Protein bars have come a long way. Just five years ago the typical protein bar was a bland, chewy monstrosity. It was like someone had decided to cram protein powder into an edible format, achieved it, and just stopped there. Because that's all they were. Edible.
The best modern protein bars look similar to - and often compete with - chocolate bars for taste. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of dud bars out there. In this post, we'll dive into exactly what you should expect from a good protein bar in terms of macros, ingredients and taste.
Protein bars are an ideal alternative to carby and sugary snacks as they can help your diet instead of derailing it. So you'll want to make sure your protein bar isn't falsely being advertised as healthy - and that starts by checking the nutrition label.
With the recent craze to label everything as high-protein, check the figure before you buy. The average is around 20g protein, which gives a decent boost to your protein intake. With most bars weighing around 60g total, it means around a third of the bar is pure, muscle-building protein.
Closer to 15g protein? That's not amazing, but not bad either. Plus there may be a good reason. For example, a 'flapjack' style protein bar is going to have more oats (i.e. carbs) so will have a little less protein.
At the lower end of the scale, when you're looking at a 'protein' bar which only packs 5-10g protein; don't bother.
"Wow, a whole 5 grams of protein?"
Most protein bars fall in the range of 200-250 calories. At the high end, some of the bigger bars can hit 300-400+ calories. These are great if you're aiming to bulk up as they will help you achieve a calorie surplus. You should expect at least 25-30g of protein for that level of calories, or you may as well just eat a chocolate bar.
If you're looking to get leaner, the most protein with the least calories comes in bars like Fulfil and Quest which are in the 150-200 calorie range and still taste great.
Most protein bars keep their carb count down to around 15-20g. But some bars (e.g. Clif bars) are energy bars which are aimed at people doing endurance sports, like cyclists. They may be marked as high protein, but are also high in carbs and sugar.
The lowest carb protein bars have around 8-10g carbs, and some at the higher end have over 20g. If it's a standard 60g bar, you shouldn't be looking at more than 25g carbs unless it's a flapjack.
The big supplement companies know how serious the fitness community is about avoiding unnecessary sugar. So the high-quality bars generally keep sugar low and use sweeteners instead, meaning their bars only contain 1 or 2g sugar and rarely over 5g. Check the label - some bars (in particular the 'natural' ones) don't use sweeteners which can mean sugar content of 10-15g or more.
Most protein bars have around 7-9g fat, 3-5g of which is saturated fat. Keep in mind that for nutty bars (e.g. coconut or peanut flavoured) the fat will tend to be a little higher.
Your body doesn't digest fibre, so it is often used to bulk out the bar without adding unwanted calories. It also helps keep your digestion working properly. Most protein bars contain 5-10g of fibre. If it has less don't sweat it - if you're eating a balanced diet you will have enough from other sources.
To recap, the macros you can expect from a good quality protein bar are roughly as follows:
|Cals||Protein||Total Carbs||Sugars||Fibre||Total Fat||Sat. Fat|
If a bar you're looking at strays much above these numbers, you need to start asking questions:
- Is it a larger bar that's giving me more protein as well?
- Does the taste justify the extra calories?
- Will it fit my macros?
There's much more to protein bars than simply nutrition though. These are fitness-friendly treats, so you'll want to make sure they are delicious to eat. That starts with texture.
Alas, there's no way to tell this from the wrapper. Unless you believe the manufacturers' description (shocker: they always make it out to be incredible). Take MusclePharm Combat Crunch bars. They are pretty tasty, but their wrappers claim they are 'like eating a soft-batch cookie'. Which is completely accurate - if the only cookies you've ever tried are firm, chewy, and suspiciously like a protein bar.
So, what can you actually expect? The majority of premium protein bars these days follow a tried and tested formula:
The soft centre provides a light chew while the crunchy pieces give these bars a satisfying crunch. The caramel keeps them from getting dry and the melt-in-the-mouth chocolate coating is the perfect way to top it all off.
While this texture works well, plenty of bars manage to taste great with only two or three of these elements. Or by making swaps, such as using peanut chunks instead of crispies. But if you see a bar which is just a razor-thin layer of chocolate covering a bland, formless, chewy base you should leave it in 2011 where it belongs.
In most cases, different flavours in the same protein bar line will have an almost identical texture.
If you want to find out more about the textures of each protein bar line, we regularly review them on our Instagram page. You can also check out our guide to the best protein bars to get a better idea.
CHANGE THE TEXTURE
Any good protein bar will be enjoyable to eat at room temperature. But if you prefer to soften them up, give them a quick 5 second (up to 15 seconds max) blast in the microwave. On the other hand, if you like your protein bars a little harder and chewier keep them in the fridge.
You probably don't have the time or desire to go through the ingredients of every protein bar you eat with a fine-tooth comb. Which works fine, because there's only a couple of key points you need to understand.
