Once the domain of weightlifters and bodybuilders, protein powders are now popular across all walks of life, with ultra convenient protein bars a particular grab-and-go favorite.
But many protein bars contain a list of ingredients that you need a dictionary to decipher, and others are jammed with high-calorie ingredients like chocolate, cookies, and peanut butter.
Which begs the question: Are protein bars even healthy?
First, let’s answer this question…
Why is Protein SO Important in the First Place?
Protein is found in every cell of your body and is the building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, blood, skin, hair, and nails. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissue, and you also need protein to make hormones and other essential chemicals.1
Protein is one of the primary elements your body relies on — alongside carbohydrates and fats — to stay healthy. The thing is, your body can’t store protein, so it’s even more important that you keep refueling.
Good sources for a high-protein diet include:
Getting these into your regular diet sounds easy enough, but life isn’t always that simple. Many people live hectic lifestyles, and women, in particular, seem to have trouble meeting their protein needs. You may also be vegetarian, vegan, or have food intolerances that prevent you from getting adequate amounts of protein.
Those who work out regularly should also be aware of their protein requirements. As our muscles are made of protein, protein after a workout provides muscles with the essential amino acids that aid in muscle repair.3
The most popular ways to supplement protein needs today are protein powders or protein bars. These are popular choices because they provide a fast delivery of protein when you don’t have time to prepare a protein-rich meal.
But not all protein bars are created equally. Some are so high in sugar they’re worse than a candy bar.4 Others offer up an ingredient list with no actual identifiable food items.
So, how do you know which protein bars are good for you and which are bad?
Well, you can just ask yourself …
A Few Simple Questions
Is it a meal or a snack?
It can be either one, it just depends on which protein bar you’re eating. For a meal replacement bar you can choose something over 200 calories but if you’re using protein bars for snacks, then you should always stick to bars under 200 calories.5
How much sugar does it contain?
Some protein bars have been known to carry up to 30 grams of sugar! This is above and beyond too much. Yes, sugar provides energy, but that doesn’t mean you need an “energy bar” containing 30 grams of sugar before you hit the gym. Ideally, you want less than 13 grams of sugar in a protein bar, and the less the grams, the better.6
Even protein bars that use sugar substitutes aren’t necessarily better for you. Studies are showing that artificial sweeteners may still be able to cause weight gain in the same way that sugar does. This is because they can still trigger an insulin response.7
How many ingredients does it have?
If you’re seeing a long list of unfamiliar words on the ingredients list, walk away. So many protein bars contain a long list of chemicals, and no whole foods at all. If you can’t identify a single real food on the list, that’s a problem. You should also avoid chemically processed ingredients, like partially hydrogenated oils (including palm oil), high-fructose corn syrup, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), soy protein isolate, food coloring, artificial sugars, and sugar alcohols. These ingredients aren’t real food. They’re high in sugar and refined carbs, and low in nutrients.
Ideally, you want to see around five ingredients with names that you actually recognize.
What is the main source of protein?
Protein bars each rely on one main source of protein, and these differ between brands. Whey-protein is a good choice, as it’s derived from milk. This means it’s a “whole protein” – it contains all nine of the “essential amino acids.” These nine amino acids are essential for your health and they can not be made by the body so they need to be sourced from your food.8
Other common proteins found in bars include calcium caseinate (also dairy) or a high-quality, plant-based protein like pea, brown rice, or hemp. You should look for protein bars with at least 20 grams of protein to get an actual protein benefit.9
What else does the nutritional label tell you?
You should also favor a bar that is high in fiber and low in sodium, with no trans fats. Be aware that many chocolate-coated bars contain partially hydrogenated oils, like palm oil, to keep the chocolate from melting.
Homemade Protein Bars
If you can’t find the perfect protein bar you can, and should, make your own. Once you’ve found a protein powder that you like, you can use it to make your own bars that are full of “real” ingredients. There are plenty of recipes all over the internet, but you’ll want to follow some of the same guidelines as above for rooting out the good ones – how much sugar, salt, and fiber does it contain? How many calories?
The Bottom Line
Protein bars may be a useful tool in helping to meet your daily protein needs, but don’t go overboard. These bars should only be used in moderation, and they should always replace a snack or a meal. Overindulging on protein bars as a sweet treat will only bring unwanted calories to your diet.
When possible, try to add natural protein snacks into your diet instead.
Snacks like cottage cheese, sardines, boiled eggs, homemade trail mix, nut butter or hummus with veggie sticks, or low-sugar Greek yogurt.
The healthiest choice of all will always be these “whole foods” in their most natural state. But sometimes “grab-and-go” protein bar is just easier for a hectic lifestyle. So choose wisely. There is a current trend of protein bars that promote themselves as “just 4 ingredients” and they’re literally just that – recognizable whole food ingredients and nothing else. These are definitely a better choice than those filled with unpronounceable chemical names.