How to Choose a Protein Bar

The everything you ever wanted to know guide to choosing the right bar for you.


You know the drill.

You’re on the go, in between meetings, just finished a workout, waiting at the airport for a flight, or just searching for a quick, affordable, and “healthy” snack to satisfy you in between meals…

And let’s be honest, you want something that tastes good too.

So you grab a protein bar with the thought, “this is probably the best choice I could be making”.

The sad reality is that while you think you’re making a “better” choice, if you’re not careful, you could easily be sabotaging your health and/or weight loss goals by consuming excessive amounts of sugar, calories, hydrogenated oils, as well as additives and artificial sweeteners.

Let’s dive into the vast array of protein bars on the market, what ingredients to look for, which ingredients to avoid, why most bars suck, and how to easily make them on your own.

The Protein Bar Industry:

In a multi billion dollar supplement industry and the constant demand for quick, easy, and weight loss oriented “foods”, it’s no surprise there are literally hundreds of protein bar choices on the market.

As with any food product, especially those experiencing any type of popularity or especially any trending popularity (i.e., gluten free, low fat, vegan, paleo, etc.), there is going to be vast array of the cost and quality available for consumption.

We know with food/supplement sales, it usually comes down to marketing to determine a bars popularity and “healthy for you” status, so don’t believe everything you see in the media. Some of these companies are spending big time bucks to build their sub-par products brand.

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is ignore the flash and fame and have a peek behind the label to see what makes the bar in question a win or loss.

Choosing Your Protein Source

Since we’re speaking specifically about protein bars, most of this review will discuss those bars including at least 10g of protein per serving.

Automatically that will eliminate a vast majority of health food bars on the market (think Lara Bar and Kind Bars as an example), that don’t necessarily fit into this “protein” classification.

Now that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with these, it just means that they don’t qualify to be considered within the scope of this article. However, the following ingredient analysis information still applies. So read on, as I think you’ll still find it useful…

As mentioned, protein (at least 10g per serving) is certainly one of the key ingredients to be on the lookout for. Your common protein bar sources include:

• Whey*
• Casein*
• Egg
• Soy
• Rice
• Hemp
• Pea

* Dairy Based protein source

Note that I have highlighted both the relative amount of protein per serving (bar) as well as the type(s) of protein included (whey concentrate, isolate, hydrolysate, caseinate). These are important numbers to keep an eye on to 1) quantify whether it’s actually a legitimate protein bar and 2) what protein source(s) are used.

Your most dense source of protein will always be whey, but if you have any kind of dairy intolerance, then this may need to be avoided, and depending on the form of whey, may make a difference in terms of palatability as well as digestibility.

In my experience, whey isolate/hydrolyzed will be the most easily digested without potential gastrointestinal discomfort, bloating, gas, etc.

This really comes down to personal preference. If you are a vegetarian/vegan, than you’ll obviously want to avoid whey or casein protein in any form, as it is dairy based (it actually is the byproduct from the production of cheese and used to be considered a waste product). If you do avoid dairy, then you would want to be on the lookout for soy, rice, pea or hemp protein source.

The popularity of rice and pea protein has dramatically increased recently as the prevalence of dairy allergies/sensitivities/intolerances is becoming better known as well as becoming more popularized in gluten and dairy free diet plans. Both rice and pea represents a low allergenic form of protein that bolsters a solid amino acid profile, which is the structural make up of a protein molecule.

Similarly, if you are more health minded, or looking for a “cleaner” source of whey, you would want to be on the lookout for a “grass-fed” source, although I’m fairly certain this is used more in protein shakes than bars.

I do not generally recommend the consumption of soy protein as a person’s main source of daily protein intake as it can have some speculative estrogen “mimicking” effects in the body in addition to being highly processed and grown with the use of a significant amount of pesticides. If you want more information of the potential negative effects of soy, I recommend reading The Whole Soy Story, by Kaayla Daniels and otherwise, the effects of soy in the body is beyond the scope of this article.

Bottom Line:

The most dense protein source will typically come from a whey-based protein and should encompass at least 10g of protein on the label. Many bars on the market can be closer to 20 or 30g+ grams of protein if using whey depending on the size of the bar and will decrease in relative protein density as one moves into more vegan sourced protein sources.

Choosing Your Carbohydrate Source

Depending on how physically active you are or how many calories you are looking to take in, you will want to pay attention to how many grams of carbohydrate make up your bar of choice, as there is no generally “acceptable” amount of carbs that should or should not be included.

