Protein bars can appear to be the best of all worlds. They taste like a candy bar while seemingly supplying needed protein between meals or before vigorous exercise. Yet the question remains; are these modern protein bars really a nutritious snack, or just empty calories disguised as nutrition?
Well, the answer isn’t so clear-cut. To pick a good protein bar, you need to look past the company’s marketing (because they are all advertised as healthy), and really look at the ingredient list. There are some pretty toxic ingredients in protein options, but there are some better options as well. I’m going to start with the bad, and then I’ll get to the good stuff!
Here are some harmful ingredients frequently found in healthy sounding protein bars:
Protein isolates, concentrates or hydrolyzed protein –
These proteins are all heavily processed, often to remove the fat, the lactose or to break down the protein. In the process, the protein often becomes denatured. This means the protein structure has been compromised, making it unusable to your body. So while the label might read 20 grams of protein, only a small portion of the protein may actually be available for your body. And what is left is so synthetic that it can actually lead to inflammation and weight gain.
Vegetable Oils –
These are oils like sunflower oil, safflower oil and canola oil. The problem with vegetable oils in protein bars is that vegetable oils are heat sensitive. In order to take these different ingredients and meld them into a bar, high heat must be used. This high heat can burn vegetable oils, making them toxic to the body
Puffed Crisps, Wheat, Rice, etc –
If brown rice is a healthy staple, then puffed rice should be no different, right? Actually, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The puffing process subjects the grain to extremely high heats which depletes them of most of most of their nutrients. According to The Weston A. Price Foundation, an experiment with rats showed that rats who ate a diet exclusively of puffed wheat died sooner than rats who didn’t eat anything at all, as well as rats who ate a diet of nothing but sugar. This suggests that the puffing process can turn food toxic.
Fake Sugars and Sugar Alcohols –
Some of the most popular protein bars are of the low-carb variety. While it may seem like a tasty dream to have a candy-like bar with no sugar and carbohydrates, buyer should beware. These bars are almost always filled with synthetic sugars that cause inflammation, toxicity and weight gain. Some examples of fake sugars are malitol, sucralose, glycerol, erythritol and monk fruit extract (commercial monk fruit extract is usually heavily processed., though it is a step up from the other fake sweeteners)
but you knew that already, right?
Here are some ingredients you should look for in a protein bar:
Nuts and Nut Butters –
There are a few protein bars on the market made exclusively from fruits and nuts. If you are going to eat a protein bar, these are some of my favorite options. These bars made out of real foods that your body can easily recognize. The nuts provide a good source of fat which can help the food bar keep you fuller for longer. They are also full of vitamins, minerals as well as some protein.
Dried Fruit –
Dried fruit, while still being somewhat high-glycemic (meaning it creates a fast spike in blood sugar levels), it is still a better option than added sweeteners or fake sugars. It is a real food that your body can use. Keep in mind though that dried fruit still has sugar and many of these bars with dried fruit have over 20 grams of sugar. Yet, this is a better option than added sugars.
Raw Honey –
Please note that I specified raw honey. Raw honey hasn’t been processed and contains many of the vitamins, minerals and enzymes found in honey’s natural state. Most bars that I’m aware of containing raw honey are found in the refrigerated section due to their perishable nature.. Honey is still sugar, however it is lower-glycemic. Raw honey is full of nutrients that are usually destroyed during processing. Therefore, the sugar isn’t just empty calories.
Pure Protein Powders –
Look for labels with hemp, whey, egg or pea protein. These protein powders are better than the protein concentrates or isolates I previously mentioned. These protein sources are less processed and will be more usable by the body.
Cold Processed Ingredients –
If you’ve learned anything up to this point, it should be that heat is not your friend when designing a good protein bar. Cold processing allows for as much of the original nutrients of the protein to be retained as possible. That way, what you see on the food label will much more likely be reflected in the bar itself.
Here is a list of brands that have more of these types of ingredients:
Please note that many of these options can only be found online. –
- Kit’s Organics
- RX Bars
- Paleo Simplified
- Raw Power Organic Food Bar
- Pure Power Protein Bar
- Perfect Bar
One final note:
Protein bars can never take the place of real whole foods. They are treats, meant to be enjoyed on an occasional basis. They are good to grab when you are on the go and would otherwise go hungry or when you need some extra energy. So enjoy protein bars, but don’t let them became a major component of your diet.
Sabrina Q. says
I totally agree. We need to read the ingredients and not just trust these protein bars are healthy. Thanks for sharing. This was very informative.
Thank you, Sabrina. I’m glad you found this usedful!
Good advice on how to choose a healthy protein bar, Erica. Mind you researchers at a top Swedish university recently concluded that it’s not the end of the world if we eat a bit of unhealthy food once in a while. According to them it’s far better than not eating enough if you are exercising a lot. Strange as it may sound even candy once in a while is better than not getting enough food i.e. if the only option at a given moment is a Mars bar it’s better then nothing. Interesting, isn’t it.
