Few things in the land of dietary supplements have been as abused as protein bars. Walking the aisles of your favorite nutrition outlet, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the number of products laying claim to that name. Some of them are great, some are passable, and far too many are sugary rubbish lurking beneath the protein bar label. You play a perilous game of whack-a-mole each time you pick one up with the hope of amping up your workout or snagging a quick snack. They’re as likely to ruin your diet and injure your body as they are to help you.
Selecting a good protein practically requires a degree in nutrition. Even then you could find yourself walking through a high-fructose wasteland littered with synthetic ingredients. Unlike energy bars, you’re going to want to avoid carbs, monitor fats, and be sure of exactly where the protein is coming from. You’ll need to find one that jives with your lifestyle and supports your body goals. So that you don’t wander too long in the nutritionally deficient badlands, we’re going to tell you what to look for, and offer up our 7 favorite picks on the market.
Selecting Protein Content
20 grams of protein is a pretty standard amount these days. What you’ll want to do is avoid going below 10 grams in a bar. How much you specifically need is dependent on factors such as weight, activity level, age, and goals. GNC actually has a handy little calculator that can give you a general idea of where your protein strike-zone is. The most common types of protein are those that come from whey, soy, and casein, with vegans and vegetarians getting it from peas, rice, or hemp. Some bars use actual animal protein if you want a savory flavor. The truth is that none of it is bad. Some – such as whey – will just work faster than others and are better for pre-workout snacks than post-workout recovery.
Watch the Calories
This is the one that really trips people up when it comes to setting goals. If you’re looking to lose weight and are grabbing a bar with 400 calories, you’re blowing a huge chunk of your daily allowance for a quick nosh. Conversely, if you are trying to build lean muscle and need to get in a few more calories for your body to use, 400 is manna from heaven. You can get bars that slide in under 100 calories and those that give you nearly 500, so shop around and know your goals before you bite in.
Count the Carbs
This is a big one. Carbohydrates are good for getting energy and fueling up before you join in a mountain bike marathon or other cardio workout. When you’re planning to lose weight, you want to keep the carb count down. 30 grams of carbs should generally be your ceiling unless you’re using it in your recovery period after a workout. Even then, 35-40 grams is a lot. That’s energy bar territory and those have no place masquerading as true protein bars. A good rule of thumb is keep your carbohydrate count minus the fiber count lower than the protein count. If you want to lose weight, going with a 2:1 ratio (two grams of protein per gram of carbs) or lower is right on the money. Adding calories, and you can go up to 1:1, but you’d better be slamming it in the gym.
Cut the Fat
Fats in a protein bar are there to add in calories and very little else. Without exercise, they’ll load up your midsection like a roof mounted cargo box. Hack them off with a survival knife wherever you can. If calories are what you crave, a few more fats could help, though anything with trans-fats are to be shunned like Kanye at a humbleness festival. Ideally we’d suggest staying at 4 grams or less, but that’s a rarity in the market. Aim for less than 10 grams, settle for less than 20, so long as you’re actually active. Healthy fats from nuts and seeds can help slow the release of carbs into the body. If you’re going high carb, a few fats can be a boon, but since they both should be inhibited in a protein bar, it’s better to constantly think low. Fats are best if you tend to eat after a workout, but consider just adding a few unsalted almonds or cashews to the meal, rather than getting them out of your bar.
Fiber: Sinner or Savior?
High fiber in a protein bar isn’t a bad idea, since excess protein can gum up your digestion. On the other hand, it tends to cut down on calories like a hedge trimmer and will make you feel fuller faster. Extremely active people who need every calorie they can get should probably keep fiber to the minimum requirements, otherwise they’ll feel stuffed and sluggish. Besides that, if you find fiber lurking around it’s a happy accident that aids in weight loss and keeps your digestive tract clean and clear.
Sugar is the Kiss of Death
This is the downfall of the vast majority of protein bars. In favor of flavor the makers pack their products with sweets, beginning with the most evil of all, High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). You want your total sugar count to never climb above 15 grams, and even that is too much. The lower you go, the better. Sugar might give you a temporary boost, but the later crash isn’t worth it. It also gets converted almost instantaneously to fat, which ruins a sculpted look and cuts your dreams of weight loss off at the knees. If you simply can’t avoid any sugars, then never let them be in the top two ingredients on the list. Try to get natural sugars from fruits, and if you see a hint of HFCS, run far, run fast, and warn the village. 0 grams of sugar is best, and we’d say even that is too much.
Beware Sugar Alcohols
You won’t always find sugar in your protein bar, but you might see sugar alcohols. These aren’t really bad, but if you are one of the people who can’t digest them, then they’re going to feel horrible. Cramps, gas, loose bowels, and all manner of gastrointestinal issues can arise. Try them if you must, but be warned.
