Here’s the first thing you need to know when you go browsing the health bar aisle looking for options that are actually good for you:
Not all protein bars are created equal.
And — if we’re being blunt — most bars that are labeled as being “healthy” have more in common with a candy bar than a handful of kale or a protein shake.
This is the health industry, where it’s much easier to slap buzzwords on a label than, you know, actually provide you with what you need.
But rather than let you be frustrated by marketing tactics (they exist in every business and with every product), we want to make your life easier. Because there are many good protein bars on the market.
We’re here to make it easy for you to identify the real deal from the real duds.
That doesn’t mean you have to earn a Ph.D. in nutrition. Just follow these five rules and no matter what bar you select, you can feel good that you aren’t wasting your time (and calories) on a crappy candy bar.
5 Rules for Identifying Good Protein Bars
Rule #1: Sugar is NOT the first ingredient of a good protein bar
This rules seems obvious, but here’s why it’s so important:
1. Most people don’t look at the actual ingredients. They just scan things like “calories” or “protein.”
2. Most people don’t know the order of ingredients reflects the quantity in a product. If sugar is first, that means there’s more sugar than any other ingredient.
3. Sugar has lots of different names so it’s easily to be fooled. So if the first ingredient is dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, or turbinado, well, that means “sugar.”
And don’t think that just because a bar looks like it’s made up of whole foods that it’s lighter on the sweet stuff.
“Even if you see these nuts and raisins through the label, the bar [can have] a sugar coating,” says Valerie Goldstein, a registered dietitian and owner of Eating to Fuel Health. “It just looks like a glob of nuts, so it looks very innocent. But even these ‘whole food’-looking bars have to be held together by something. Usually that’s sugar syrup.”
If you want to make sure the bar really is healthy, the bar’s primary ingredients should be a protein source, a fruit or vegetable, or healthy fat source like nuts.
Protein, fat, and carbs consumed with fiber (which you’ll get from fruits or grains) all take longer to digest than simple sugars, so they’ll keep you feeling fuller, longer. That means you don’t need sugar to be energized; you just need a good source of fuel.
The benefits of having good “primary” ingredients (the proteins, fruit/vegetable, or healthy fat source) are part of what distinguishes a good protein bar from a snack bar. Those nutrients have been shown to have a beneficial effect on your weight and waist line too.
For every 10 grams of fiber you eat, you’ll have as much as 4 percent less fat around your belly. Monounsaturated fats, like those found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish, have been shown to help people lose belly fat, according to a 2013 study. And a research review published in Nutrition in 2015 found that Americans who eat a high-protein diet have lower BMI and waist circumferences.
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Rule #2: Good protein bars have 10 grams of protein — or more.
This rule comes with what should be an obvious “if.”
If you’re using the bar as a protein supplement or meal replacement, you want at least 10 grams—or, ideally, even more,
“The biggest thing I tell people is, ‘Know how you plan to use the bar,’” says Anthony D’Orazio, director of nutrition and physique at Complete Human Performance, LLC. “If I’m looking to replace protein specifically, I’m looking for around 20 grams of protein,”
That means the bar’s first ingredient will likely be a protein source. Whey isolate, casein, pea, or egg protein are all high-quality choices.
Soy crisps will appear on a lot of protein labels and “count” as protein, but they aren’t the highest quality source. So if “soy crisp” is the first ingredient, even though a bar might have a high amount of protein, it’s probably not the best choice.
If you’re not using the bar as a protein supplement, you can get away with having the lower protein total. In fact, D’Orazio sometimes supplements his breakfast with a lower-protein bar that’s higher in fat and carbs. Why?
“I’m using it as a quick source of healthy fat,” D’Orazio says. “The main ingredients are peanut butter, rolled oats—ingredients people would recognize.”
Rule #3: Aim for less than 15 grams of sugar
Remember how we said many protein bars are really just candy bars disguised as something good for you?
Well, here’s the proof.
Did you know that Gatorade’s Whey Protein Bar has 29 grams of sugar? And CLIF Builder Bars have 1 more gram of sugar 21g) than they do protein (20g)? Compare that to the Met-RX Big 100 Colossal bar. Lots of protein (30g). But loads of calories overall (400), and 32g of sugar.
What in the what?
Before you freak out about sugar, know that it’s not the terrible villain it’s made to be. And there are many great bars out there (RX Bar comes to mind) with more than 10 grams. The catch? If the bar contains more than 10 grams of sugar, most of that should come from fruit or other natural sugar sources like lactose.
Why are natural sugars better?
Lactose from milk products and fructose from fruits, like all sugars, contain 4 calories per gram. But unlike refined sugars, these natural sugars come paired with the other nutrients you get from fruit or dairy—things like Vitamin C, potassium, calcium, Vitamin D, and other things that help your body function.
Good protein bars are oftentimes defined by their nutrients. It’s what helps separate a healthy bar from a candy bar. And refined, added sugars don’t deliver the added nutrients.
Added sugars also can hurt you in the long run. People who consume more than 21 percent of their daily calories from added sugars have double the risk of death from heart disease compared to people who consume just 10 percent of their calories from added sugars, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine.
Rule #4: Watch out for sugar alcohols
No, the bars don’t have booze in them. Sugar alcohols are a category of artificial sweeteners.
They have names like xylitol, sorbitol, isomalt, and glycerol. You’ll find them in all kinds of things labeled “sugar-free.” And for some people, they can lead to a pretty unhappy stomach, depending on how you react to them.
“That’s real person-specific. I personally don’t have an issue with them, but they can give other people digestive issues,” D’Orazio says.
Just as with the whey concentrate, he says, you have to pay attention to how the ingredient affects you. If the bar produces something less like a feeling of fullness and more like a feeling like you have to run to the bathroom, then you’re going to want to steer clear of it.
Rule #5: Look for protein bars with fewer than 400 calories.
Good protein bars are supposed to be supplements—something you use to shore up a weak spot in your diet, just like protein powder or a multivitamin. They’re meant to supply nutrients, protein, or calories you might not otherwise get from your diet, or if you find yourself busy and missing meals.
When a bar weighs in at 400 calories or more, that’s more calories than you’d get from eating a Whopper, Jr. or half of a Chipotle bowl. And a bar isn’t necessarily “healthier” than those options.
For example, some popular bars have 200 calories only deliver 6 grams of protein, but a hard-boiled egg will give you 7 grams! And it’s less than 80 calories. So if you can eat whole food, eat whole food. But of course that might not always be possible.
“Maybe it’s difficult to pack a meal because you’re on a job site and don’t have access to a refrigerator,” D’Orazio says. In those cases, bars do offer you some advantages. “They’re portion-controlled and pre-measured. They supply the sort of nutrition you might not get at a drive-thru window.” (But even then, the 400-calorie “rule” is still a good guideline to follow.)
“It’s hard to overeat if you only bring what’s necessary. If you plan to eat two bars—and you bring two bars—you can use them as a tool to help control yourself. You control your intake with a mobile package of food.”