I’ll admit it; I’m a bit of a gym rat. When I’m not outside running trails, I’m hogging the squat rack with the beefiest of powerlifters. That doesn’t mean I don’t embarrass myself when I overestimate how many 45-pound plates I can stack on the bar. But, whatever: I make up for my follies when I confidently outperform the dudes on the leg press.
The thing is, lifting weights means I’m constantly craving protein, especially red meat. I may look like I’m focused on my form, but usually I’m more focused on the tender, mushroom-smothered, medium-rare filet I plan to eat later. Oh, and give me a side of that gooey, cheddar-drenched broccoli, punctuated by brownie a la mode.
Still, while an endorphin-fueled workout, steamy shower, and three-course feast comprise my perfect day, the reality is that’s more of a luxury. I don’t know too many millennials — or even middle-aged managers — who can afford to devour their dream steak every evening. Nevertheless, I aim to consume adequate protein throughout the day because, as the fitness gurus will tell you, protein is the building block of muscle growth.
But even if you’re a competitive couch surfer, you still need protein to thrive. Protein isn’t just the building block of bodybuilding; it’s the building block of life. This macronutrient, found in every cell of the body, builds and repairs tissue and carries out our vital metabolic processes. Of the 20-plus amino acids that make up proteins in the body, nine are described as essential and must come from food, since our bodies can’t produce them naturally.
According to the USDA’s Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI), the average adult woman should consume about 46 grams of protein per day, and that’s if she’s sedentary. Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or especially active require more like 71 grams per day.
In that case, what is a busy gal to do when she can’t sit down to savor that steak or Impossible Burger? Fortunately for us, the supplement industry has come a long way since the rubbery PowerBar of the 90s. Move over, vintage candy-bar impostor — there are some new brands of protein bars in town, and some of them even taste like food.
Whey’s Anatomy: The Makeup of the Perfect Protein Bar
Of course you’re seeking out all the P’s: portable, palatable, powerful punch. But before you pick your protein-in-a-pack, you also want to make sure it’s healthy. So what are the nutritional criteria to make your protein bar a star?
Make the most of your weekend!
Healthy living isn’t always about hitting the gym or competing at sport. Whether you’re hiking in the woods or enjoying a family bike ride, a Punk’d Protein bar is a tasty snack to keep your nutrients up & provide an energy boost when you need it. pic.twitter.com/hTz3hWVLJ3
— Punkd Protein (@PunkdProtein) September 25, 2021
Although specific recommendations vary among dieticians, there are a few basic guidelines you can follow to optimize your selection, based on the nutrition label and your dietary needs. Basically, choose a bar that is high in:
Well, duh. This one should be common sense, but you’d be surprised — a lot of these so-called “protein” bars consist of mostly filler ingredients. The best options will have a protein content of at least 8 to 10 grams per serving. Look for nutrient-dense protein sources such as nuts, seeds, and whey.
Ah, fiber, that indigestible roughage that’s good for your gut. Aim for at least 5 grams of fiber to help keep you satiated in between meals. Just don’t go too overboard with the fiber, unless you’re prepared to endure a more laxative effect (I’m looking at you, Fiber One brownies!).
Choose a bar that’s low in:
Ideally, limit the sugar content to a maximum of 8 grams per serving. Also, choose a bar that contains natural sugars (e.g., cane sugar) over artificial sweeteners (xylitol, erythritol, even sugar alcohol). The latter ingredients can contribute to gastrointestinal distress, not to mention the distress of trying to pronounce them.
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We all know by now that eating fat doesn’t make you fat, but you should still choose fats that are healthy. Healthy fats come from ingredients like nuts, nut butter, coconut oil, seeds, and avocado. Limit saturated fats to 3 grams or fewer, and avoid bars that contain any trans fats or hydrogenated oils.
Those are the basics for everyday purposes. Sure, you can get really nitty-gritty about calorie ratios and micronutrients, but if you have time to obsess over all that math, you probably have time to sit down to a real, balanced meal. This guide is for the harried multitasker who finds herself swinging by the local Wawa all too predictably because, once again, she doesn’t have time to squeeze in a lunch break.
