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.
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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.”
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
- KIND, Madagascar Vanilla Almond—4g
- GoMacro, Protein Purity—9g
- Oatmega, Vanilla Almond Crisp—5g
- Clif Bar, Chocolate Hazelnut Butter—10g
- Quest Bar, Blueberry Muffin—2g
- HealthWarrior, Honey Almond—10g
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
- Non-organic soy and soy protein isolate
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.”
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.”