When it comes to protein powder types you probably get on fine with your trusty tub of whey. If you like getting into the nitty-gritty, then you might have considered the benefits and drawbacks of whey vs casein protein (fast v slow absorbing), or whey concentrate vs whey isolate (isolate has lower carbs and fat but costs more).
In protein bars, these differences don't matter. As these proteins are in bar form they are paired with fibre and fats. This means they are slower to absorb than their drinkable cousins, so the absorption speed of the protein won't make much difference. And the purity of the protein is irrelevant - given that it's been combined with carbs and fats you should look at the overall nutrition of the bar instead.
COLLAGEN AND SOY PROTEIN
Collagen and soy protein are often used in protein bars, but they are shunned by some for supposedly being low-quality. Getting in-depth on this is beyond the scope of this post, but we'll touch on it.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. So the debates around protein quality usually come back to amino acids. Milk derived proteins (casein and whey) contain all nine of the essential amino acids that you need from your diet. They are known as 'complete' proteins.
It's true that as an incomplete protein, collagen is not the same quality for building muscle as whey. But it has other benefits, like supporting healthy joints. And it has been proven to build muscle mass. Granted, that study was conducted on elderly men, but there's no good reason to suggest the findings wouldn't apply to you if you're young and/or female.
Not all old men need collagen.
Soy is a complete protein which can help you build muscle. Most of the negativity around soy comes from the claim that it can suppress testosterone production. Given the importance of testosterone in maintaining muscle, this concern is understandable.
On the other hand, the science behind this claim is patchy at best. A few studies have found a link but others have found no relationship at all. Plus, these studies have participants eat unusually large amounts of soy to generate results. For an in-depth review go here.
Even if you want to err on the side of caution, a small amount of soy in a protein bar isn't going to make you sprout man-boobs and start lactating.
Soy and collagen aren't as good as whey, but they definitely aren't useless either. If a bar's primary protein source is soy or collagen, then you might not want to make it a regular in your rotation. At the same time, if you see one of them listed on the ingredients but most of the protein is from dairy you can relax - soy and collagen are not the muscle thieves they're often made out to be.
Artificial ingredients are often mistrusted. This is commonly expressed as "if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it." Unfortunately, this advice is more catchy than logical. Sure, adenosylcobalamin doesn't sound healthy. In fact, it's a form of vitamin B12 and is key for the functioning of your brain and nervous system.
So, the logical approach is to look at the safety of each ingredient based on testing and scientific evidence. If you live in a Western nation you are lucky enough to have some of the strictest food regulators in the world to do that for you.
For the record, the vast majority of your food should come from natural and unprocessed sources. These are where your body will find the vitamins and minerals that it needs to thrive. But hopefully you already had an inkling that pounding down protein bars for breakfast, lunch and dinner isn't healthy.
The reality is, if you want to enjoy protein bars which taste like a sweet treat but aren't loaded with sugar or calories, they will use a few artificial ingredients. The fact that no scientific evidence suggests these are unsafe is good enough for most people. But if you still want to go the all-natural route you should know what to expect.
Protein bars with all-natural ingredients can pack 20g protein, but it's often a little less. They often go with fruit-derived sugar over sweeteners. So the sugar count is considerably higher - it can hit 15-20g or more.
For fats, they typically use coconut oil or butter which pushes calories up. Overall, there are plenty of great-tasting natural bars (e.g. Battle Oats and TREK). Just expect them to have weaker macros than their non-natural counterparts.
This is the hardest area to give blanket advice on for two reasons.
If a protein bar producer nails the texture and macros, then you know it will be consistently good across most of (if not all) their bars. Flavours are a different beast, involving delicate balances of different ingredients which vary from bar to bar. FitJoy have a great take on the Cookies & Cream flavour, but their Raspberry Chocolate Truffle is intensely sour and not enjoyable.
At the same token, a peanut butter flavoured bar can be peanutty melt in the mouth amazingness from one manufacturer (shout out to RCSS King Whey Crunch) but dry and bland from another (we're not fans of MuscleTech Nitrotech Crunch's take on this flavour).
THEY ARE (KIND OF) SUBJECTIVE
Based on personal preferences, a bar that's mediocre to one person could be delicious to another. With that said, there are plenty of bars everyone could agree are terrible, like the old-school chewy jawbreaker style bars.
Sometimes a bar will fall short in one area but excel in another. For example, a bar might be a little higher in fat but taste so good that it's worth the hit to your macros. Or it might taste insanely good but not have much protein, at which point you may as well be eating a chocolate bar.
There are so many delicious protein bars that if you're too picky you'll miss out on some of the best. But there are also plenty of bars that don't offer much. Now you know what to expect from good protein bars, so from this day forth you can better avoid the duds.
When next buying protein bars, keep these tips in mind along with your own preferences and diet goals to find one that's perfect for you.