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Protein Bars: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This convenience food can deliver more than just protein.

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When you think about protein bars, what comes to mind? Convenience? Recovery food? Quick energy? While whole foods are preferred to get in overall balanced nutrition, protein bars can provide quick sources of all of the macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fats) as well as an additional burst of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) when you are in a pinch. However, it is important to pay close attention to what exactly is in your protein bar when making your choice.

What’s In Your Protein Bar?

Protein

When taking a closer look at protein bars, the most obvious ingredient to take note of is the protein source and content of the bar. Protein itself is broken down into amino acids in the body, which can be used to repair, recover, and build up muscles and support the immune system. Branch chain amino acids (or BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are used to promote the highest rates of muscle protein synthesis and are preferred post-workout. Look for a bar that contains 15–20 grams of protein per bar.

What to Look For:

  • Plant-Based Protein Sources (typically, slightly lower in amino acids): Pea, Hemp, Brown Rice, Soy
    • Found In: Garden of Life Sport Performance Bars, GoMacro Bars, Square Organics, Pro Bars, No Cow Bars, Perfect Bars, Aloha Bars, Barebells, Zing Bars
  • Animal-Based Protein Sources (higher BCAA sources): Whey concentrate, whey isolate, casein (use caution with these if you have a dairy allergy)
    • Found In: Clif Builder Bars, Gatorade Whey Protein Bars, Rx Bars, Power Crunch Pro Bars, G2G Bars, Honey Stinger Nut and Seed Bar, Premier Protein Bars

RELATED: Protein Isn’t Just for Your Muscles—It May Also Boost Your Microbiome

Carbohydrates and Sweeteners

Carbohydrates always seem to get a bad rap. And when it comes to protein bars, “0 grams of sugar” or “low-carb” are familiar labels on many popular bars out there, as they try to entice consumers into thinking they are a better product.

Full disclosure from a dietitian: In reality, some carbs are actually good to help replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle, not to mention, they give flavor to protein bars. On the flip side, we don’t want to just have a bar with straight carbohydrate that spikes and drops our blood sugar. When investigating the label for the carb content of the bar, look for a balanced ratio of carb to protein. When evaluating added sugars in a bar, remember we want to limit added sugars to no more than 50 grams a day, however, that doesn’t mean we want to avoid them and replace with sugar alcohols.

What to Look For:

  • Sweeteners: Tapioca syrup, Brown rice Syrup, Honey, Maple Syrup, Maltodextrin, Cane Sugar, Coconut sugar, Agave Nectar
  • No-Calorie Plant-Based Sweeteners: These sweeteners, like stevia and monk fruit, are extracted from their respective plants and contain no calories. They are both 100–300 times sweeter than sugar. Both sweeteners are recognized as safe by the FDA.

Ingredients to Use Caution with:

  • Sugar Alcohols: Disguised under the names maltitol, sorbitol, mannitol, erythritol, xylitol, and isomalt, these sweeteners are actually derived from carbohydrates, but modified to be lower in calories than other sugars. They do not cause as big of spikes and drops in blood sugar but due to only being partially digested, they can increase the risk of gastrointestinal distress, gas, and bloating. Definitely don’t risk it if you are getting ready to go on a run.
    • Found In: Built Bars, Think Thin Bars, Quest Bars, No Cow Bars, Pure Protein Bars, Barebell, One Bars
  • Sucralose: More well-known by its brand name Splenda, Sucralose is a chemically made artificial sweetener that contains no calories and is up to 700 times sweeter than regular sugar. Research is mixed on the effects of Splenda on the gut microbiome and metabolism, however, the FDA considers it safe for consumption. If you are particularly sensitive to it, it may cause headaches or GI distress.
    • Found In: Quest Bars

RELATED: Are You Eating Enough Carbs After a Long Workout?

Other Ingredients

  • Natural Flavors: Typically these are extracts from plants and animal products that are taken in a lab. They do not provide any nutritional value, but are added to enhance taste.
    • Found In: One Bars, Rx Bars, Pro Bars, Built Bars, Garden of Life Sport Bars, No Cow Bars, Think Thin Bars
  • Proprietary/Herbal Blends: Typically added in to products as fillers or advertised as a nutrition boost, use caution when consuming as there is typically no telling in what the actual proprietary or herbal blend contains and could pose a health risk.
  • Prebiotics: Typically, prebiotics are types of fiber that are indigestible by the body, but are used as fuel for bacteria to promote a healthy microbiota in your gut. As a result, however, use caution with these fiber types pre-run as they can lead to increased gas and bloating.
    • Look for: Inulin, chicory root fiber, FOS, acacia fiber
  • Vitamins and Minerals: While a little bit of extra vitamins and minerals won’t hurt, don’t expect to get your full spectrum of nutrients from supplemental vitamins and minerals in a protein bar. Also, be aware that vitamins and minerals can appear to have long names, but they are completely safe.
    • Look For: cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12), niacin (vitamin B3), D-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), riboflavin (vitamin B2), calcium, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1)
  • Hydrogenated Oils: Hydrogenated oils are another name for trans fats or fats that have been chemically modified to give them a more solid or semi-solid state. Trans fats have been linked to higher levels of inflammation and heart disease and should be avoided.
    • Look For: Partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils

Bottom Line When Choosing a Good Protein Bar

Yes, try to choose bars that you enjoy, but try to choose protein bars that have a mixture of carbohydrates and protein in them, as well as a short ingredient list. Use caution with sugar alcohols, fibers, proprietary herbal blends, and added flavorings. And don’t seek out a bar just because it says “no sugar” or “low carb.”

The more simple ingredients, the better (and it depends on when you are using the bar, pre- or post-run). These bars are “dietitian-approved” and have simple ingredients.

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