I am the queen of purse snacks. My husband always questions me as he would a toddler before we leave the house asking, “Do you have a snack packed, just in case you need it?” While it sometimes feels patronizing, I appreciate his thoughtfulness as he’s had to see the hangry Lo that surfaces when she’s caught without a blood-sugar saving snack mid-errand run. I like to think I’m not the only poor soul out there toting around purse snacks, so many of you like myself are likely always on the lookout for healthful options in the protein bar or granola bar aisles of the grocery store. They can be an extremely convenient option for busy, health-conscious individuals. Most of them require zero refrigeration, they don’t expire, they can be consumed on-the-go, and contribute no added mess or fuss.
But the amount of choices these days are overwhelming. At any given store, there are 20-30 different protein bar options to choose from. And trust me when I say not all protein bars are created equal. How does one decide? Do you opt for the lowest calorie option? Or go for one with the highest protein? Should you worry about the ingredient list containing items you can’t pronounce?
Picking the best protein bar for you doesn’t have to be overly complex, but you do want to know a few key things to look for in order to spot a quality option over a dupe marketing scheme.
KNOW YOUR GOAL
There are two types of bars on the market, and they are often referred to interchangeably: a protein bar and an energy bar.
Energy bars were originally designed to provide a portable source of calories, or energy, to fuel physical exertion or exercise. These energy bars are higher in carbohydrates as carbohydrates are more quickly absorbed than fats and proteins, and are readily available as fuel to the working muscles. So for a portable snack during long bouts (2+ hours) of hiking, biking, running, etc – energy bars are a great option and you’ll want to opt for a one higher in carbohydrates and overall calories.
However for the rest of us that aren’t weekend mountain biking warriors, we are best to limit the simple carbohydrates, and are instead looking for a protein bar option that makes for a suitable meal replacement. Protein bars are lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein, making them a better choice to replace a meal or snack.
Real food is always preferable to a highly processed bar, but life happens and real food isn’t always available, so look for bars with easily recognizable ingredients such as nuts, nut butters, dates, fruit, seeds, egg whites, spices, and natural sweeteners like honey.
IDENTIFY A QUALITY PROTEIN SOURCE
The average American consumes less than 70 grams of protein per day, even though the baseline recommendation is 1.4 – 2.0 g/kg body weight in active adults. Protein helps to maintain and build strong muscles and bones. Because it is more slowly digested and absorbed, protein also helps to regulate blood sugar and appetite.
Since many of us rely on protein bars as a main snack or meal of our day, we are better off selecting a bar with a significant amount of protein from a high quality source. I recommend selecting a bar with at least 10-30 grams of protein per serving.
However, don’t sacrifice quantity for quality in this case. There are plenty of protein bars on the market bragging about holding 20+ grams of protein – but upon further investigation you will find less than ideal ingredients list to go with it.
Avoid whey protein isolates, milk protein isolates, or soy protein sources. These protein sources are known to cause gastrointestinal upset and can contribute to gut health issues. Instead, look for natural meat sources, like chicken, beef, or egg white. These will always be your best complete protein options. Other good quality vegan or vegetarian sources of protein include pea or hemp protein.
LOOK FOR SOURCES OF HIDDEN SUGARS
Even though protein bars are formulated to take the place of a meal, they don’t make protein bars in flavors like salmon and broccoli, or steak and potatoes, or red beans and rice. Instead, we get meal replacement bars that taste like chocolate brownie sundae, peanut butter cups, or cherry cheesecake. So the question is: what’s it sweetened with?
You’ll find bars sweetened with honey, coconut sugar, agave, dates, or any number of other natural ingredients. Don’t get too caught up in the health halo surrounding these natural sweeteners and always check out how many grams of sugar is in your protein bar compared to the total grams of protein. The grams of sugar will be listed under the Total Carbohydrate section on the nutrition label. Avoid protein bars that contain more sugar than protein or your ‘healthy’ choice turns into nothing more than a glorified candy bar!
Some bars may look great under the nutrition label with ‘zero added sugars’ promoted – BUT watch out for artificial sweeteners like surcralose or aspartame, or more natural low-calorie sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit. These added sweeteners fly under the radar and do not have to be reported on nutrition labels as sugar. None of these are perfect. Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols may have a negative impact on gut bacteria and cause digestive distress. Stevia and monk fruit can taste bitter to some people.
One single source of natural sweeteners is fine, but if you see terms like brown rice syrup, glucose syrup, cane sugar, agave syrup, malititol syrup – or really any other syrups – on the ingredients list, just put it back on the shelf.
SPOT PROCESSED INFLAMMATORY OILS
A high-protein diet is great, but don’t disregard other sources of nutrition. Fat is a necessary nutrient that aids in satiety, provides energy and helps the body build healthy cells and use vitamins and minerals. The key is to seek whole, natural sources like nuts and nut butters over processed trans fats like partially hydrogenated oils.
Learn to scrutinize an ingredients list and you can easily spot less than ideal fat sources & oils used in many protein bars. Soybean oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil, vegetable glycerin, sunflower oil, and canola oils are known to be pro-inflammatory. Opt for healthy fats appearing in the form of nuts, seeds, nut butters, coconut oil, or MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil.
LO’S TOP RECOMMENDATIONS
So at the end of the day, which protein bars do I recommend as the best options out there?
All of these protein bars can be found at major grocery chains, although you may have to venture into the health market section to find them. These are my top recommendations as they all contain high quality protein sources from animal meat, egg white, and/or nuts & seeds. The main sources of sweeteners are dates, and there are plenty of healthy fat sources from almonds, chia seeds, and others!
Not to mention all of these come in a ton of delicious flavors like coconut lime, peanut butter chocolate, blueberry, apple cinnamon, chocolate sea salt and MORE!
Stock up on these favorites and feel prepared to tackle whatever the day throws your way knowing you have a full stash of healthy, filling, and delicious protein bars to save the day.