed are energy dense – in other words, they pack in a lot of calories.
The average 40g protein ball provides 166kcals; the average 33g energy ball provides 129kcals. These are similar in calories to:
- A 330ml can of lemon or cola based drink (around 138kcal)
- 2 chocolate digestives (142kcal)
- ¾ standard Mars Bar (165kcal)
Some marketers use the term ‘energy boost’ to sell their product, knowing consumers do not tend to associate this with extra unnecessary calories that will more than likely turn to body fat. With 60% of the population overweight or obese, and an average national BMI of 27, the reality is that the majority people don’t need this added ‘energy boost’ – they already consume too many calories.
This is even true of the target audience of those who do regular exercise. Adding further calories from an energy ball would just counter all the hard work done at the gym. In order to burn off the calories from just one 40g protein ball (which can be consumed in a single bite), it would require the average UK female (BMI of 27, weighing around 70.3kg) to undertake one of the following:
- 35 mins brisk walking (where you’re slightly out of breath)
- 34 mins leisurely bike ride
- 21 mins moderate to high impact aerobics
- 19 mins on a rowing machine – moderate intensity
- 14 mins breast stroke
- 10 mins running fast up the stairs
None of the products in our analysis scored green (<=5%) for sugars.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to find a sugars content that’s more than 40% – higher than sugary cereals. The highest we found was in an energy ball with 54.9%, providing 26.4g sugars per ball serve.
In many cases, the sugars are added. For the majority of the balls on the market, much of the sugar is the ‘free’ type, with date, agave and malt syrups being popular choices of added sugar. These sweeteners are often erroneously thought to be a healthier choice than ‘refined’ sugar and manufacturers can (and do) capitalise on this misconception, allowing their high sugar products to seem more wholesome than they are.
In a few products, sugars come only from dried fruit – which seems like a good thing. However, breaking down of the structure of the dried fruit during processing will result in the normally ‘intact’ sugars becoming ‘free’ and affect the body and teeth no differently to table sugar. If the aim is to increase fruit and vegetable intake, the best option is for fresh, frozen or canned.
Energy balls on average provide 11.3g sugars; protein balls provide 12.7g sugars per serve. This is 38% to 42% of the recommended daily free sugars intakes for adults and teens.
- Saturated fats
In all but a handful of cases, the energy/protein balls score either amber or red in the traffic light system for cholesterol-raising saturated fat.
Only 6/44 (14%) products analysed scored green (<=1.5%) for saturated fats.
An average portion provides 1.7g saturated fat – 8.5 % of the Recommended Intake (RI). Highest levels tend to be found in protein balls that contain a lot of desiccated coconut – the highest we found (in a product weighing 45g) was 4.95g saturates, or 25% of the RI.
With most protein/energy balls costing nearly £2 per serving, they are an expensive snack.
What should change?
Our calorie and protein consumption: and where it comes from
a. Manufacturers are trading on the expectation from many consumers – frequently young women – that energy/protein balls are more wholesome, more ‘energising’ and more satiating than other snacks.
But we already get enough energy (calories) and protein in our diet. And if we do need more, we could be sourcing them from foods that are a lot cheaper and that can provide a more rounded nutrient profile. These healthier and cheaper equivalent protein sources are an example:
- 1¼ medium eggs – 44% fewer calories, no added sugars: 18p
- 35g chicken (about 1/5 of a chicken breast) – 76% fewer calories, less saturated fat, no added sugars: 28p
- 170g serving of low fat yogurt – 34% fewer calories, no added sugars, lower in saturated fats: 33p
- 200g individual can of baked beans – same calories, no saturated fat, lower in added sugars: 18p
b. To help optimise the body’s natural muscle protein synthesis, we should actually be reducing our overall protein intake and spreading the load more evenly throughout the day. We need to add more protein to breakfast and cut back on the protein at lunch and dinnertime.
- Marketing the products
Responsible marketing is needed to ensure consumers who can afford this luxury use energy or protein balls as a replacement and not an addition to their current intakes. It is well known that the term ‘energy’ does not translate to calories for consumers, and the ongoing misuse of this term can only contribute to the ongoing overconsumption of energy dense foods in the UK.
Manufacturers should target consumers who are most likely to benefit from these products: elite athletes; those with poor appetites or higher than average requirements; and amateur sports individuals during periods of strenuous exercising/training. But even the International Society for Sports Nutrition emphasises every day foods first and foremost rather than ‘super bars’.