Protein bars are meant to be a quick, convenient, and portable source of protein. They've traditionally been targeted at athletes and bodybuilders as a post-workout nutritional supplement, but in recent years have begun being mass-marketed to a more general audience as an (allegedly) healthy snack or meal replacement.
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As a workout supplement, protein bars are in competition with more traditional, powder-based protein shakes. The advantages of a protein bar is that, unlike a shake, there's no preparation. Bars are much more portable, and arguably more palatable, too. There are also no issues with clumping when you eat a protein bar, and you may feel more satiated after eating a protein bar than drinking a liquid shake.
Too much protein can cause digestive discomfort, nausea, fatigue, and headaches. You're unlikely to overdo it with a protein bar alone, however, as they generally contain only about 10g to 30g of protein per bar.
There are no protein bars that consist solely of protein — they all have some form of other additives, which may have their own range of side effects. Check the contents of each bar carefully before purchasing. You particularly want to pay attention to what sweeteners are going into your protein bar. Many artificial sweeteners are known to cause digestive problems.
Protein bars are notoriously packed with sugars, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives. Sweeteners are a necessity since pure protein, in a chewable form, would taste absolutely terrible. Unfortunately, manufacturers often use large amounts of sweeteners and saturated fat to improve flavor.
Preservatives are another big problem when it comes to the protein bar market. Fresh foods have a very limited shelf life. So it's common for food manufacturers to use all kinds of preservatives so the product can sit on grocery store shelves — and in your pantry — longer.
The worst of the protein bars have a nutritional profile that's barely different from that of a candy bar.
In terms of diet, protein bars often don't make sense as a protein source. Many brands offer only about 10g to 12g of protein but force you to also take in 200 calories of carbs and sugar to get it.
Men need just 56g of protein per day and women need 46g.
Unlike vitamins and supplements, the FDA recognizes protein bars as food products, making them subject to more regulation. There's still plenty of room for misleading — but legal — advertising claims on the label, however.
If you prefer whey or casein protein, you may have a hard time finding a bar that suits you, as much of the market uses cheaper soy protein to keep costs down.
What we like
Though the protein bar market is mostly a minefield of unhealthy sugar and fat designed to sucker consumers who aren't very knowledgeable about nutrition, there are at least a few brands that make bars worth checking out.
Quest Nutrition bars don't use sugar as a sweetener, and have a good ratio of fiber to carbs. The protein comes exclusively from whey and milk isolate, almonds, and peanuts. The sweetener varies by flavor, but Quest uses a combination of herbal and fruit extracts (Lo Han Guo and stevia), sucralose, and erythritol, which is a sugar alcohol that is very low in carbs and doesn't cause the digestive discomfort that other sugar alcohols are known to. In spite of the lack of junk additives, the flavor of these bars is really quite good, especially when heated in the microwave.
The OhYeah! Victory bars are another option for a snack that packs a decent amount of protein. They also have a good flavor without loading you down with carbs and sugar. At 21g of whey and milk protein isolate, each bar is accompanied by 20g of prebiotic fiber from tapioca syrup. Each OhYeah! bar does contain 8g of sugar (from tapioca syrup, honey, and cane juice crystals), but it's a reasonable amount and does wonders for the flavor. More important is the carb-to-fiber ratio — only 28g of carbs to about 80 percent of your daily fiber requirement.
- Institute of Medicine; "Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids;" September 2002