Common Carbohydrate Sources: (this is not all inclusive, but just an example of various popular sources)

• Wheat
• Oats
• Dried fruit
• Agave
• Sugar
• Brown sugar
• Honey
• Brown rice syrup
• Molasses
• Anything ending in –ose also typically represents a form of sugar
• Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup

Because manufacturers are well aware that people are on the lookout for added sugars, they can get quite sneaky here, so you’ll want to check out the label for the grams carbohydrate per serving. Regardless of the source, at the end of the day, all carbs are broken down into sugar in the blood to be used up or stored in the muscles, liver, or as fat if not needed as an immediate fuel source.

In this particular product, we can see that carbs represent a significant portion of calories (40g of carbs) as well as the #1 ingredient in brown rice syrup.

We know on ingredient labels, the ingredients are listed in order from highest amounts to lowest, in order, so brown rice syrup, aka SUGAR, makes up a significant portion of this bar.

So, while it’s good to look for more natural sources of carbs, i.e., dates and honey vs. maltodextrin and corn syrup, it’s equally important to understand where your calories need to be if weight loss is goal for you.

I would stay away from any bars that have more than double the carbs to protein ratio

Generally speaking, I would stay away from any bars that have more than double the carbs to protein ratio. In the above example, there is 10g of protein and 40g of carbs, which is a 4:1 ratio and therefore probably not the best choice of bar for most people trying to manage weight. There are a couple caveats to this, which we’ll get into below.

Caveat #1: Athletes and hard training individuals, as well as those that are naturally very lean can get away with consuming far higher amounts of carbohydrate than those looking to lose body fat, get leaner, etc. With this in mind, a bar closer to 4:1 carbs:protein ratio may actually be a very effective post workout fuel source to replete muscle energy and calories used. However, I would say that a shake would be a better choice due to how quickly it’s digested and absorbed vs. a bar.

Caveat #2: We want to be on the lookout for fiber, as this can significantly slow down the absorption of the sugars in the bar and offer a potential benefit to the bar, somewhat minimizing the sugars effect. It also fills you up, which, when looking for a high protein, lower calorie bar can come in very handy. I’ll discuss fiber more in a bit.

Our discussion of carbohydrates wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the use and impact of artificial sweeteners. Because these ingredients can be significantly sweeter than sugar, they are often included to keep the carbohydrate content low but still give the bar a sweet taste. Typical artificial sweeteners include:

• Acesulfame potassium*
• Aspartame*
• Sucralose*
• Erythritol
• Xylitol
• Mannitol
• Sorbitol
• Maltitol
• Stevia

* There have been health concerns associated with these artificial sweeteners but according to the research have been deemed “generally safe in limited quantities”, whatever that means. Personally, I would avoid them as much as possible.

The sugar alcohols (erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, maltitol), while not technically sweeter than sugar, do have fewer calories than sugar, which makes them an attractive substitute. Anecdotally, these sugar alcohols can wreak havoc in the digestive tract, so be warned.

More novel sweeteners, like stevia, can be a good and virtually no calorie substitute for a more calorically dense carbohydrate source (like cane sugar or honey) and without the potential risks associated with the aforementioned artificial sweeteners (like sucralose).

Personally, my preference would be more natural sugars or stevia as I don’t do too well with the sugar alcohols and think aspartame should be avoided when possible.

What about the Fiber?

Ok, so here’s where things can get a bit tricky. Fiber inclusion is quickly representing a massive shift in the perceived value and function of a protein bar.

Quest bars and other similar bars are gaining massive popularity for their relatively high protein, yet low calorie make up (their marketing helps tremendously as well). The idea behind increasing fiber content of a bar is to help offset the carbohydrate load and thereby potentially decrease the effects on blood sugar.

Basically, that means to make it taste awesome without impacting blood sugar or getting you fatter.

This blood sugar effect is represented by the “net”, “impact” or “active” carb load. In order to determine this carb amount, you simply need to subtract the fiber from the total carbohydrate amount. Food manufacturers, especially those in the “low carb” industry use this as a marketing ploy to suggest that by minimizing the “net” carbs, the product is likely better due to a less significant blood sugar effect.

Here are several potentially important issues to address with these types of bars:

1) It’s not entirely clear how we’re impacted by the sugars in these types of bars. In theory, the more fiber, the slower digesting they are, but it’s hard to know for sure.

2) Often these “low carb” bars have artificial sweeteners like sucralose, which also can have an impact on blood sugar and contribute to more sweet cravings.

3) I personally question the validity of these companies accurately reporting the amount of fiber actually included.

4) I’m slightly concerned about the effects of these types of fibers (and sugar alcohols) and the role they play on long-term gut health and how it feeds gut bacteria.

5) You don’t get more processed than this. So if you’re looking for a “cleaner” or more wholesome food bar, than you’d best run, far far away. These types of high fiber bars really are “frankenfoods” and in my opinion, should be minimized if you’re truly interested in weight loss and getting and/or staying lean.

