Healthiest Protein Bars
Protein bars seem like a healthy option when you’re on the run, but sometimes they can be more like a glorified candy bar than a healthy snack. With all of the options out there, how do you know what is healthy and what’s not?
I’m going to review some of the protein bars that I can stand behind, in addition to those that you should avoid. I’ll also give you some key markers to look for when you’re investigating the nutrition label.
- Calories: 250 or less
- Protein: 10g or more
- Fiber: 3g or more
- Sugar: 10g or less
- Ingredient list: short. Make sure that you can pronounce/recognize all ingredients.
These bars are perfect for those who hate the taste of “protein bars.” With flavors like chocolate chip cookie dough (my favorite), double chocolate brownie, and oatmeal chocolate chip, you’ll really feel like you’re eating a treat rather than a protein-rich snack. Unlike sweet treats, these protein bars provide 20-21g of protein plus 13-15g of hunger-fighting fiber. Quest claims that all of their bars are gluten and soy-free and also contain no added sugars. You’ll find 1-3g of naturally occurring sugars per bar and the remaining sweetness comes from stevia, a plant-based sweetener, and erythritol. According to a Quest representative, erythritol is a sugar alcohol that is found naturally in various fruits, such as grapes and pears. Like sugar, it is sweet, however, it passes through the body and is excreted through waste. This means that it has little impact on blood sugar, making the bars particularly well suited for diabetics. Quest protein bars range from 170-200 calories per bar and really do control appetite for hours. Quest protein bars as the perfect pre or post-workout snack. They’re also perfect for busy days when you’d otherwise miss breakfast. The one downside to Quest bars is that they are not dairy-free. I spoke with a representative at Quest who did confirm that they are working to develop a vegan bar to suit those with dairy allergies. No time frame was given, but it is in the works!
Orgain Protein Bars
Orgain protein bars stick out to me, not only because they taste good, but also because of the reason that they came to be. Created by Dr. Abram Abraham, cancer survivor, they were designed to provide high quality ingredients to support overall health. Each bar is 100% plant-based, which means that it perfect for those with dairy-allergies. The bars are also gluten free, soy free and made from organic, non-GMO (not genetically modified) ingredients. A unique ingredient that they contain is chia seed. I wouldn’t suggest using these to replace a meal, since they are fairly small, but they work well as pre-workout boost or between-meal snack. A signal bar ranges from 140-150 calories and provides 10g of protein, 6g of fiber and 5g or less of sugar. Like Quest bars, Orgain organic protein bars also use erythritol as a sweetener. They come in chocolate chip cookie dough (again, my favorite), peanut butter, peanut butter chocolate chunk and s’more.
Zing Protein Bars
These are another great option for individuals with dairy-allergies, since their protein source comes from 100% plant-based ingredients. They are also 100% gluten free and soy free. What I like about Zing bars is that they are made from whole-food ingredients. The items you’ll find listed on the ingredient label (cashews, gluten-free whole rolled oats, cashew butter, dried apples, etc) are all items that you’d find in your own kitchen. Not all varieties meet the sugar requirements of 10g or less per bar, but Oatmeal Chocolate Chip, Double Nut Brownie and Coconut Cashew Crisp do. Ranging from 190-200 calories, they provide 10g of protein and 6g of fiber. Stash these in your desk at work for a mid-afternoon snack or have one before a workout to fuel you.
Youbars are perfect for those who just can’t find a bar that sounds appealing. They offer pre-formulated protein bars but you also have the option to pick and choose your own ingredients for the bar that suits you best! Most of their premade protein bars use whey protein. This is great for those without dairy allergies. Similar to Quest Bars, these provide 20g of protein per bar, 2-3 g of sugar and approx. 13g of fiber. They also use stevia and erythritol as sweeteners. In addition to the whey-based protein bars, Youbar also provides pre-formulated plant-based options. Vanilla Chocolate Chip, Cherry Cashew Chia and Chocolate Almond range from 150-160 calories provide 10-12g of plant-protein, 11-13g of fiber, and just 2-3g of sugar. These vegan varieties also contain a special Greens Blend made from green tea, spirulina and chlorella. Go to their website youbars.com to create your own bar, just make sure that it meets the requirements listed above. Keep a box in your car for emergency situations to ensure that you always have a protein-rich snack.
Aside from Quest (and sometimes Zing bars), the options listed above might need to be ordered online. The good news is that they can be shipped just about anywhere in the U.S.! I do realize that sometimes, you don’t have the luxury of ordering bars online and need to know what is a safe bet in the grocery store or gas station. Here are some that come close to meeting my requirements:
If these bars had more fiber, they would definitely be at the top of my list. I recommend these to my patients a lot. They don’t have chocolate, so you won’t have to worry about them melting and becoming messy. Believe it or not, these bars, unlike all of the others, are made from meat, poultry or fish! I know it sounds odd, but if you like jerky, you can wrap your mind around these bars. Completely allergy free—no nuts, seeds, gluten, corn, dairy, or soy! The nutritional stats vary based on the variety you choose. Protein ranges from 8-15g, sugar ranges from 2-7g, and calories range from 80- 150. They have bars made from boar, salmon, lamb, bison, beef, chicken, turkey, venison, bacon and pulled pork. These are the perfect bar to keep in your desk at work for a mid-afternoon snack.
