The Scary Truth About Protein Bars—And 4 Ways to Choose a Healthy One

 

Walk into any grocery store lately, and a vast selection of protein bars beckons as a quick, efficient and nutritious way to fuel your body. But no protein bar is created equal; they vary in cost, purpose, flavor and most of all, ingredients. It’s enough to make your head spin, and enough to make me wonder: which ones are actually good for you? After trying several different brands, and speaking to a few nutritionists, here’s what you need to know to choose a protein bar without sabotaging your health.

 

1. Look for ingredients with whole foods.

Surprise, surprise: the best protein bars are made up of whole foods and straightforward ingredients, such as dried fruit, egg whites, nuts, oats and coconut. Any bar where you can understand what’s actually in it gets a big high five from most nutritionists as an optimal choice.

As a big fan of Larabars, I knew these made the cut since all of their bars prioritize 3-9 simple ingredients, i.e., my beloved cherry flavor which includes unsweetened cherries, dates and almonds. (However, if you don’t like dates, that’s another story, as Larabars kinda run the game on that flavor.) Rxbars, whose “No B.S.” claim on the front packaging pretty much says it all, are also great options and popular with most of my active friends, family members and colleagues.

 

Everyone can picture what an almond looks like, but you’d probably have a tough time distinguishing whey protein isolate from any other ambiguous powder.

 

“I always look for bars with whole foods like nuts, fruits, seeds and veggies.” says nutritionist Elissa Goodman. “For example, everyone can picture what an almond looks like, but you’d probably have a tough time distinguishing whey protein isolate from any other ambiguous powder. Ideally, the ingredients are organic, non-GMO, dairy and gluten-free. Look for vegan protein sources and cacao instead of cacao powder or chocolate. My personal favorites are YES bars, Tosi protein bars and my own homemade recipes.”

 

Source: Well Plated

 

2. Steer clear of a hidden culprit: sugar.

I quickly realized that the majority of protein bars share one thing in common: extra sugar. Loads of it. This shocked me, considering protein bars are frequently touted as a health-friendly snack or post-workout bite. But high added sugar levels, and weird unnecessary ingredients, are hiding everywhere—even in the ones claiming to be “good” for you. Considering the American Heart Association suggests only 25g of added sugar for women per day, you can see how a single protein bar can use up that allotment fast.

For context, here are a few popular brands I tried, and the sugar counts in each:

  • Square Organics, Chocolate Crunch, 13g
  • Bobo’s, Peanut Butter Filled—13g
  • ThinkThin, Chunky Peanut Butter—21g (sugar alcohol, the tricksters)
  • PerfectBar, Blueberry Cashew—18g (major bummer, as this one was a previous fave)
  • PRO BAR, Chocolate SuperGreens—16g
  • Luna Protein, Chocolate Salted Caramel—15g
  • Clif Builder’s Protein, Crunchy Peanut Butter—22g
  • Clif Bar, Oatmeal Raisin—20g

No bueno.

Better choices:

Keep in mind, if there’s chocolate, cacao or fruit involved, the sugar count will be higher, and sometimes that’s okay. For example, the cherry Larabar I love? 23g of sugar, but most of it comes from the dates and unsweetened cherries, which are natural sources. Also, notice how even within the same brand—Clif bars, for instance—sugar counts can vary wildly.

I know, I know: but some of them taste so good! I’m not saying to avoid your tried-and-true, buuuuut start paying attention. For me, the analysis of sugar in popular protein bar brands really opened my eyes to how damn easy it is to consume extra, unnecessary sugar even when I think I’m being healthy.

 

In most cases, the longer the ingredient list is, the better chance that this product is not that good for you. Protein bars are not candy bars and their purpose is to fortify our nutrition with protein.

 

Ingredients to avoid completely, per Goodman and Sananes:

  • Non-natural sugars (includes brown rice syrup, honey, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, cane sugar, dextrose, agave nectar, barley malt, fructose, caramel, sucralose, evaporated cane juice)
  • Sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol) and “fake” sugars
  • Ingredients that sound like chemicals
  • Dairy products like whey or casin
  • Partially hydrogenated oils
  • Artificial food coloring
  • Artificial flavors
  • Artificial preservatives
  • Carrageenan
  • Non-organic soy and soy protein isolate

 

Source: Lauren Conrad

 

3. Pick ones high in protein, and know why you’re eating them.

Ok, so now you know to avoid high-sugar protein bars, but what about the amount of protein itself? Most bars range anywhere from 3 to 20 grams of protein per serving, and you’ll also want to pay attention to good sources of fat, carbs and fiber.

