Guide table of contents:
- 1. What to Look For in a Protein Bar?
- **The Ultimate Protein Bar Comparison Chart
- 2. The Best Protein Bars on the Market
Here are the most common reasons for being interested in protein bars:
- To meet daily protein needs
- For a healthy snack
- For a convenient meal replacement
- As a great tasting snack
What you’ll notice from that list is that protein bars are extremely versatile. The term itself can refer to any number of bars, which means there is a good bar for everyone if you know what to look for. However, you also need to know how to avoid candy bars that are in disguise as real healthy protein bars.
In this guide, we’ll be going over the following:
- What to look for in a bar, and what to avoid
- The best bars on the market for your specific needs - that are within your budget! (I have a special tool to make this simple)
- Links to in-depth nutrition reviews of all the bars talked about (I didn’t want to include them all on this page or it would be HUGE!)
1. What to Look For in a Protein Bar?
There are many important factors behind a bar, here are the main ones you need to know about and look for:
- 1a. Protein: high quality and quantity
- 1b. Carbohydrates and fats: Which are good sources and which are bad
- 1c. Calories: How important is this for you? Lower isn’t always better
- 1d. Dietary restrictions: If you have allergies or a special diet, learn how this affects your choice of bar
1a. Protein Content and Quality
It’s a red flag right away if a PROTEIN bar has a low amount of protein. This is usually the case with low quality meal replacement bars that are trying to pretend to be healthy. While the size of bars vary, and there are a few special exceptions, an average high quality product will have 20 or more grams of protein.
There are many different types of protein, and some are better than others. Most protein bars feature a high amount of nuts, which are OK sources of protein, but not complete. The best sources are whey isolate and egg proteins. All this means is that while protein bars can definitely be a part of a great diet, don’t rely on them for a high percentage of your protein needs on a regular basis.
1b. Carbohydrates and Fats
To keep it simple, you’ll typically see two types of carbohydrates in most products: natural sources and refined sources. It shouldn’t be a surprise that refined sugars are bad and should be avoided for many reasons.
Look for these carbohydrate sources in the ingredients:
- Maple syrup
And avoid these…
- Rice syrup
- Sucrose (table sugar)
A good quality protein bar rarely has a high amount of carbohydrates. Unless you have a reason to look for high carbohydrate bars, aim for under 5 grams per serving.
While carbohydrates typically are added to improve taste, fats are usually in the product because they come along with the protein. A relatively high amount of fat isn’t necessarily something to be scared of, just check the ingredients to see where it’s coming from.
Fats from nuts? Good.
Fats from processed vegetable oils? BAD!
1b* An Addendum: Sweeteners
As mentioned, carbohydrates are often added to improve taste, but sometimes, sweeteners and sugar alcohols are added in their place.
They are not necessarily bad or unhealthy, but some can cause you to feel sick. This varies from person to person, so you’ll have to try each to see if they cause you any issues.
The most common sweeteners that are generally considered safe as far as overall health concerns go are:
- Sugar alcohols: Sorbitol, erythritol, maltitol, and xylitol
1c. Caloric Content
The overall calorie level of a bar comes from the amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Some bars will have a high amount of calories, others have a low amount. There is a good deal of variety, so you should be able to find a suitable option for you.
Low calorie bars are good for: Losing weight and low-carb/ ketosis diets (If a bar has low calories and a lot of protein, it’s hard for there to be many carbohydrates)
High calorie bars are best for gaining weight (muscle mass) or for meal replacements as they will keep you satisfied for longer.
1d. Dietary Restrictions Explored
First look at your diet. If you’re on Keto or a low carb diet of any kind you need to be really careful choosing because many have significant amounts of carbohydrates.
Do you eat animal products? Most bars are based on whey protein, but there are options for soy/vegetarians; these bars have been shown to be as effective as whey bars in past studies.
Also consider allergies; I hate to say it, but if you’re allergic to nuts you are going to have a very tough time finding a safe protein bar. Look first for bars composed of whey protein (unless you also have a dairy allergy), or instead look into making your own.
