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As a mom, I love having snack bars on hand for when life gets busy and the kids and I are on the go, which is most of the time! Since my kids are always telling me they are hungry, I like the option of a protein bar to fill their bellies and give them some lasting energy. And, let’s face it, I need the energy, too! But I am also aware that a lot of the bars on the market are essentially candy bars, filled with fat and sugar. Protein bars are appealing, both for busy folks and for those trying to lose weight, but finding options that are healthy and filling as well as tasty can be a bit overwhelming.
I had the chance to ask Jennifer Christman, RDN, LDN, Clinical Nutrition Manager with Medifast for some advice when shopping for protein bars. She offered some great general guidelines and we were also able to carefully look at the labels for 10 popular protein bars. Hopefully this guide can empower you to make healthier choices when you hit the protein bar aisle at the store!
We are going to look at how 10 popular protein bars stack up when it comes to healthy ingredients. When looking at these bars and others on the market, there is a lot to keep in mind and it can be a bit daunting. It is important to scrutinize the labels when making a decision as to which protein bars are “good” and “not so good.” Keep an eye on the amount of sugar, the protein source and other hidden health risks. You don’t want to eat a bar that has as much sugar as a candy bar! Here are some general guidelines to simplify the search!
- Serving Size: Always start here because everything else can change quickly depending on how many servings the label is written for.
- Fat: A food with 3 grams of total fat per 100 calories is consdiered low fat. Just remember, our bodies do need a little bit of healthy fat each day. Look for mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats and avoid trans fats (hydrogenated oils) and saturated fats. Note that a label can say “0 grams trans fat” but still contain trace amounts, so keep an eye out for the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredient list.
- Calories: There is no set number since it can vary from food to food and person to person. The amount of calories you consume in a day will impact your weight. Balance out the amount of calories you eat throughout the day, including snacks like protein bars. To know your individualized calorie needs, use a calorie calculator like this one. Remember, fat-free, sugar-free and low-carb does not mean calorie free. These items may still have as many calories as full-fat versions. Meal replacement bars are generally around 300 calories when going for these higher-calorie protein bars, be sure to choose ones with lots of nutrients, like fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Protein: Most Americans get plenty of protein but not always from the healthiest sources. When choosing food for its protein content, make choices that are lean, low-fat or fat-free. For protein bars, ingredients like soy and whey protein isolates are what you want to look for. Avoid poor-quality protein sources like gelatin and defatted peanuts.
- Carbohydrates: For snacks, 15 grams of carbohydrates is a good rule of thumb. For meals, the amount varies based on age, gender and activity level, but 30-60 grams per meal is a typically a good amount to go by. Fiber: You want to aim for 25-35 grams of fiber per day. Fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains are great sources. Look for at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving when choosing foods. Sugar: Try to find foods with as little as possible! The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance. For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons.
- Everything Else: Follow the 5/20 Guideline. When you look at the % Daily Value (DV) on the nutrition label, a DV of 5% or less is considered low while a DV or 20% or more is considered high. For sodium, cholesterol and total fat, look for 5% or lower. For vitamins and minerals, go for 20% or more!
1. Good: Medifast Chewy Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Bar
What’s in it: The Medifast Chewy Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip bar only has 110 calories and provides 11 grams of protein and 20% of the daily value for 24 vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D and calcium. There are 5 grams of fiber, only 3 grams of fat (1.5 saturated) and only 6 grams of sugar. The source of protein is heart-healthy soy, which is equally as digestible as other sources and offers additional benefits such as lowering cholesterol levels.
What’s it good for: The fiber combined with the protein increases satiety and promotes stable blood sugar. This bar can be a good meal replacement for weight loss or for fuel before or after intense exercise.
2. Good: Quest White Chocolate Raspberry Bar
What’s in it: The Quest White Chocolate Raspberry bar has 190 calories but contains an impressive 20 grams of protein. It is also an excellent source of fiber at 17 grams and only has 1 gram of sugar and 1 gram of sugar alcohols.
What’s it good for: One of the few gluten-free bars available on the market, this bar is a great snack option. It shouldn’t be used as a meal replacement, however, since it lacks sufficient vitamins and minerals for that purpose.