On the whole, the amount of protein you need depends on what you’re looking for and your activity levels. If I’m sitting at home and bored while watching tv, I probably don’t need 20g, but if I don’t have time to eat lunch while on the go, that amount might be a good choice for me. Likewise, if I’m wanting an afternoon snack on a walk with my dog, a bar with 6g of protein could be perfect. It is up to you, so use common sense based on your goal for the bar itself. (Note: the average woman needs at least 46g of protein a day, which does add up quickly with a regular, balanced diet.)

 

Keep it simple by choosing a bar with more protein than sugar.

 

“In general, you want to make sure you’re getting enough protein from your bar of choice so it helps keep you full,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN. “I’d suggest looking for one with at least 5 grams of protein per bar, meaning it provides at least 10 percent of your daily value for protein.”

“If you’re an athlete about to run a marathon, you’ll need a higher calorie bar than someone sitting at the office craving a snack,” notes Lisa DeFazio, MS, RD. “I like Larabars, GoMacro and Clif Bars, and I avoid high sugar bars and bars covered in chocolate. In terms of calories, aim for about 150 calories per bar for a snack.”

 

Source: @larabar

 

4. Prioritize real food first.

My main question for all the nutritionists I spoke to: is it okay to eat a protein bar every day? (#askingforafriend) Turns out it depends, aka . . . not really.

Instead of ingesting protein bars all the time in a go-go-go lifestyle, most diet experts say: slow down and eat real food. That could mean high-protein foods like cottage cheese, natural nut butter, plain oatmeal, turkey or edamame. And if you’re vegan, look for foods like quinoa, hummus, black beans, brown rice, tofu and lentils.

 

Try to incorporate foods like hardboiled eggs, string cheese, and Greek yogurt—which all offer protein and are easy to eat on the run.

 

“I prefer real food as a main source of protein,” says Goodman. “Since bars are considered processed food, I would not recommend them as an everyday solution.”

“If you’re talking about a bar made out of whole foods with minimal added sugar, then yes, you can have one every day,” adds Gorin. “But you wouldn’t want to eat sugary bars or bars with sugar alcohols (which can cause gastrointestinal upset) every day. I I also want to emphasize that you should look to whole foods that are easy to grab and go, as well. Try to incorporate foods like hardboiled eggs, string cheese, and Greek yogurt—which all offer protein and are easy to eat on the run.”

Do you incorporate protein bars into your diet? Share your favorites with us!

  • Nora

    Did you know that GMO and non-GMO ingredients are the same, nutritionally? https://www.bestfoodfacts.org/video-gm-nutritional-diff/

    Same with organic and non-organic. It’s a big misconception that non-GMO, organic and gluten-free ingredients are better for you. Humans have been eating wheat, and the gluten in it, for more than ten thousand years.

    I think it’s misleading to publish nutrition recommendations like this with no evidence as to why the choices you’re recommending are “better” for people.

    • Julia

      Thanks for this opinion, Nora. The nutritionists I spoke with recommended non-GMO, organic and GF, but that’s certainly a recommendation and readers are welcome to make a different choice!

  • Elisabeth

    In the image at the top you say MORE THAN 10 grams of sugar! I assume that’s a typo, you want the less than sing (which is <) not the greater than sign. 🙂

    • Julia

      Definitely a typo! We will get that fixed!

    • The Everygirl

      Thanks Elisabeth! We updated 🙂

  • Mallory Marie

    Great article! My favorite are Quest Bars (chocolate brownie) and Larabars!

  • Charlot

    Some of the “low sugar” bars you recommend (e.g. Quest bars) include sweetener substitutes or sugar alcohols like sucralose or erythritol… no thanks.

    • C

      Couldn’t agree more, Charlot. This article was very contradictory at times- saying to stay away from non-vegan sources of protein, but simultaneously suggesting Quest bars (which contain whey protein isolate) as a healthy option. Quest have ADDED sugars and sugar alcohols like you said; Square Organics have organically derived sugars in the low Glycemic form of coconut sugar. Also there was no definition of the “non-natural sugars” that the reader is warned to steer clear of, only examples; although it is technically processed, honey is assuredly “natural,” so that was confusing to read. Disappointing to see such contradictory information with little science to back it up, save for a few randomly inserted quotes from an R.D.

      • The Everygirl

        Hi C, thank you for your feedback! We consulted a nutritionist for this article, but agree that this is only one opinion and different options will work for different people.