Another dietary consideration is fiber. If you lack fiber in your diet this can be a great opportunity to fill that gap. Some bars have a considerable amount of fiber, while others have very little.
Section 1 Summary:
Now that you know what you are looking for and what to avoid, write it down or keep it in mind. I’m about to show you how to find a bar that perfectly fits your exact needs.
2. The Best Protein Bars on the Market
I researched as many leading products as I could and compiled a chart of all the different properties of each bar. Explanations are below the chart if needed, but it’s pretty intuitive, click on the header titles to sort.
If you’re just looking for a versatile and high quality protein packed bar that you’ll love, the protein bar comparison table should be enough. But, I also talked about specific goals before though, which I would like to address individually, so you can scroll down or use these quick links to see the most appropriate products for your goals:
- Bars in Box: Test a new brand out in a small pack or stock up by buying in bulk.
- Protein/Bar: self explanatory – the grams of protein in a serving (g)
- Net Carbs: Carbohydrates minus dietary fiber in grams per bar
- Flavor: What it tastes like. If it says “many” that means there are at least 5 available.
- Price/Bar: This is the relative cost. Since the prices always change I used symbols to give you an idea of the price, $ = less than 1.20 per bar, $$ = 1.20-1.70, $$$ = above 1.70.
- Rating: Based on hundreds of external ratings
2a. What Bar has the most Protein?
Whether you are just looking for a simple snack or you’re looking to build muscle mass, protein is important.
Using the chart above, finding the product with the most protein is simple:
The Most Protein Packed Bar (by quantity): MET-Rx Big 100 Colossal Meal Replacement Bar
No bar even comes close to the whopping 31 grams of protein per Met-Rx Meal Replacement bar.
The problem that you may have with it is that it also comes with 410 calories, which is the highest calorie protein bar on the market.
Now if you’re looking to build mass and gain weight, high calorie protein bars aren’t a problem, and this is the best option for the amount of protein and calories for the price that you’ll pay.
However, if you’re looking for the bar that contains the highest proportion of protein, you might want to consider the following option…
The Most Protein Packed Bar (by percentage): Quest Nutrition
When you look at the amount of protein a bar has as a percentage of its calories, there are several bars that still offer good ratios, and better ones than Met-Rx bars.
The best of the best are Quest Bars, which contain a solid 20 grams of protein, or 80 calories or their 170 calorie total. This equates to a protein percentage of just under 50 percent. The Met-Rx bar on the other hand is only about 30 percent.
With this option you will pay more per calorie and per gram of protein, but you also get the added benefit of higher quality ingredients.
There are many good options for getting your protein in, so feel free to check out the other bars in the review chart above if you’re still curious.
2b. Finding a Healthy Protein Bar
Like I mentioned before, there are lots of good reasons for being interested in incorporating protein bars into your diet.
This isn’t really a yes or no topic, like many things in nutrition it can depend. First and foremost it requires thought ahead of time before eating. If you already are at your allotted daily calories and you’re snacking on bars for no reason, then yes I would consider that unhealthy. On the other hand if you have planned to eat a bar or two and have incorporated that into your daily diet it can be very good.
The main aspect that will affect how healthy or not a bar is the ingredients. I would have liked to include this in some way in the protein bar review chart but did not see an effective way because the ingredients vary widely in each product. Nonetheless you should look at what exactly is in the bar before buying it.
Typically the chocolate/candy flavored ones are going to have more added sugar compared to the ‘Natural’ or organic bars. The best bars will typically have higher quality ingredients and are packed with protein. A shortcut for this is to look at how many net carbohydrates are on the chart by subtracting the fiber from the total carbohydrates. If net carbohydrates are high it is going to be likely that there is more added sugar.
Like anything you typically pay for what you get. The ones on the chart with a $/bar price are the cheapest and typically going to be lower in quality than the $$ or $$$ marked products. It’s up to you to decide how much the quality in each bar is worth to you and what you can afford.
After going through all the bars on the market, here is my pick for the healthiest protein bars:
The Healthiest Protein Bar: Quest Nutrition
Quest bars are renowned for their quality ingredients, and are in my opinion the healthiest bars you can eat.
