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Protein bar identity crisis

Although I’m a rising sophomore, I still don’t have an answer to “What’s your major” - the question that stokes about as much fear in my heart as does wrapping burritos on the line at Chipotle, though that’s for a different column.

However, I believe the reason that deciding a major is so terrifying for me is because it feels like I’m deciding a key part of my college journey. Do I challenge myself with something quantitative? Do I lean into more qualitative subjects I already enjoy? Will my peers, my professors, my future employers perceive me differently based on what I choose? So many questions, so few answers.

If a protein bar were a person, I wonder if she would feel the same way that I do about my identities: conflicted.

The supplements aisle of any Safeway or Harris Teeter feels like a dystopian bakery-themed modern art installation. There are colorful wrappings and computer-generated images of fudgy double chocolate chunk brownies, and pastel scoops of mint chip ice cream. Inside these colorful wrapping is a gummy, rubbery mass of Edens-carpet-colored sprinkles mummified in a layer of protein icing.

That said, this is not a complete knock on protein bars. Protein bars are a staple of my diet because they’re so quick and convenient. I don’t enjoy the metallic aftertaste of sugar alcohols in a Barebells bar, nor do I enjoy washing dishes coated with the cement-like remains of a microwaved Quest bar. But I appreciate that they pack 20g of protein in one bar and help me meet my daily protein goals. 

Instead, I’m at a loss for why supplement companies and other bars try so hard to market themselves as an indulgent treat. By doing so, protein bars position themselves in the purgatory between delicious “junk” foods and “healthy” whole foods -- they lack the moist crumb of a chocolate cake, nor do they provide the crisp and refreshing sweetness of a slice of watermelon. A “cashew cookie” Lara Bar tastes NOTHING like a buttery cookie dotted with crisp candied cashews. It smells like refrigerated dates and feels like sticky almonds and cashews getting stuck in your back teeth. They have the stigma of a “diet” food like juice cleanses, the expectations of a dessert, and neither the sinful delight of a dessert nor the feel-good, naturey vibe of a piece of fruit. They’re caught in the worst of both worlds. 

Instead of calling it a blueberry muffin Quest bar, why not just call it a blueberry white-chocolate chip bar? That much better describes the fillings of dried blueberries and sugar free white chocolate chips and graham cracker bits. Levelling such high expectations on a blend of whey-protein and almonds only set these products up not for failure, but instead disappointment due to a mismatch of expectations and disenchantment for what a “healthy” lifestyle is supposed to look and taste like. 

Protein bars and other on-the-go “health” items are a lesson in trying to please everybody but actually pleasing nobody. No dessert blogger would feature a protein bar that looks like a bootleg 3-Musketeers; no whole food nut could advocate for eating protein bars too frequently either -- the fiber would warrant WAY too many trips to the bathroom. 

Protein bars, as well as EVERYBODY who doesn’t neatly fit into one box (so everybody) need to embrace their own identities. Why mold yourself into a dessert-mold, when you pack a punch of protein that a brookie never could? Protein bars don’t fit neatly into either category of the traditional junk food, nor the traditional “health” food like cottage cheese or apples or hard-boiled eggs. Similarly, as students, we should embrace every aspect of our academic and personal strengths instead of erasing them to better match the archetypal pre-med student or engineer or finance bro. Thinking about protein bars in such black-and-white terms (healthy vs unhealthy) may portray it as a Franeknfood, but expanding our outlook to understand that in the 21st century, foods can look like a lot of different things, and can still fit into a healthy modern diet too. 

Jessica is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. 

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