Now that you’ve identified all of the simple snapshot issues that are displayed on the handy little Nutrition Facts area, you should read the ingredients. This is pretty simple: If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. The best protein bars aren’t laden with preservatives or synthetic chemicals. They have simple ingredients that you can identify. Generally speaking, the fewer ingredients listed, the better off you’re going to be. A piece of lean, organic chicken roasted up in a slow cooker is essentially the best protein bar you’ll ever buy, and it has just one ingredient. Meats, nuts, and protein isolates are good. Anything that says “natural and artificial ingredients (and/or) flavors” is suspect. Keep it simple and you’ll go far, kid.
Hit the Bar
Now that you know what to look for, we’re going to give you a few options to send you on your way. These give you a good starting point to determine what you like, what you don’t, and what meets your goals.
Note: Flavor choices can severely effect the ingredients and proper ratios so always read your labels.
Epic All Natural Meat Bars
Pro: Best protein to carbohydrate ratio
Con: High cholesterol
Meat Up: When you want to get down to heavy-duty, lean muscle cranking protein, you just can’t top real meat. The amino acids that make up proteins are naturally present in their most complete form in animal products. Going from 11 grams to 16 grams of protein depending on the bar, these are mass makers. Carbs and fats are both in the 5 gram area, so you can cheat on a few fats elsewhere. You’ll run into a few sugars here and there, and the cholesterol is a risk for those with heart conditions, but for both building size and losing weight, Epic bars are to be celebrated. [Purchase]
Pro: Made with grass-fed whey
Con: Flavors are very hit or miss
Nature Made: These don’t really do anything special, but they are made from grass-fed whey, are GMO free, have no gluten, and keep their sugar content down. You’ll get an exact balance between carbs, fiber, and protein that is a good mix for light workout days. Only about 200 calories, they can work equally well as an energy bar as they can for protein. The flavors run to a lighter set by and large, and the colorful wrapping make these something your girlfriend will invariably steal, but that doesn’t make them any less effective. Not truly vegan, but reasonably close with extra care taken to be as humane and eco-friendly as possible. [Purchase]
Simply Protein Bar
Pro: Low calorie
Con: Minimal energy to burn
Fat Fighter: Made for either losing weight or snacking for the average person who might hit the gym and might hit the drive-thru, Simply Protein gives 15 grams or so of protein along with about 15 grams of carbs. Throw in a healthful 7 grams of fiber and you have a 140 calorie snack you can feel good about. Fat content drifts in the single digits with more given to natural fats than saturated ones. Top it off with a 0 cholesterol cherry and you have an easy supplement for dieting and going to the gym…or not. [Purchase]
Rise Protein Bar
Pro: Very few ingredients
Con: Sugary (but at least it’s natural)
Less is More: Rise’s protein bars hit a nearly perfect 1:1 protein/carbohydrate ratio (better when you account for fiber) and they do it with just a handful of natural ingredients. Probably the best choice for the true naturalist since they lack GMO’s, soy, gluten, and anything else made by the hands of man. Natural fats, decent fiber content, and some iron, these would be perfect if it weren’t for the 13 grams of honey sugar in them. [Purchase]
Clif Builder’s & Builder’s Max Protein Bar
Pro: Massive energy and bodybuilding boost
Con: Improper carb to protein ratio and lots of sugar
Protein Packed: We’re going to break our own rule for these, simply because they offer a heaping helping of muscle pumping protein, despite being a bit heavy on the carbs. Between 20 and 30 grams of the good stuff per bar, you’ll also receive almost 1.5 times the carbs, even after subtracting the minimal fiber amount. You’d either better be a serious athlete or have given up on losing weight if these 400 calorie monsters are in your gym bag. These also go extra heavy on the sugar with up to 30+ grams. We’re taking a lap just thinking about it. [Purchase]
Pro: Lots of fiber and low calorie count
Con: Not quite vegan
Anytime, Anywhere: Looking at the ingredients of the Quest Bars can mislead you a bit. The carb count seems a little weighty at 20+ grams when compared with the 20 or so grams of protein. Then you notice the 13 grams of fiber and all is made clear. Yes, you’ll be getting a few more carbs than proteins, but with the fiber padding it out and less than 200 calories all told, you’re still sittin’ pretty. A touch high in sodium, these nonetheless offer the most energy for your expense and are backed with plenty of whey and milk protein. Eat before, during, or after workouts. [Purchase]
Muscle Pharm Combat Crunch Bars
Pro: Low calories, high protein
Con: Heavy on sodium
A More Perfect Pump: Managing to only come in with a mite over 200 calories, these still have 20 grams of protein made from whey and milk isolate. The carbs are a bit above where we would like to see them, but they’re counterbalanced with around 12 grams of fiber. The most surprising thing is the flavors are made to really hit your sweet tooth, yet usually keep their sugar content in the low single digits. They’ve managed to make a pretty tasty cookie dough flavor that is gluten free. You’ll get a few odd ingredients, but nothing terribly harmful. Just keep an eye on allergies you may have, monitor the saturated fat, and be aware of the high sodium. [Purchase]
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