Bottom Line: Pay attention to the carb source and amount of fiber. You’ll want to play around with whether or not you can adequately digest a high protein/high fiber/low carb bar, or if you’d be better off sticking with something that has more real food ingredients.

If you’re naturally lean and/or have high physical activity levels and lean body mass, then you will likely do better with a higher carb:protein ratio and don’t really have to worry about it…and we all hate you for it ;)

Don’t Forget About the Fat

You can’t manage your calories without paying attention to the fats.

REMEMBER – the only way to make bars taste good is by adding sugar, salt, and/or fat.

REMEMBER – the only way to make bars taste good is by adding sugar, salt, and/or fat.

So, if the carbs (sugars) are low, likely the salt and fat will be high… just an FYI.

Ok, back to fat…

I hate to be polarizing, but you should probably stay away from ingredients that you can’t pronounce.

Why you ask?

Because they are often times really, really crappy forms of fats, like hydrogenated oils. Essentially these are many of the same fats used in candy bars and other highly processed food products that will make you fatter and sicker. These types of fats increase the shelf life of a product, as well as give chocolate that nice smooth texture, but necessitate the use of extreme heat and chemical solvents to extract, like hydrogenate palm kernel oil.

Gross.

Fats to Avoid: (anything that says “hydrogenated”)

• Vegetable oils
• Soy oil
• Canola oil
• Palm oils
• Seed oils (flax, sunflower, sesame) – these may go rancid if heated

Better Fats:

• Coconut oil
• Nuts and nut butters
• Seeds, like chia

Here’s what a better bar would look like with healthier fats:

Regardless of the source, you still need to have an eye on the total calories and how it’s fitting into the grand scheme of your daily nutrition and your goals.

Personally, I’d rather eat nutrient dense meal worth 250 calories, than have a bar, but sometimes it does come down to convenience and what is the BEST option given the circumstances.

How frequently should we, and when is the best time to be consuming bars?

Since we’re quickly realizing that protein bars in general may not be that great of a nutrition source, I would limit consumption to those times when there’s really no other option. So, if you’re running around, haven’t planned ahead or just need a quick and easy snack, then go for it.

Just keep in mind that if fat loss is a goal, these bars likely aren’t doing you any favors because of the highly processed ingredients and potential to negatively affect blood sugar levels.

The best and worst time to eat a protein bar:

I personally think that the worst time to consume a bar would be as your breakfast, as this is likely to set you up for blood sugar imbalances, cravings, and lethargy for the rest of the day. Choose instead to save a bar for the post-workout window when the body is primed to utilize higher amounts of carbohydrate or as a meal replacement if you’re traveling and don’t have access to real food.

Where should I buy bars and what brands do you recommend?

(Note: I have no vested interest in any of the following brands or companies)

Since I don’t personally consume too many bars, I don’t have an expansive knowledge of the various brands and quality. However, here is what I would recommend based on my limited experience:

1) PaleoBar (Designs for Health): These are a good balance of protein, carbs, and healthy fats from trusted sources. Tastes great and low calorie. You can only buy these from your local health practitioner, so that makes them a little more difficult to find.

2) Build your own bar (YouBars.com): Awesome way to create your own bars or piggyback on someone else’s creation. I was surprised at how good some of the higher protein bars were.

3) Organic Food Bar (organicfoodbar.com): Good ingredients, tasty, but typically higher in carbohydrate.

4) Victory Bar (Oh Yeah): These bars taste great, have high protein and fiber, but also a laundry list of ingredients. This would be my preferred go-to if options were limited or I wanted something more like a candy bar.

Of course there are plenty of bars that have more real food ingredients on the market that would likely be a good choice, including Lara bars, kind bars, etc., but for the scope of this article (protein bars), they won’t be mentioned because of the relatively low amounts of protein included. However, those types of bars do make for great on-the-go snacks for those less concerned with the macronutrient profile (amounts of protein, carbs, fats) and would be a great snack for kids as compared to your typical sugary granola bar.

Helpful Trick for Choosing a Bar:

So, here’s a little trick that I like to use with my weight loss clients for choosing a more balanced bar that hopefully won’t have as profound of an effect on blood sugar and still fit into a healthy diet.

When assessing the ingredients, subtract the protein and fiber from the carbohydrates.

If the remaining carbs is < 10, then that’s probably a pretty good bar choice.

The bottom line when it comes to choosing a protein bar is to know what you’re looking for, have an understanding of when is the best time to choose a bar, and realize that very seldom should a bar take the place of real food.

From a caloric standpoint, a bar can be a useful tool to manage daily intake as well as optimize desired amounts of macro’s (proteins, carbs, fats), but from a fat loss perspective, there is likely far too much blood sugar impact to make a bar a reliable daily snack.

None-the-less, in the busy world in which we live, there are plenty of choices out there, so find the one’s that work best for you.