What to Look for in a Protein Bar

Surprise! You might actually be eating a candy bar in a clever disguise.

Photo: GetttyImages

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With our on-the-go society, we often need on-the-go energy — an easy-open package to fuel activity when we’re out on the trails, facing back-to-back meetings or heading to a gym sesh right from work. 

We know energy bars don’t grow in gardens, which means they’re processed foods. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We just need to know what to look for in a protein bar to ensure we’re making the best possible decision.

First, don’t be misled by the claims on the front of the package — things like gluten-free or complete plant protein. Those claims always sound great when they scream at you from the store shelf. Instead, flip the package over to look at the nutrition panel on the back. 

Show Me the Protein

Start by checking the grams of protein. In a snack bar, look for at least 10 grams of protein, recommends Lauren MacLeod, RD, outdoor sports nutritionist. Then check out the protein sources.

Some protein sources like eggs, milk, soy and whey have better protein digestibility and contain more amino acids than others.

“For example, whey protein has a higher protein digestibility-corrected amino-acid score than nuts and seeds, meaning the whey is essentially higher quality,” says registered dietitian Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN, CLEC, CPT.

Those who don’t eat animal products also can look for plant-based protein sources like nuts, seeds and pea protein.

Look at the Other Ingredients

“When choosing an energy bar, I opt for ones that have ingredients I recognize like oats, nuts and seeds,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, sports registered dietitian. “I generally avoid ones with artificial sweeteners, as they may cause stomach distress during exercise.”

Sugar alcohols have been linked to flatulence and diarrhea. To avoid, skip bars with ingredients ending in “-ol” — such as xylitol, maltitol and sorbitol.

Also, put added sugars on the list of what to look for in a protein bar. Check for ingredients like the following:

  • Honey
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Sucrose
  • Maltose
  • Syrup (such as maple or rice)
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Treacle

Some protein bars have 20 grams of sugar. For reference, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that someone following a 2,000-calorie diet consume no more than 50 grams of sugar per day.

“There are so many names for added sugars,” MacLeod says. “Added sugars are not an automatic discard, but it’s important to be aware of whether or not you are consuming added sugars for a variety of health reasons.”

Find a Bar That Fits Your Goals

From there, what to look for in a protein bar will vary based on your nutrition goals and activity. Some bars are intended to be snacks, while others are meal replacement, so check the calorie count.

“A meal-replacement bar should provide a similar amount of calories as what one would eat during mealtime — essentially a minimum of 350 calories,” Manaker says. “Preworkout bars will contain fewer calories, typically up to 250.”

But the calories you need will depend on your body and activity level. 

“If you are in the middle of a long day of training or adventuring, carbohydrates are your best friend,” MacLeod explains. “Most athletes don’t realize the importance of carbohydrate intake during activity, but carbs are essential for replenishing your muscle glycogen storage and preventing bonking.” Bonking is loss of energy and a sign your body could use some carbohydrates.  

“This is the time when sugars can be extremely helpful as part of your protein bar,” MacLeod says. “They are the simplest and quickest form of carbohydrates that your body can use and keep you going.”

Or you might find that your body doesn’t want protein at all in these situations. 

“Protein can cause some digestive distress, since it is a slower-digesting nutrient,” MacLeod explains, “so keep that in mind when incorporating a protein bar while you’re on the trail. If you do experience difficulty, try simple carbohydrates like fruit, sports drinks, juice or sport gels.”

If you’re looking for a protein bar as a recovery snack after training, MacLeod recommends looking at carb and protein content. In this scenario, a 3-1 carb-to-protein ratio is what to look for in a protein bar. That could be 60 grams of carbohydrates to 20 grams of protein or 45 grams of carbohydrates to 15 grams of protein.

“If you’re having trouble getting adequate carbs in recovery, adding a piece of fruit can be a quick and easy fix,” MacLeod suggests.

Alternatives to Bars

Ideally, at least two hours before exercise, have a meal or snack of carbs, protein and healthy fats. If you have time and kitchen space available to you, you can make your own alternatives to a packaged energy bar

“For instance, a bowl of oatmeal with almond butter and berries can make a great preworkout meal,” Rizzo says. “The oats and berries are a healthy source of carbs, while the almond butter provides plant-based protein and good unsaturated fats to keep you full and energized during a workout.”

If you’re fueling within an hour of your workout, choose a lighter snack of mostly carbs and just a touch of protein (similar to what preworkout bars deliver). A banana with almond butter fits the requirements. 

“The carbs provide the energy for the workout, and the protein helps keep you satiated throughout the exercise,” Rizzo says. 

You also can make your own trail mix with a blend of protein and carbohydrates, like dates with almonds or dried mango with a handful of crunchy roasted chickpeas

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