The protein is high quality, with most of it coming from whey and milk protein isolates.
The almonds add a nice texture and a bit of quality fats and decent protein, while the cocoa brings a lot of healthy minerals to the bars.
The only questionable ingredient is sucralose, an artificial sweetener that most people can handle just find, but some people may have issues with. I recommend trying them out if you are worried about this.
The 24 grams of carbohydrates might seem high at first, but 19 of those are dietary fiber, meaning you don’t digest them. So really there are about 5 grams of carbohydrates, not too high.
There are a ton of flavors (over 10), so the ingredients will vary a bit from bar to bar. In general though, Quest bars are as healthy as they come.
2c. The Best Meal Replacement Bar
A great reason to have a box of bars laying around is to be able to grab one as a meal replacement whenever you’re busy or in a rush to get something to eat.
Certain protein bars can be considered as meal replacements due to having a substantial calorie content. Having significant amounts of protein and fat, which leads to a high calorie count, contributes to how satiating a meal is, which is why these bars can keep you full until you find a chance to get a normal meal in.
The Best Meal Replacement: MET-Rx Big 100 Colossal Meal Replacement Bar
Given that MET-Rx designed this product to be a meal replacement, it really lives up to its name.
These bars have a massive 410 calories each, which is a solid meal for most people. Two of them is more than enough for just about anyone.
These bars are also fairly cheap, which adds to the appeal.
The big drawback is in the quality of the ingredients. In my opinion, you wouldn’t want to rely on these very often. There is a high amount of sugar due to containing fruit concentrates, sugar, glucose syrup, and corn starch. There are also some low quality oils like palm oil and canola oil.
The protein quality is actually decent, a combination of soy protein and whey protein isolate.
In summary, these are good meal replacement bars on a budget, but you wouldn’t want to consist solely on them.
or, here’s an alternative option for you that’s healthier…
The Best Meal Replacement (Alternative with fewer carbohydrates): Organic Food Bars, Protein
An organic food bar doesn’t contain quite as many calories, but still more than an average bar at 330 each.
There is also only 22 grams of protein in these, which isn’t quite as much as MET-Rx products.
The saving grace is in the quality of the ingredients. This is a more expensive, but healthier option.
While the protein quality isn’t as high, mainly composed of brown rice protein, the rest of the ingredients are far more desirable than the alternative. The bar features all organic ingredients and high quality carbohydrate sources like dates and agave nectar, paired up with fat sources like almond butter. It has 24 net carbohydrates, making it a more modest option than Met-Rx bars.
2d. Which are the Best Tasting Bars?
If you want a good tasting bar that’s healthier than a candy bar, there are many products that cater to you. At the same time, realize that the best tasting options are also not usually the healthiest.
To predict how you will like the taste I suggest looking at two things in the review chart above on this page: flavor and rating. The rating tells you what at a minimum 100 people thought of the overall product, a main component of this rating will obviously be taste. Secondly, combine the rating with the flavor based on if you like that flavor in general, like chocolate or peanut butter. Using these two together you should be able to have a good idea of which is the best protein bar for you.
The most popular tasting protein bar: Power Crunch High Protein Energy Snack – Cookies and Cream
Notice how I said most popular and not best tasting. I highly encourage you to look at the options in the chart and finding one that matches your preferences. However, I will provide this as an option that is widely popular with consumers.
The fact that the product is called a snack indicates the quality of the ingredients. There are a ton of processed sugars and syrups, along with low quality vegetable oils.
Surprisingly, the protein quality is pretty good. Most of the protein in this snack bar is from whey protein blends and isolates.
Overall, a fairly inexpensive and good tasting bar. Power Crunch also offer many other flavors as well if you’re not a fan of cookies and cream.
The Ultimate Protein Bar Nutrition Guide Summary:
So there you have it, everything you need to know about choosing a perfect bar. You should know:
- High and low quality proteins
- Good and bad sources of carbohydrates and fats
- How to accomodate dietary preferences
- How to use the review chart at the start of section 2 to find the best protein bar for you