Choosing a protein bar can be confusing 🤔 to simplify it – if the first ingredient is sugar, it’s probably best to give it a miss. The primary ingredients should be a protein source, a fruit/vegetable, or a healthy fat like nuts. 🥜 pic.twitter.com/l3ywkzvyQq
— Brendon (@BKPat1982) June 9, 2019
Fats, fiber, protein…action! No matter your dietary needs, there truly is something for everyone. Here’s our list of some of the best protein bars you can stock up on this season.
Belly Up To The Bar: The Lineup
Best Overall: Quest Peanut Butter Protein Cookie
Best Plant-Based: ALOHA Organic Plant-Based Protein Bar
Best Keto-Friendly: Keto Bars
Best Paleo-Friendly: EPIC Bar
Best Nut-Free: 88 Acres Granola Bar
Best Sustainable: Exo Cricket Protein Bar
Best Additive-Free: Naked Nutrition Bars
Keep reading to find out why these protein bars made the cut.
. . . .
Quest Peanut Butter Protein Cookie
I’ve tried a lot of protein bars over the years, and Quest’s protein cookie is my favorite. I mean, why eat a bar when you can munch on a cookie? The cookie shape, while probably a marketing ploy, surely adds to the allure of this scrumptious snack. Just as the label suggests, this cookie is soft and chewy, and I feel like I’m nibbling on a dessert from my own oven. But don’t be fooled: this snack is quite healthy, with whole proteins from dairy, whey isolate, and nuts; plus, it’s high in fiber. I’m a bonafide peanut-butter addict, so this flavor always wins in my book, but the chocolate chip and snickerdoodle options are also divine. As one Amazon reviewer praised, “Where to begin, this cookie changed my life.”
Nutrition facts (1 peanut butter cookie): 220 calories, 15g protein, 13g fat, 22g carb, 1g total sugar, 12g fiber, 220mg sodium
SHOP – $20.92 / 12 count
ALOHA Plant-Based Protein Bar
Clearly I’m not vegan, but some of my best friends pride themselves on being plant-powered athletes. ALOHA bars are packed with only natural, whole-food ingredients, including nuts, pumpkin seeds, and brown-rice protein sources. Plus, they contain no artificial sugars at all; the sweetness comes entirely from cane sugar and cocoa. Oh, yeah, and they’re also soy free. Once again, I’m a sucker for the peanut-butter chocolate chip, but you can select any flavor from caramel sea salt to chocolate mint. Granted, these bars aren’t as dessert-like as some others, but as one Amazon reviewer noted, “they cut down on cravings and help with digestion.”
Nutrition facts (1 peanut butter chocolate chip bar): 240 calories, 14g protein, 12g fat, 24g carb, 5g total sugar, 10g fiber, 95mg sodium
SHOP – $23.33 / 12 count
If you know me, you know that I am very cranky if I’m low on carbs — especially, ahem, around that time of month. The keto craze will never be for me, but I get it — some people do best on a low-carb diet. And what could be more keto-friendly than a bar with “keto” in its name? The Keto Bars snack boasts less than 1 gram of sugar and only 3 grams of “net carbs,” meaning total carbohydrate minus the indigestible stuff like fiber and — uh-oh — sugar alcohols. Oh well, that’s a trade off my keto friends seem to be willing to make, and it’s definitely a solid option if you’re diabetic. As always, the chocolate peanut-butter flavor catches my fancy, but chocolate-covered strawberry is enticing, too. Some Amazon reviewers complained about the price or “chemical aftertaste,” but they admitted the bars suited their purpose. One reviewer commented that the effect of eating one on his blood sugar was “similar to if I ate a 4-oz ribeye.”
