While protein bars can be a wholesome snack, there are some that more closely resemble a candy bar. Figuring out what's what can be tricky if you don't know what you're looking for. There's a lot to take into consideration depending on which camp you're in or what you're goals are.
Video of the Day
Are you looking for a bar that's keto-approved? One with whole-food ingredients? One that's high in fiber? Lower in calories?
The good news is there's something for everyone and knowing what to look for will serve you well the next time you're at the supermarket staring at endless shelves of protein bars.
What to Look for When Choosing a Protein Bar
When shopping for protein bars, check the following:
- The ingredient list: Ideally, the ingredient list will include mostly whole foods like nuts, fruit and egg whites. While avoiding any ingredient you can't pronounce isn't sound advice, you do want to have a sense of what it is that you're eating.
- Caloric amount: There's no hard and fast rule here, it really depends on your needs. Is this a small snack, a big snack or are you eating a bar as part of your meal? There are bars on the market that have around 100 calories and there are others that are closer to 400. Depending on how hungry you are or what you're looking for should drive this decision.
- Grams of protein and fiber: Ideally, a bar will have about 10 grams of protein or higher. That said, if there's a bar you love that fits all of your other requirements, then, by all means, enjoy. Protein is satiating and it helps to slow digestion (along with fat), so it's helpful to include it in a snack to help tide you over, as outlined in a June 2016 paper in Annual Reviews. Fiber is another nutrient to take into consideration. A bar with 3 grams of fiber or more is perfect for a snack. Like protein, fiber helps us to feel fuller longer.
What to Avoid
There are also a few things you'll want to avoid when it comes to shopping for protein bars:
- Additives and other ingredients: There are some ingredients commonly used in protein bars that you may want to avoid like artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, certain gums and other additives.
- Added sugars: Because we want to try and avoid artificial sweeteners and alcohols, other sugars like honey or brown rice syrup may be added to help sweeten the bar. Keep in mind that the American Heart Association recommends keeping added sugar intake to 36 grams or less.
Top 6 Protein Bars
1. 88 Acres Protein Bars
Per serving (Banana Bread): 260 calories, 19 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated fat), 140 milligrams sodium, 15 grams carbohydrates (3 grams fiber, 7 grams sugar, 4 grams added sugar), 12 grams protein
Pumpkin seeds are the protein source in these bars, providing about 12 grams per serving. Maple syrup is used instead of honey, keeping them 100-percent vegan and there are only 4 to 5 grams of added sugar per bar. They're also loaded with iron — a bar meets 20 percent of your daily needs — which is especially important if you're following a plant-based diet.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $28.99 per 12-pack
2. CLIF Builder Bars
Per serving (Chocolate Peanut Butter): 290 calories, 11 grams fat (6 grams saturated fat), 330 milligrams sodium, 29 grams carbohydrates 23 grams fiber, 17 grams sugar, 17 grams added sugar), 12 grams protein
There's a reason CLIF Bars has a group of athletes they support — their line of products provides nourishment before, during and after workouts. Sports Dietitian Kelly Jones, RD, CSSD, particularly loves the Builder line of bars: "These bars provide carbohydrates to help restore energy levels post-workout along with 20 grams of complete plant protein to help rebuild and repair muscles. I love their ingredients, especially that they are made without artificial flavors or sweeteners."
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $26.95 per 14-pack
3. Hungry Buddha Keto Bar
Per serving (Coconut Cocoa): 180 calories, 11 grams fat (6 grams saturated fat), 70 milligrams sodium, 16 grams carbohydrates (12 grams fiber, 2 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 9 grams protein
These bars are unique in that they are keto-approved (if that's your thing), plant-based, free of artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols and palm oil-free, too. Their nutrition profile is perfect for a snack with around 180 calories, 9 grams of protein and 12 grams of fiber. The Hungry Buddha bars are sweetened with monk fruit, which is a zero-calorie sweetener extracted from a melon grown in Southeast Asia.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $32.98 per 12-pack
4. Sans Meal Bar
Per serving (Coconut Almond Butter): 380 calories, 22 grams fat (4.5 grams saturated fat), 240 milligrams sodium, 34 grams carbohydrates (8 grams fiber, 22 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 17 grams protein
The Sans bar is higher in calories — around 380, depending on the flavor — so for many, this would be a good fit as part of a meal replacement when you need something quick or you're on the go. They're called "Sans" because they are sans, aka "without," questionable ingredients. Instead, you'll find ingredients like almonds, egg whites, oats, dates, coconut, flaxseed and spinach powder.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $45.00 per 12-pack
5. Kize Bars
Per serving (Almond Butter): 220 calories, 13 grams fat (3 grams saturated fat), 10 milligrams sodium, 18 grams carbohydrates (3 grams fiber, 11 grams sugar, 10 grams added sugar), 10 grams protein
"These bars are perfect for an afternoon snack and are made with whole-food ingredients like peanut butter, honey, oats and dates, with a protein boost from egg whites (some contain grass-fed whey)," Jones says.
They are available in 12 different flavors, including a few keto-approved options, too. And you can feel good about your purchase: "I love Kize as a company and am drawn to their bars since they provide food and monetary support through the WAMH Foundation," Jones says.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $29.99 per 10-pack
3 Protein Bars to Avoid
1. Quest Bars
Per serving (Birthday Cake): 180 calories, 6 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated fat), 220 milligrams sodium, 42 grams carbohydrates (14 grams fiber, <1 gram sugar, 0 grams added sugars), 21 grams protein
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 a sensitive stomach).
Their extremely sweet flavor may short wire our body's ability to estimate how many calories we're taking in. 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.
2. ThinkThin Bars
Per serving (Brownie Crunch): 230 calories, 8 grams fat (3 grams saturated fat), 190 milligrams sodium, 23 grams carbohydrates (1 grams fiber, 0 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugars), 20 grams protein
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 cocoa butter), and there's only 1 lonely gram of fiber.
ThinkThin also has about 11 grams of sugar alcohol (depending on the flavor). Sugar alcohols taste sweet, have fewer calories than sugar, and don't raise blood glucose as much as sugar, but they can cause GI distress like abdominal pain, gas and diarrhea when eaten in excess.
3. Balance Bars
Per serving (Peanut Butter): 200 calories, 7 grams fat (3 grams saturated fat), 170 milligrams sodium, 21 grams carbohydrates (<1 gram fiber, 17 grams sugar), 15 grams protein
Balance Bars are low in fiber and contain a lengthy ingredients list devoid of whole foods. For example, the first six ingredients are protein blend, fructose, glucose syrup, partially defatted peanut flour, peanut butter and sugar. There are three types of sugar in the first few ingredients alone! They may appear uber-healthy because they're fortified with almost every single vitamin and mineral. If that's what you're after, you're better off taking a multivitamin.