3. Good: Nature Valley Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate Protein Bar
What’s in it: The Nature Valley Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate Protein bar contains 190 calories and only 10 grams of protein, however the bar has no artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols and provides a sweet taste with only 6 grams of sugar. It also contains 5 grams of fiber and 7 grams of monounsaturated fat for optimal heart health.
What’s it good for: This bar is a great travel-ready and economic healthy snack and can be found at grocery retailers as opposed to specialty or health food stores.
4. Good: Kind Plus Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein
What’s in it: The Kind Plus Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein bar provides heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and cholesterol-lowering fiber thanks to a significant quantity of nuts. This bar is a great option for someone looking for a natural bar and it only has 7 grams of sugar. With 200 calories it only 7 grams of protein, which is less than other protein bars.
What’s it good for: This bar should be considered a health snack bar more than a protein bar, given it’s calorie-to-protein ratio. However, it is a good natural snack option and is also gluten-free.
5. Good: Fiber One Protein Chewy Bars Coconut Almond
What’s in it: Fiber One’s Protein Coconut Almond bar contains only 130 calories, 7 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber with no hidden sugar just plain sugar and corn syrup so you know what you’re eating.
What’s it good for: The combination of protein and fiber in this bar provides a satisfying on-the-go snack, good for both kids and adults.
6. Not So Good: PowerBar 30g Protein Plus Bars, Chocolate Brownie
What’s in it: Although the PowerBar Protein Plus 30 g Chocolate Brownie bar provides 30 grams of protein, that’s only 33% of the 360 calories in the bar. The rest of the calories are coming from sugar and fat! This bar has more sugar than a Snickers bar, coming in at 30 grams, and 11 grams of fat (4.5 grams saturated).
Why it’s not so good: With the high carbohydrate content of this bar, it’s disappointing that less than 1 gram comes from fiber. If you still like the high protein content, keep in mind that it is not all good-quality protein. While it does contain some soy protein isolate and whey protein isolate, the total amount of protein is bumped up with lower quality sources like gelatin and defatted peanut flower.
7. Not So Good: Think Thin Chocolate Fudge Protein Bar
What’s in it: The calorie count on Think Thin Chocolate Fudge Protein Bar is 240, similar to most meal replacement bars, and has 20 grams of protein. However, it is deficient in essential nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin C and only contains 1 gram of fiber. While it contains no sugar, it does have a whopping 12 grams of sugar alcohols.
Why it’s not so good: This bar is not a great meal replacement option given its deficiency in nutrients and the sugar alcohols are known to cause digestive upset when consumed in excess.
8. Not So Good: PROBAR Core Mint Chocolate
What’s in it: The ProBar Core Mint Chocolate bar contains 20 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. However, it also contains a litany of sweeteners that contribute to the 17 grams of sugar as well as plant gums and starches. There are also 9 grams of fat (4 grams saturated) and 430 milligrams of sodium.
Why it’s not so good: While this bar touts being natural and vegan, it is not necessarily healthy, given the high levels of sugar, fat and sodium. At 280 calories this bar should be a meal replacement, but it lacks the necessary vitamins and minerals to really make it a good meal option.
9. Not So Good: Luna Protein Gluten Free Protein Bar Berry Greek Yogurt
What’s in it: The Luna Protein Berry Greek Yogurt bar has 12 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber, but it also has 15 grams of sugar.
Why it’s not so good: Most protein bars list the primary protein source as the first ingredient. This bar, on the other hand, lists its first ingredient as organic cane syrup and the third ingredient as organic dried cane syrup. Sugar, even from organic and natural sources, will lead to a rise in blood sugar and insulin, which ultimately leads to hunger. Going with a bar with less sugar means better satiety.
10. Not So Good: Special K Protein Meal Bar, Chocolate Peanut Butter
What’s in it: The Special K Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Meal Bar has 180 calories, 10 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. However, it also contains 15 grams of sugar, and hydrogenated ingredients, even though it can be labeled as having 0 grams of trans fats.
Why it’s not so good: This bar may have been a healthy option, but the combination of a high sugar level with hidden trans fats tips the balance the other way.