STRONG & KIND Bars, regular KIND Bars
You’ve probably seen regular KIND bars in the grocery store, and for the most part, they’re a good option for a snack. Regular KIND bars are made from all natural ingredients (nuts and seeds), but some varieties are higher in sugar (not as high as LUNA) and contain little protein (4g for some). KIND PLUS Almond Walnut Macadamia with Peanuts is more likely to keep you satisfied with 10g of protein and 7g of sugar. STRONG & KIND bars are suited for those seeking a more savory bar. With flavors like Hickory Smoked, Thai Sweet Chili, Roasted Jalapeno and Honey Smoked BBQ, all 4 provide 10g of protein, 3g of fiber and 6g of sugar. If you love nuts, but have a difficult time controlling portions, these are the perfect bars for you!
Okay Protein Bar Options
These aren’t stellar choices, but they’re better than fast-food or a sugar-filled snack from the vending machine.
Think Thin Protein +Fiber Bars.
At 150 calories apiece, these gluten-free bars provide 10g of protein with 5g of fiber. They make the sugar-cut because one bar only sets you back 5 grams. They’re not dairy-free. I don’t like that they contain calcium caseinate, which can be difficult for some to digest. Some nutrition professionals say that caseinate blocks mineral absorption; so don’t make these your mainstay. Another thing that I don’t like about these bars is the longer list of ingredients. Aside from that, I don’t think they don’t taste a good as those mentioned above. If you’re in a rush and need something to tide you over, these will do the trick.
Pure Protein Bars
Pure protein bars won’t spike your blood sugar with only 2g of sugar per bar. The 20g of protein and 15g of fiber found in their cookies and cream flavor will certainly help control hunger. I don’t like seeing “canola oil” on the ingredient list or “butterfat,” but the other listed ingredients are pretty similar to those found in Quest Bars. If you’re in a pinch, these will do the trick.
Luna Protein Bars
Don’t confuse these with the regular Luna Bars that contain much less protein. Luna Protein Bars provide 12g of protein and 3g of fiber. They are gluten free but do contain dairy and soy. These sneaky bars are much higher in sugar than I’d like. They range from 12g to 15g per bar, so I definitely wouldn’t make these your go-to pre or post-workout snack. Rather than listing “sugar” on the ingredient list, they use several different names for sugar (ex: vegetable glycerin, organic dried cane syrup). They do taste pretty good, so if you’re going to reach for a bag of cookies or eat a bar, go with the bar.
Bars to Avoid
Regular Think Thin Bars—For all of the negative reasons listed above, plus these don’t have any fiber to redeem themselves.
Regular Luna Bars—At least the “Protein” variety provide something to regulate hunger. Most regular Luna bars provide max 9g of protein, but they are still very high in sugar. The low-sugar variety only provide about 3-4g of protein, making them more of a snack and a snack that won’t keep you satisfied. Additionally, don’t be fooled by their claim that they’re an organic bar made for women; some ingredients are organic…but soy, one of the main ingredients that you want to be organic, is not. GMO-soy is not something that I’d recommend including in your daily routine.
Zone Bars— Though 15g of sugar might not seem too extreme, do these ingredients deter you? Corn syrup. Sugar. Corn Syrup. Sugar. Fructose Syrup. Yes, they are each listed that many times. I’d rather not put those it my body.
Balance Bars—Caramel color, glucose syrup, fructose, sugar. Don’t be fooled by the “23 vitamins and minerals.” You can get vitamins and minerals from having a handful of nuts with an apple.
Other protein bars such as Clif Bars and Picky Bars are sourced from natural ingredients but contain much more sugar than those mentioned above. This is because Clif and Picky bars are designed to provide fuel for endurance athletes. These fall more into the “energy bar” category, rather than protein bar. If you are a runner, tri-athlete, cyclist, etc. than both of those provide carbohydrates to fuel you through your workouts. The bars that I reviewed are for the every-day individual looking for a healthy grab-n-go option.
I’m always an advocate of eating “real food” such as apple and peanut butter, sliced turkey wrapped in lettuce, or cottage cheese and fruit. However, I realize that we don’t always have the time to assemble those things, even though they are relatively quick to prepare. Keep my guidelines in mind for protein bars so that you can make an informed decision at the grocery store. If you think ahead, and stock your car, office, and home with the healthiest protein bars, even the most enticing fast-food chain won’t detour you. ☺
Resources for Protein Bars: