Plus, what to look for when you're shopping for them.
Whether you’re looking for something to toss into your purse or gym bag to eat on the go, or just like keeping your pantry stocked with them to eat for breakfast or a snack, protein bars are a popular go-to. Walk into any grocery store or drugstore and you’re bound to come across an aisle devoted to dozens of options. How are you supposed to decide which one is worth buying? Are protein bars good for you?
Just like other types of foods that are often touted as “healthy,” not all protein bars are created equal; it all comes down to what they’re made of. But figuring out which one to go for is more complicated than just eyeing the sugar content. You may be wondering if the protein source makes a difference: Is pea protein healthier than whey, for example? And how many grams of protein should a bar contain anyway in order for it to be considered a legit protein bar? Here, registered dietitians answer these questions and more.
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Are Protein Bars Good for You?
Registered dietitian and Plant-Based Juniors creator Whitney English Tabaie, MS, RDN, CPT, says that there are times when protein bars can be a healthy food choice. “Protein bars can be helpful when you're on the go or in a rush out the door and you need a quick, convenient snack to hold you over until your next meal,” she says.
Toby Amidor MS, RD, CND, FAND, a registered dietitian and the author of Up Your Veggies: Flexitarian Recipes for the Whole Family agrees, saying, “Protein bars [are beneficial] for a post-workout refuel or if you are in need of a mini meal and just need something for on the go. I tend to stock up on protein bars when I am going on a trip to make sure I have a mini meal with me.”
That said, if they aren’t your thing, that’s okay too. “Protein bars are not a necessity for health or fitness. If you like them and find them convenient, great! If you don't, you can get plenty of protein from whole foods and through regular meals,” Tabaie explains.
The Different Types of Protein—and How Much Should Be in a Bar
In order for a bar to be considered a protein bar, Tabaie says that it should contain at least 10 to 20 percent of the daily value of protein. However, she adds that protein needs vary person to person, depending on their weight and activity level. “Typically, I recommend people aim for 15 to 25 grams of protein at meals and 5 to 10 grams at snacks,” she says.
Amidor agrees that the amount of protein that’s actually in the bar matters. “The calories in a protein bar should be between 200 to 400 per bar and it should have between 15 to 20 grams of protein per serving,” she says. Amidor also says that protein bars should have carbohydrates, which provide the body with energy.
Reading the ingredient lists of different bars, you’ll find that there is a wide range of protein sources that are used. Both dietitians say that nuts and seeds, soy, pea, whey, eggs, legumes and quinoa are all popular protein sources found in bars. Tabaie says not to get too hung up on the source (unless you have specific food needs, such as an allergy or sensitivity, or eat strictly vegan or plant-based). “There are small differences in the digestibility of various protein sources but as long as an individual is consuming enough total protein throughout the day, the source doesn't really matter,” she says.
When it comes to protein, Amidor says that it’s important to make sure you’re getting the nine essential amino acids through what you eat. She explains that amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different types—nine of which are called essential amino acids because they must be obtained through diet. “You can find plenty of grams of protein in both plant and animal foods, but options like meat, dairy, fish, eggs, soy and quinoa tend to have all nine of the essential amino acids,” she says. “Legumes and grains also offer a lot of nutrients but tend to be lacking one or more of these essential amino acids.” Amidor adds that it’s not crucial that the protein source in the bar you’re eying contain all nine essential amino acids; you just have to be able to fill in any gaps with other foods you’re eating throughout the day.
Ingredients Healthy Protein Bars Shouldn’t Contain
Besides ingredients with protein and carbohydrates (both what you want in a protein bar), Tabaie says that there are some ingredients you don’t want to come across. Personally, she says that she avoids protein bars with artificial sweeteners. “Some varieties cause GI upset and some research has shown that they may be harmful to our gut microbiome,” she says. Instead, she looks for bars with natural sweeteners, such as honey or maple syrup.
As long as the protein bar you’re considering has at least five grams of protein (or 15 if you’re eating it as a meal), a carbohydrate source, and doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners, you have yourself a healthy bar on your hands. Here are five picks that fit the bill.
Healthy Protein Bar Options
Consider this a healthier peanut butter cup—only in bar form. Unlike the beloved candy, each GoMacro bar has 11 grams of protein. Gomacro Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Protein Bar, $32.95 for a 12-pack on Amazon.
Peanuts and almonds are the primary protein sources in these bars. Also in the mix are dark chocolate and sea salt for a combination that will tickle all your tastebuds. KIND Dark Chocolate Nut Protein Bars, $17.47 for a 12-pack on Amazon.
If you’ve been known to enjoy peanut butter by the spoonful, this is the bar for you. It’s creamy, rich, and, of course, protein-packed. Perfect Bar Peanut Butter Protein Bar, $28.23 for a 10-pack on Amazon.
Amidor is such a fan of Clif Bars that she formed a partnership with the brand. This blueberry almond crisp one stands out from the many other protein bars made with peanut butter or chocolate. Besides being a good source of protein, it has 5 grams of fiber too. Clif Bars Blueberry Almond Crisp Protein Bar, $14.99 for a 12-pack on Amazon Bar.
Egg whites and peanut butter are the core protein sources in this bar, giving it 10 grams of the nutrient. There are also 4 grams of fiber too, thanks to the oats used to give this bar its chewy texture. RXBAR Honey Cinnamon and Peanut Butter A.M. Protein Bar, $21.66 for a 12-pack on Amazon.
Toby Amidor MS, RD, CND, FAND, registered dietitian and the author of Up Your Veggies: Flexitarian Recipes for the Whole Family