      • Julia

        Hi C — I’m no nutritionist, and this article was intended to be a guide for the average women trying to navigate the crazy world of protein bars. I agree there is so much information out there, and much of it is contradictory. Appreciate your feedback.

      • Lynn McLean

        The “original” varieties of Quest bars have no sugar alcohols. Later versions, when they expanded their flavor varieties, incorporated a lot more chemicals. I try to find the older flavors, as I cannot tolerate sugar alcohols.

    • The Everygirl

      Hi Charlot – thank you for the feedback! The nutritionist we consulted for this article recommended Quest bars, but that is certainly just one opinion. We encourage readers to read labels and fine print, so that they can make informed decisions about what ingredients they want to avoid.

    • Julia

      Hey Charlot! I agree with you on avoiding sweetener substitutes and sugar alcohols, and so did the nutritionists I spoke to. I mentioned Quest bars as a sometimes “better” choice than other bars since they are very popular, but you’re right, they are definitely not perfect ingredient-wise. Thanks for commenting.

    • Chrissy Chris

      I was thinking the same! SUgar alcohols are a no no for me.

  • Julia

    My favorite protein bars are Detour Bars- they are delicious and have minimal ingredients- https://www.detourbar.com/products/smart-whole-grain-oatmeal-bars/

    • Julia

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Madiha

    Thanks for this…while watching my macros (whenever I do try to watch them) protein bars always throw off my ratios I try to avoid. Can you do something with protein powder as well? What do nutristionsist say about using protein shakes every day? I like the optimum nutrion gold whey protein.

    • The Everygirl

      Hi Madiha, this is such a great suggestion! We’re adding a protein powder article to the queue, so stay tuned!

      • Eileen

        Try the protein powders here… my absolute faves and so healthy! http://www.samanthamonus.com
        My go-to for everything!

  • Sarah Gschwind

    Try Picky Bars! They are the best! If you have to go with something packaged, this is it. https://pickybars.com/ingredient-science/

  • This is such a great article! As a vegetarian, I’m always on the lookout for a good protein bar. I try not to buy ones where I can’t pronounce the ingredients but they can be so complex sometimes! I love Larabars and recently switched from Think Thin bars to nut butter Cliff bars.

    Cailtin
    wandererandwolf.com

  • I love RXBARs! Their ingredients are listed on the front of their packaging, so you don’t have to go searching for the fine print. They all contain egg whites (for protein) and dates (for fiber, but also the reason for the sugar content).

    26 and Not Counting

    • Julia

      Same, and RX bars seem to be a fan favorite for all the right reasons!

  • nicolacash

    #LaraBars4Lyfe

  • Cristin

    I can’t eat any type of nut, so I get really screwed by protein bars, which I try to eat as a meal replacement every day. So far, there are only two flavors of Balance Bar and one flavor of Atkins meal bar that are nut-free. If anyone has any other recommendations, I’d love them forever!

  • Chrissy Chris

    Try kalumi BEAUTYfood bars! MArine collagen protein, 15g protein, 6g sugar from veggies only!! Kalumihealth.com made by models originally for models on set and traveling.

  • Leo

    how can this article recommend “protein bars” that don’t actually have protein? 4-5 grams does not a protein bar make.

    Roughly, you want about your body weight in grams of protein, so if someone weighs 150, they’re aiming for 150 grams/protein per day, in 20-30 gram increments every 2 or so hours (how much protein your body can use efficiently at a time). A 4g snack-bar can’t do that for you.

    So while much of this article discusses snack bars, it doesn’t discuss protein at all.

    • The Everygirl

      Hi Leo, thanks for your feedback! We agree that sometimes “protein bar” becomes the general label for bars that should really be called “snack bars.” Thanks!

  • Caitlin Edwards

    The bars with sugar taste so good! I really like Larabars because they are natural sugars.

    I cut out a lot of yogurts too because my favorite ones had 20g of sugar! The others didn’t taste as good…. hahaha

    • Chrissy Chris

      Even though its natural sugar its still only 5G of protein for 23g of sugar! Which means its really just a natural sugar candy bar. When it comes to good protein bars, you want to have more (real) protein than sugar- which is really hard to find! There’s only a few bars out there with that profile and most of them are still packing in over 10G of sugar and most lower in sugar are using sugar alcohols to disguise the sugar. Try kalumihealth.com ! Only sweetened with sweet potatoes and other root veggies- 5G sugar for 15G of PURE, naturally derived protein!

      • Caitlin Edwards

        Wow thats a lot of sugar! Thanks for sharing!