Nutrition facts (1 chocolate peanut butter bar): 250 calories, 8g protein, 21g fat, 13g carb, <1g total sugar, 6g fiber, 190mg sodium
SHOP – $29.95 / 10 count
Want to go one step further than keto? Okay, carnivores and CrossFitters — you can parade your paleo with the EPIC bars. These bars actually contain 100% grass-fed meat, made from beef and bison to chicken and even venison. They’re also Whole30 approved, in case you’re that sort of self-disciplined masochist. The EPIC bar is probably the closest you can get to steak-on-the-go, but does it really taste like meat? Apparently you either love them or hate them, as Amazon reviews ranged from “disgusting” to “extremely flavorful.” A common beef with the product was its wonky, un-jerky-like texture. But as one reviewer wrote, “When you’re tired of protein masquerading as a candy bar, try these.” Just watch out for the sodium content — much like a steak itself, these bars are rather salty.
Nutrition facts (1 beef jalapeno bar): 130 calories, 11g protein, 8g fat, 3g carb, 0g total sugar, 3g fiber, 590mg sodium
SHOP – $29.97 / 12 count
88 Acres Granola Bar
Admittedly, the 88 Acres snack bars don’t pack as much protein as the others, but 6 grams isn’t bad for a bar that’s nut free. If you have a nut allergy, these snacks are a perfect source of protein from oats and a blend of pumpkin, sunflower, and flax seeds. Be careful if you’re watching your sugar, though — these bars are on the higher side of the sugar spectrum, though only from organic cane sugar and cocoa butter or vanilla extract. Obviously there is no peanut-butter option, but you can choose among flavors like double chocolate mocha, dark chocolate sea salt, and the more fruity berry blends. According to one Amazon reviewer, “these were probably the best, gluten-free high-protein bars I have tried.”
Nutrition facts (1 double chocolate mocha bar): 200 calories, 6g protein, 11g fat, 22g carb, 10g total sugar, 3g fiber, 135mg sodium
SHOP – $14.99 / 6 count
Exo Cricket Protein Bar
Exo Cricket Protein Bar. Hold up, did someone say crickets? Before the “ick factor” scares you off, consider that 80% of the world already consumes insect protein, which is vastly better for the planet than other animal proteins. Crickets are a sustainability maven’s treasure, as they produce fewer greenhouse gases and require less water than cows. Plus, as a nutrient, they are a complete source of amino acids and are packed with iron. So what do the Amazon reviewers have to say? There’s no denying these bars are on the pricey side, and the verdict is mixed on taste and texture. But, fear not, one reviewer chirped that “these cricket bars taste surprisingly good” and “I didn’t see any bug parts like legs or heads or whatever.” Despite not winning the most-palatable award, customers praised this product for being extra environmentally friendly.
Nutrition facts (1 peanut butter chocolate chip): 180 calories, 14g protein, 8g fat, 21g carb, 3g total sugar, 2g fiber, 180mg sodium
SHOP – $29.99 / 12 count
Naked Nutrition Bars
Consistent with its name, the Naked brand prides itself on minimalism — containing only pure ingredients you can count on one hand without the “gimmick” of additives. That means you won’t find any GMOs, soy, gluten, artificial sweeteners, or other hard-to-pronounce fillers in these protein-packed chocolate bars. I have to admit, the main ingredient of grass-fed whey protein sparked my skepticism about the purported chocolate flavor— but in truth, these bars taste just like a fudgy Tootsie Roll, without the hindrance of getting stuck to the roof of your mouth. Not every Amazon reviewer praised the flavor, of course — one noted that you shouldn’t expect to feel like you’re eating a Snickers bar — but most praised the Naked bars for keeping them satiated without triggering an uncomfortable digestive issue.
Nutrition facts (1 chocolate fudge bar): 180 calories, 15g protein, 6g fat, 23g carb, 8g total sugar, 11g fiber, 95mg sodium
SHOP – $29.99 / 12 count
The Bottom Line
From beefing up to slimming down, nourishing the body to nurturing the planet, protein bars can be a versatile addition to your meal plan. Still, these bars are best suited as a snack between meals, not as an entire meal replacement.
In a nutshell: Netflix and chill? Eat a real meal. Save the protein bar for those busy days when you can’t sit still.
What are your favorite protein bars? Share in the comments!
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