While many nutrition bars are wholesome snacks, some are basically junk food. We scoured supermarket shelves to find the best and the worst bars on the market. For our criteria, we looked at the ingredient list and overall calories, protein, fiber and sugar. Read on to find our top seven picks and three we recommend you avoid.
What to Look for in a Bar
The healthiest bars have a calorie range of 150 to 250 calories — the sweet spot for a snack, according to Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The ingredient list includes mostly whole foods like nuts, seeds, whole grains and fruits. "Avoid bars that have a laundry list of ingredients, which signals a highly processed food," advises Melissa Rifkin, RD. The best bars also include at least seven grams of protein (about the same amount in a hard-boiled egg), at least three grams of fiber and less than 13 grams of sugar per serving — mostly from real food, not added sugars like honey or syrups.
BEST: Health Warrior Lemon Goldenberry Protein Bar
Plant-powered Health Warrior bars contain a blend of protein-rich chia seeds, oats, quinoa and peas. Chia seeds are loaded with protein, fiber, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Dry chia seeds turn into a gel when soaked in liquid, so they take up some serious room in your stomach, helping you feel full. (They also help prevent constipation, giving you more energy and a flatter belly). This Health Warrior bar is also a good source of calcium, which can help at-risk populations like women and adults over age 51 meet their needs.
BEST: Evo Hemp Cashew Cacao
With a simple ingredient list and a protein boost from vegan hemp seeds and protein powder, Evo Hemp stands out among the crowd. It's low in sugar, and the first three ingredients are all whole foods: dates, cashews and apricots. Hemp, like chia, contains omega-3 fatty acids, which "can reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol and boost brain function," according to Rumsey. If you're anxious about getting high from hemp seeds, don't worry. Industrial hemp made for food is not the same as marijuana. You can try to smoke the bars, but you'll just end up burning them.
BEST: RXBAR Chocolate Sea Salt
If you're looking for a clean ingredient list, look no further. With the exception of "natural chocolate flavor," all six ingredients are real foods: dates, egg whites, almonds, cashews, cacao and sea salt. You read that right — there's no added sugar. On the mineral front, the RXBAR bar is a good source of magnesium, which helps maintain muscle function, and it's also a good source of potassium, which can lower blood pressure by countering the adverse effects of sodium. Egg whites are a great source of protein and "less processed than some of the protein powders that are typically added [to bars]," says Rumsey. Since egg whites have fewer calories than egg yolks, they provide protein while keeping the total calories low, she adds.
BEST: Juno Bar Apple Crisp
Juno Bars are mostly made of whole foods like dates, almond butter and apples — the first three ingredients — plus quinoa, chia, rice protein and hemp protein. It's also a good source of iron, which is important for women of childbearing age, who are often deficient. However, people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may want to skip the Juno Bar because it contains inulin, a type of fiber that may cause gas and bloating in sensitive individuals. Inulin is a "prebiotic" (it feeds your gut bacteria and promotes digestive health), but can be difficult to digest.
Read more: 7 Best Breakfast Sandwiches and 8 to Avoid
BEST: Zing Bars Double Nut Brownie
The Zing Bar is lower on the list because none of the sugar comes from natural sources (tapioca syrup and agave syrup contribute to the nine grams). However, with eight grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein for less than 200 calories, it's a healthy choice for people on the go. The Zing Bar is also high in iron, providing 20 percent of the daily recommended value. You'll absorb more of the iron from the Zing Bar if you pair it with a good source of vitamin C like an orange or handful of strawberries. People with IBS should proceed with caution, since Zing Bars (like Juno Bars) contain prebiotic fiber to boost the fiber content.
BEST: KIND Madagascar Vanilla Almond
KIND Bars are relatively easy to find (think airports, drugstores, markets) and have a good overall nutrient profile. Some bars are higher in sugar than others, so always check the nutrition facts label first; the Madagascar Vanilla is one of their best, with only four grams of sugar and seven grams of protein for 210 calories. On the downside, the ingredients in this KIND bar aren't as simple as many other bars on this list. It contains three types of added sugar, inulin (which can cause GI problems for people with IBS) and soy lecithin, an additive.
What About Quest Bars?
While Quest bars are certainly high in protein and low in sugar, they contain high-intensity sweeteners and sugar alcohols and their first ingredient is never a whole food. We still aren't exactly sure how artificial sweeteners affect our mind and body in the long term, and sugar alcohols can cause GI distress when consumed in excess (or if you have sensitive stomach). Some studies have shown that consuming artificial sweeteners may not help with weight loss, could promote weight gain, and could alter our food preferences. Their extremely sweet flavor may short wire our body's ability to estimate how many calories we're consuming. While Quest Bars didn't meet our criteria today, they may meet yours. If you're comfortable with artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, then they're a solid choice for a low sugar, high protein option.
Read more: The 20 Best Muscle-Building Foods
WORST: Balance Bar Lemon Meringue Crunch
Balance Bars are low in fiber and contain questionable ingredients like carrageenan and caramel color. The lengthy ingredients list is devoid of whole foods and reads like a chemistry exam. For example, the first seven ingredients are soy protein nuggets, glucose syrup, protein blend, sugar, fractionated palm kernel and palm oil, fructose and invert sugar. There are four types of sugar in the first few ingredients alone! Balance Bars contain carrageenan, a thickener made from seaweed, which has been linked to gut inflammation in animal and human cell studies. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration believes it is safe, people with inflammatory bowl disorders — or anyone concerned about its effect — may want to avoid it. The bars also contain caramel color, a potential carcinogen, according to a 2015 study from Johns Hopkins University. The report cautioned that consuming large quantities of caramel color (popular in soda) could increase the risk of cancer.
WORST: thinkThin Creamy Peanut Butter Protein Bar
With 20 grams of protein and zero grams of sugar, thinkThin looks appealing; but think again. There are hardly any whole foods on the ingredients list (except a small amount of peanuts and sea salt), and there's only one lonely gram of fiber. thinkThin also has 11 grams of sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols taste sweet, have fewer calories than sugar and don't raise blood sugar as much as sugar. (Despite the name, they don't actually contain any alcohol or sugar). But they can cause GI distress like abdominal pain, gas and diarrhea when consumed in excess (above 20 grams per day), according to a 2014 study in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. If you suffer from stomach problems, check food labels for sugar alcohols — the solution may be to cut back or eliminate them entirely.
Read more: The 9 Best Post-Workout Foods
WORST: Green SuperFood Energy Bars Original
Don't be fooled by the buzzwords "green," "superfood" and "energy." The SuperFood bar has 25 grams of sugar, which make up nearly half of the total calories. And while it does contain an "Amazing Grass Green Superfood" mix of powders, teas, roots and produce that's been processed enough to fit in the bar, you can get everything you need from wholesome fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and grains at your other meals and snacks. In case you're tempted by the four grams of fiber, it still isn't enough to justify eating this sugary bar. You can easily get that in half a cup of raspberries, half a cup of oatmeal, an ounce of almonds, an orange, half an ounce of flaxseed or one baked sweet potato. A cup of cooked black beans has 15 grams. Just eat a healthier snack and have some raspberries for dessert that night.
Related: 5 Ways to Make Your Own Energy Bars