I’m glad to here of that study, Catarina. I think it is foolish to take an all or nothing approach to eating. Unless you aren’t at all food motivated, the only way to keep a healthy diet is to balance it with some treats. I like to take an 85/15 approach with 85% of the diet being nourishing foods and 15% being just for fun. Thank you for sharing.
This is why I always prefer to take natural protein. These days, it is very difficult to trust these brands which promises good health only to ruin it further.
If you can find whole food protein options, that will always be the best choice.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge on this.
Many protein bars are advertised as healthy and even suggested as meal replacements. On looking closely at the ingredients and calorie content, I am often shocked.
I snack on fruit, unsalted nuts and raisins.
Yes, consumers need to be hyper aware that advertisers don’t always have your best interest. Their job is to get you to want to buy the food, not get you healthy.
Marquita Herald says
I’ve never really developed a taste for protein bars. Oh, I’ve had more than a few because I used to do a lot of hiking and my ex-husband was a fan so that was always a staple among our supplies, but I just never cared for them. Maybe it’s because I am not a “sweets” person, or maybe it’s because they never really satisfied my hunger. Regardless of my personal tastes, I certainly agree with you Erica about the importance of reading labels and it’s something I find myself doing more and more of these days.
I’m glad you are reading labels, Marquita. That is the only way for us to be empowered to understand the impact of what we are eating on our bodies.
Jacqueline Gum says
I know that I am in the minority, if not standing all by myself when I say that I do not like protein bars of any kind! Laugh! I use a protein powder in my shake every day, but just never developed a tase for the bars!
You are lucky, Jacqueline. Most find protein bars easily addictive. A lot of them taste so similar to candy bars so they really appeal to the masses.
Man, I know I used to be one of those people that grabs a protein bar after a work-out. I didn’t think about treating them as only a treat though. I learned that I could easily save my calories and make some whole food, without all that added sugar and other junk you mentioned.
Congrats Cait on moving towards whole foods. They even sell protein bars at gyms now, so the companies are really pushing for people to use them as part of their workout. A lot of people believe that these bars help their workout, but they really aren’t necessary.
Kire Sdyor says
Erica, could you do a blog post letting us know which of the healthiest protein bars taste least like dirt? I’m sticking with a jar of peanut butter and crackers.
Actually, the bars that I’ve tried out of the recommended list I gave are pretty good. However, I think a spoon full of peanut butter (unsweetened, of course) makes an excellent snack.
Melissa Field says
Thank you for this! I am someone that often grabs a protein bar instead of a meal. At this point in my life, I know this behavior won’t change, so I need to be choosing healthy ones. For me, it’s not about the taste (as I’ve seen some comment about above). It’s about convenience, and I know what’s proper here. To not make it about convenience and make a real meal. But after sitting at my desk all day and wanting some food energy stat, there’s nothing I love more than grabbing a bar going for a walk and getting some fresh air!!! I do walk and eat and it feels so good. I will look for the bars you listed.
Yes, definitely check out some of the options I listed. It definitely helps to pick a better quality bar. And I’m glad you take a walk with your snack. I agree that nothing clears my mind better than taking a short walk when I’ve hit a rut.
Great post, great reminder. I buy these bars but then make the mistake of making them a primary meal when their really a snack.
I think you are in good company, Sacha. And I’ve been there myself in life, eating a protein bar as a meal. I’m glad you found this post to be a helpful reminder!
Pamela Chollet says
Thank-you so much for this post, Erica. I can’t tell how long I stand reading the ingredients in protein bars wondering, “what the heck does all this mean”? The only ingredient I looked at was, sugar. This information is very valuable. I’ve been buying Quest bars, what do you think of those?
Well, I’ll first say that I’m right along with you in loving Quest bars. They are seriously so good. However, they have pretty much every problematic ingredient I listed. I live by the motto that anything is fine in moderation, but I would treat them as a treat rather than an everyday thing.
Krystyna Lagowski says
I’ve always been suspicious of these so-called protein bars and wondered if they’re just a candy bar in disguise. The older I get, the more closely I read those labels! But usually, I’m looking for sodium and cholesterol counts. Thanks to you, I’m now much better informed!
I’m glad you found this helpful, Kystyna. And good for you for looking at food labels even if you are just looking at sodium and cholesterol. Every step you take to being more informed is a good one.
For a time I used to eat these bars constantly but for no reason I can really pinpoint I stopped. Maybe my body caught up on the protein it needed. I wasn’t eating the good ones in your list so maybe the real reason was my body telling me to quit with all the crap.
It is true that our bodies can be very wise if we stop to listen to them…
William Rusho says
Very informative post. We have to keep in mind when we see products advertised to us as “healthy” when in fact they can be less beneficial then their claim and may do more harm to us. Thank you for sharing this with us.
Thank you, William. Advertisers sure can be tricky. I’m glad more and more people are becoming aware.
Susan Cooper says
I’ve never been a fan of protein bars. I’m not sure why. I think it has to do with the what’s in it. I think there are many more ways to get what we need from other sources than a protein bar. Just my thoughts. 🙂