While it’s definitely best to stick to fresh, whole foods as much as possible, protein bars can be useful for people who are on the go and need a quick (and easy to carry) meal or energy boost throughout the day.
The problem with these “nutritious” bars is that in order to get them to deliver lots of protein with a taste and consistency that is palatable, they’re filled with some pretty undesirable ingredients–and end up not being very healthy at all.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s best avoid packaged snacks, especially those produced conventionally (think: anything you’d find in a standard convenience store), as they contain a lot of ingredients that aren’t really food.
But don’t assume that the “natural” protein bars you find at Whole Foods are much better for you. Even organic, GMO-free, special superfood bars can be loaded with sugar (in various forms, some not immediately apparent) and other ingredients you wouldn’t necessarily want to be eating for a “healthy snack.”
So, it’s best to read the nutrition information and not be fooled by health claims on pretty labels.
What to look for
For starters, be aware of the different types of bars out there. Protein bars should be high in protein and lower in carbs and fat–which is why they’re often used by athletes to aid in muscle building. Energy bars, which are higher in calories, carbs and sugars, are designed to supply the energy needed for prolonged strenuous physical activity–and you should really only use them for such.
Meal replacement bars are more balanced in protein, carbs and fat, so are typically the best option for people looking for a healthy on-the-go snack. (Although “healthy” ratios will vary considerably depending on who you ask…and if you’re trying to get more protein in your diet your needs may fall into the protein bar category.)
Once you know which type of bar you’re looking for, pay attention to the following information on the nutrition label:
Protein content: Higher protein is more satiating, up to around 20g. To satisfy your hunger, look for bars with at least 10g of protein.
Type of protein: Many protein sources used in bars are “isolated,” which is another word for heavily processed (and not ideal to eat). Look for protein sources in their most natural form, like nuts, seeds and “concentrated” protein powders.
Number of ingredients: The fewer ingredients, the better. And you should be able to pronounce all of the ingredients listed. Bonus points if the ingredients are all real-food items you could buy in the grocery store.
Sugars: For a quick energy boost you’ll want something that has some sugar in it, but unless the sugars are coming primarily from fruit, aim to stay below 10g per serving.
Calories: If you’re counting calories (which may not be entirely necessary…) you’ll want to be clear if the bar you’re considering is snack-sized or a bonafide meal replacement.
Ingredients to avoid
Soy protein isolate: First of all, 90% of soy produced in the U.S. is genetically modified (and here’s why you should avoid that, at least for now). But even if it’s organically grown, soy protein isolate is a heavily processed version that is far from being a “health food” (it used to be considered a waste product) and it can cause digestive woes.
Added sugar: Brown rice syrup, agave syrup, cane syrup, etc. Although they’re all improvements over high fructose corn syrup, they’re still pure sugar. Some would argue that added sugar is never healthy. Definitely avoid bars that have a sugar source listed as the first ingredient.
Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols: They’re used to sweeten bars without loading on lots of extra calories, but they cause digestive issues and mess up your metabolism. Watch out for sucralose, saccharin, sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, erythritol, etc.
Your best bets
If you’re looking for a whole-food protein bar for a quick and healthy snack, here are some of your best options:
Strong & Kind
These have 10g of protein from almonds, seeds and pea protein (no soy) and are low on sugar (6g or less). The savory flavors are interesting and unique, but because of that I like to order the variety pack so I don’t get sick of them.
There has been some dispute between Kind and the FDA recently, as Kind bars are made with nuts, which contain healthy fats that exceed the FDA’s standard for what’s considered “healthy.” So, the FDA is requiring that Kind remove the word “healthy” from the packaging of certain bars.
However, Kind says: “There is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence supporting that nuts are wholesome and nutritious. This is similar to other foods that do not meet the standard for use of the term ‘healthy,’ but are generally considered to be good for you like avocados, salmon and eggs.” Many health experts agree–ignore the FDA’s antiquated villainization of fats (which will probably be changing) and keep eating nuts, which are good for you.
My pick: Variety Pack
Price per bar: $2.20
Kind Nuts & Spices
This line of Kind bars is still made with real ingredients and low on the sugar, but is sweet as opposed to savory and contains less protein than their Strong & Kind counterparts. They’re probably the most widely available, as far as natural bars go.
My pick: Caramel Almond & Sea Salt
Price per bar: $1.19
These bars are low-sugar, gluten-free, GMO-free, and are made with mostly organic ingredients–including whey from grass fed cows and fish oil (for essential fatty acids) from sustainably-sourced fish. The company was founded by someone who lost his sister to breast cancer and began to rethink the role of food as medicine. He couldn’t find a protein bar that met the nutritional profile he was looking for, so decided to make his own–and they were so good others started to want in too. (They’re pretty delicious.)
My choice: Wild Blueberry Crisp
Price per bar: $2.42
These bars have a lot of descriptors: Gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free, soy-free, Paleo-friendly, low-glycemic and a good source of iron, B12 and Omega-3’s (I could go on). The pasture-raised meat is carefully sourced from humane and environmentally sustainable ranching operations and worked into amazing flavor combinations like Bison Bacon Cranberry, Beef Peach Rosemary, and Lamb Currant Mint. Also, their packaging is beautiful.
It’s definitely a protein-bar-sized chunk of meat–so just know that. :)
My choice: Bison Bacon + Cranberry
Price per bar: $2.73
Health Warrior Chia Protein Bar
As you are probably aware, chia is a superfood full of beneficial fiber, protein, Omega-3 fatty acids and other micronutrients. These bars contain 10g of plant-based protein from chia, oats, quinoa and peas. They’re vegan, gluten-free and certified GMO-free.
My pick: Lemon Goldenberry
Price per bar: $2.33
These sprouted, raw bars don’t have much protein, but they’re made with just a few nutrient-dense real-food ingredients and are a nice, healthy pick-me-up snack if you’re looking for something a little lighter.
My pick: Banana Bread
Price per bar: $2.38
**Note: I order my bars in bulk from Amazon, so the prices given are based on Amazon Prime.