Protein Bars: What to Look for and What to Avoid
Whether you’re a snacker looking to stay satiated between meals or you’re looking to easily add more protein into your diet, a protein bar may often be what you reach for. But it’s important to note that not all protein bars are created equal. Things like the source of protein, sugar content and additional nutrients all come into play. So then, how do you know which bar is best?
The first step is to take a look at the ingredients label. Do you recognize the names of each ingredient (or a majority) or are there words you’ve never heard of? Your bar of choice should resemble real, whole foods as much as possible. If the label is riddled with ingredients like erythritol (a sugar alcohol made from corn), saccharin (what Sweet n’ Low is), fractionated palm kernel oil (this just sounds bad), and other additives that sound like they could only come from a lab, you may want to reconsider your pick. A simple rule to keep in mind: aim for bars that have seven ingredients or less.
Look for Fiber
Oftentimes, protein bars lack fiber. What's added in place of that oh so necessary fiber are additives–likely sugar. Why is fiber an important piece of the protein bar puzzle? Fiber not only encourages a healthy gut microbiome but foods that are rich in fiber keep you satisfied for longer (so you’re not reaching for that second snack soon after downing your bar) and actually binds to certain fats and sugars throughout the digestion process. How much fiber is a “good amount” of fiber in a protein bar? Aim for a minimum of 3 grams.
Carbohydrates are essential for brain function and energy but shouldn’t be the first ingredient in a protein bar. Like we learned in high school science, carbohydrates turn into sugar and sugar is stored as fat, if not needed relatively quickly, say, for a sweat session. A higher carb content may make for a tastier bar but that same bar may not serve the purpose you’re aiming for. Moral of the story? Look for bars that do not list carbohydrates as some of the first ingredients. A good rule of thumb to remember is the 4:1 ratio. If the carb to protein ratio is 4:1, that bar in your hand is closer to being a candy bar than a protein bar.
What and How Much Protein
Protein needs are going to be different for everyone but a true protein bar should have at least 10 g of protein. A bar with 20 g is really where it’s at for a higher dosage protein snack. As for what kind of protein, podium placers go to whey isolate, casein and egg or pea proteins.
Sugar and Fat
There’s really no avoiding sugar when it comes to snacking on a protein bar but there are ways to ingest higher quality forms of sugar. Natural is better. Plain and simple. Sugar from dates, for example, is all natural and different then the artificial sweetener, sucralose. Another thing to be on the lookout for is fat. Shoot for less than 3 grams of saturated fat in your bars. In terms of where that fat is actually coming from, avoid vegetable oils, think soy, palm, and sunflower to name a few. Look for those that get their fats from things like nut butters, seeds and coconut oil.
To help take the guesswork out of, we compiled a short list of some of our go-tos when reaching for a portable protein snack.
1 bar (55g): 190 calories, 7g fat (3g saturated fat), 65 mg sodium, 20 g carbs (3g fiber, 1g sugar), 20 g protein
1 bar (52g): 210 calories, 9g fat (2g saturated fat), 240mg sodium, 24g carbs (5g fiber, 13g sugar), 12g protein
1 bar (65g): 270 calories, 12g fat (2.5g saturated fat), 10 mg sodium, 30g carb (2g fiber, 11g sugar), 11g protein
1 bar (56 g): 250 calories, 11g fat (3.5g saturated fat), 200 mg sodium, 25g carb (4g fiber, 5g sugar), 14g protein
1 bar (53g): 210 calories, 8g fat (2g saturated fat), 200mg sodium, 25g carb (3g fiber, 1g sugar), 12g protein