It goes without saying that real food is better than a protein or energy bar. But there's a reason the protein and energy bar market is booming -- they're convenient, practical and (often) tasty. But what should you look for? "Always look for bars with quality ingredients. Look specifically for rolled oats, rice, seeds (like flaxseed or chia), nuts and a protein component (like whey isolate, soy or a rice/pea blend if it's a vegetarian bar)," advises Jim White, RD, ACSM HFI, and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It's also important to think about the purpose of your bar: Is it to fuel your workout, curb your hunger between meals or a meal replacement? To help you raise the bar on your next shopping trip, here are the top choices in 12 different categories.
1. EVERYDAY SNACK: KIND Nuts & Spices Bar
A convenient everyday snack bar, KIND Nuts & Spices bars are a top choice due to their clean ingredients and low sugar content -- containing five grams of sugar or less per bar. Made with whole ingredients you can see and pronounce, such as almonds, walnuts, cocoa powder, cinnamon and honey, these bars are high in fiber, offer a good source of protein and come in flavors like Caramel Almond & Sea Salt and Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt, which provide the taste of a seemingly indulgent treat without the sugar crash. They are also non-GMO and gluten-free. Nutrition per bar (Caramel Almond & Sea Salt): 200 calories, six grams of protein, 15 grams of carbohydrates, seven grams of fiber, 16 grams of fat, five grams of sugar.
2. PROTEIN: Rise Protein+ Bar
For those looking to maximize their protein intake, the Rise Protein+ bar is a good choice -- packing in 15 to 20 grams of protein per bar and offering both whey protein and vegan protein options. The company prides itself on offering a limited list of only high-quality ingredients. For example, the Almond Honey protein bar has 20 grams of protein and contains only almonds, honey and whey protein isolate. Unlike other high-protein bars on the market, these bars have no artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats and are free of GMOs, preservatives and gluten. The Rise Bar protein bar portfolio also offers two vegan options: Lemon Cashew and Sunflower Cinnamon. Nutrition Per Bar (Almond Honey): 280 calories, 20 grams of protein, 20 grams of carb, four grams of fiber, 16 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 13 grams of sugar.
Related: Learn More About Rise Protein+ Bars
3. GLUTEN-FREE: Larabar Uber
There is no shortage of gluten-free bars on the market. What makes Larabar Uber a top choice in this booming category is both its taste and its simple, clean ingredient list. Both sweet and salty, crunchy Uber bars are made from naturally gluten-free ingredients like dried fruit and nuts. The bars are a good source of protein and healthy fats, and they're not too high in sugar or carbs. The bars are also non-GMO, vegetarian and kosher. They're available in six flavors: Dark Chocolate Raspberry, Cherry Cobbler, Coconut Macaroon, Dark Chocolate Peanut With Sea Salt, Dark Chocolate Pecan With Sea Salt and Mixed Roasted Nut. Nutrition per bar (Mixed Roasted Nut): 230 calories, six grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrates, three grams of fiber, 17 grams of fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat and six grams of sugar.
4. PALEO: EPIC Bar
Paleo-friendly and meat-lover approved, the EPIC bar is made with 100 percent grass-fed animal-based protein. The bars are high in protein and low in sugar with a low glycemic index. Because the animals are grass-fed, the meat contains higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed meat is also popular for athletes because it has twice the level of conjugated linoleic acid -- or CLA -- which promotes the development of lean muscle tissue and may lower the risk for a myriad of other health problems. EPIC bars are also gluten-free and offer important nutrients like iron and vitamin B12. EPIC bars are available in five different flavors, including beef, lamb, turkey, bison and beef liver. Nutrition per bar (Bison Bacon Cranberry): 200 calories, 11 grams of protein, 10 grams of carbohydrates, one gram of fiber, 12 grams of fat, five grams of saturated fat and eight grams of sugar.
Related: Learn More About EPIC Bars
5. MEAL REPLACEMENT: Vega One All-in-One Meal Bar
Made from whole-food ingredients like chia and hemp seeds, the Vega One All-in-One Meal bar is a top choice as a meal replacement, providing 12 grams of complete plant-based protein, four grams of fiber, and 25 vitamins and minerals. The protein comes from sprouted whole-grain brown rice protein and pea protein. Each bar also provides one serving of greens (from spinach, broccoli, alfalfa and kale) and 1 billion dairy-free probiotics to support gut health. The bars are also certified vegan and gluten-free. For optimal nutrition, use meal-replacement bars sparingly and couple them with a serving of fresh fruit or low-fat dairy for a balanced meal. Nutrition per bar (Chocolate Cherry Almond): 260 calories, 12 grams of protein, 35 grams of carbohydrates, three grams of fiber, 9.5 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat and 19 grams of sugar.
LIMITED INGREDIENT, “CLEAN”: Larabar, the Original Fruit & Nut Bar
Simply made from unsweetened fruit, nuts and spices, Larabars are pretty much as basic and pure as it gets. The bars are minimally processed, keeping as close to their natural state as possible. Most bars contain five whole-food ingredients or less. The Cashew Cookie flavor has just two ingredients: a blend of cashews and dates that offers six grams of protein and provides an excellent source of magnesium. Some of the bars with fruit, such as Cherry Pie, contain a quarter-cup of fruit. The bars are gluten-free, non-GMO, dairy-free, soy-free and kosher. Nutrition per bar (Cashew Cookie): 200 calories, six grams of protein, 23 grams of carbohydrates, three grams of fiber, 13 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 18 grams of sugar.
Related: Learn More About Larabars
7. VEGAN: Raw Revolution
A top choice for a vegan bar, Raw Revolution bars are made with mostly raw ingredients that are certified organic. The bars are a good source of protein, fiber and iron and contain real-food ingredients like cashews, dates, sunflower seeds and flaxseed. Some bars also contain vegetable powders like spinach, kale and broccoli, and they are sweetened with agave nectar. Raw Revolution bars are also kosher, non-GMO and gluten-free. Raw Revolution bars are available in 14 different flavors, including Cherry Chocolate Chunk, Chocolate Coconut Bliss and Spirulina Dream. Nutrition per bar (Cherry Chocolate Chunk): 210 calories, six grams of protein, 23 grams of carbohydrates, five grams of fiber, 12 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar.
8. LOW-CALORIE: Health Warrior Chia Bar
Health Warrior Chia bars pack a lot of nutrition into 100 calories. Chia, the main ingredient, is a source of fiber, protein and heart-healthy fats. In fact, each bar provides 1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids. These bars are high in nutrients like fiber (four grams) and low in sugar (just five grams); however, the protein content is also on the lower side (three grams). Fitting into several lifestyle options, the bars are also gluten-free, non-GMO, soy-free and vegan. Health Warrior Chia Bars are available in nine flavors and are a perfect between-meal snack to help tide you over. Nutrition per bar (Acai Berry): 100 calories, three grams of protein, 14 grams of carbohydrates, four grams of fiber, five grams of fat, 0.5 grams of saturated fat and five grams of sugar.
9. LOW-CARB: Quest Bar
With 20 grams of protein and only four net carbs each, these are probably the most protein-packed bars on the market that aren't also high in sugar. The protein comes from a blend of whey protein isolate and milk protein isolate. Quest bars also manage to pack in 13 to 18 grams of fiber per bar. They're sweetened with stevia and come in flavors like Cookies & Cream and S'mores. Nutrition per bar (Vanilla Almond Crunch): 190 calories, 20 grams of protein, 21 grams of carbohydrates (four grams net carbohydrates), 18 grams of fiber, eight grams of fat, 0.5 grams of saturated fat and one gram of sugar.
Related: Find Out More About Quest Bars
10. PRE-WORKOUT: ProBar Fuel
Before high-intensity exercise, the most important fuel is carbohydrates, which is best eaten about an hour before a workout or race. The amount of protein, fiber and fat should be relatively low so that they don't slow digestion and the emptying time of the stomach, which can lead to cramps and energy lows. The bars have something for everyone: They're free of gluten and GMOs and are certified organic. A good source of quick energy, they're also easy to chew if you're consuming these mid-workout too. As with any new food product, try the product beforehand to make sure your body agrees with it. Nutrition per bar (Cherry): 160 calories, three grams of protein, 33 grams of carbohydrates, four grams of fiber, three grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat and 18 grams of sugar.
Related: Learn More About PROBAR Fuel Bars
11. RECOVERY: Hammer Recovery Bar
Having a healthy snack or meal within an hour after a strenuous workout is essential to proper recovery. Most importantly, carbohydrates are needed to replenish glycogen stores in your muscles. In addition, your snack should contain some protein to improve your muscle recovery and a little bit of fat to repair your cells. Ideally, look for a bar with two to three times the amount of carbohydrates as protein. Certified organic, Hammer bars are specifically designed for recovery. Made with real-food ingredients (like almond butter, date paste, quinoa and sesame seeds), these bars are easy to digest and offer an ideal mix of healthy carbs, ample amounts of protein and essential fatty acids to speed your recovery after a hard workout. Hammer offers both a Whey Recovery Bar as well as a Vegan Recovery Bar option for different lifestyle diets. Nutrition per bar (Peanut Butter Chocolate): 330 calories, 20 grams of protein, 25 grams of carbohydrates, eight grams of fiber, 14 grams of fat, five grams of saturated fat and 16 grams of sugar.
12. ORGANIC: BumbleBar
With numerous bars in the organic category, chewy BumbleBars are a top choice for their clean ingredients, containing organic sesame seeds, organic flaxseed and organic peanuts. While they do contain organic brown rice syrup and organic cane juice, the grams of sugar do not surpass the grams of protein, which is a good guide to use when choosing a quality bar. These bars are also an excellent source of important nutrients, such as vitamin E and magnesium, and are gluten-free, ethically sourced and vegan. Nutrition per bar (Original Peanut): 210 calories, seven grams of protein, 15 grams of carbohydrates, five grams of fiber, 15 grams of fat, two grams of saturated fat and seven grams of sugar.
Related: Learn More About BumbleBars
What Do YOU Think?
What are you looking for in an energy bar? Have you tried any of the bars we mentioned? If so, which ones do you like best or worst? Leave a comment below and let us know. Share your experience on how making lifestyle changes have affected your life -- maybe your knowledge will help others.
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