What things should I look for in a protein bar? I use them when I’m on the go at times when I know I will need something, but don’t want to do fast food.
– Tammy Edwards
Wonderful questions. When it comes to protein bars, I am “on the fence”. Allow me to explain.
On the one hand, I don’t think they are terrible and should be shunned. Sure, there are some horrific protein bars out there (and, in a little bit, I will give you specific parameters to help you choose the better ones), but a smart choice can make for a great snack or meal replacement in a pinch.
I am not of the camp, though, that thinks protein bars are the key to weight loss or muscle gain. My main issue with protein bars is that they are often advertised — and, therefore, perceived by the public — in the wrong manner.
Alas, I will first provide helpful tips for choosing the best protein bars. I will also, however, suggest whole-food-based snacks you can take with you.
In terms of purchasing a protein bar, here is what you need to think about:
- Calories: Determine whether you are looking for a snack or a meal replacement. Some bars offer anywhere from 100 to 200 calories and make for a decent snack. Others fall between 350 and 450 calories; they can serve as meal replacements or be paired up with a piece of fruit for a more complete meal.
- Saturated Fat: for a snack bar, choose ones with no more than 4 grams. For a higher-calorie bar, 6 grams should be the limit.
- Trans fat: It is extremely rare to find a protein bar with trans fat these days. However, we’re going to touch on this a little later.
- Sodium: A snack bar should offer no more than 250 milligrams (ideally, no more than 200). A higher-calorie, meal-replacement bar should offer a maximum of 450 milligrams.
- Fiber: Any protein bar that offers fiber is usually fortifying an isolated fiber. This doesn’t offer as many health benefits as a food that intrinsically contains fiber. However, it doesn’t hurt. Aim for 3 grams or more.
- Sugar: This is a little tricky. If the protein bar is made with whole fruit (ie: dried apples, dates, dried cherries, etc.) don’t be thrown off by sugar values that may seem high. However, if no fruits are present, cap off snack bars at 6 grams and meal-replacements at 10. Reminder: juice concentrates and white sugar are twinsies. **Beware of bars high in sugar alcohols; they cause horrific stomach aches!**
- Protein: A snack bar that offers 10 grams of protein does the trick. For a meal-replacement bar, protein grams should start at 25.
- Ingredient list: This is crucial! The following ingredients that give me pause (the more of these you find, the less I recommend that particular bar): partially hydrogenated oils (remembers, “0 grams of trans fat” does not mean a product is trans-fat free!), artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, enriched flour. Don’t be instantly alarmed by long ingredient lists, since most protein bars are fortified with several vitamins and minerals (and those odd names listed are simply vitamins and minerals, rather than freaky ingredients). Don’t be fooled by the mention of “greens” or “whole food concentrates”, since these bars can sometimes tack on quite a bit of added sugar!
I am not an avid protein bar consumer, but one brand I often recommend to people looking for a snack on the go is Jay Robb. As far as meal-replacements go, I recommend Zero Impact bars (especially the Pumpkin flavor!).
Now onto part two of my answer: foods and snacks that travel well for long periods of time and offer similar nutrient profiles as — and MUCH more total nutrition than — a protein bar:
- Homemade trail mix: 1/4 cup nuts or seeds + 1/4 cup dried fruit + 2 Tablespoons hemp seeds (the hemp seeds are crucial, since they add 11 grams of protein) + 1 Tablespoon unsweetened shredded coconut
- Make my chocolate-walnut truffles but add some whey or hemp protein (unsweetened) to the “batter”!
- Supercharged sandwich: 2 slices sprouted grain bread (I like these because they contain 0 grams of sugar) + 2 Tablespoons nut or seed butter + 1 Tablespoon ground flaxseeds + banana slices + sprinkle of cinnamon