Protein Bars – Are They Worth It?

2019-11-22T18:22:58+00:00February 11th, 2019|


Having trouble figuring out whether the protein bar you like is actually good for you? You’re not alone. The options can overwhelm anyone. Here I identify what you really need to know the next time you shop.

Here’s the first thing you need to know when you go browsing the health bar aisle looking for options that are actually good for you.

Not all protein bars are created equal. And most bars that are labelled as being ‘healthy’ have more in common with a chocolate bar than a handful of kale or a protein shake. This is the health industry, where it’s much easier to slap buzzwords on a label than actually provide you with what you need.

But rather than let you be frustrated by marketing tactics – they exist in every business and with every product, I want to make your life easier. Because there are many good protein bars on the market.

Just follow these five rules and no matter what bar you select, you can feel good that you aren’t wasting your time (and calories) on a crappy high sugar chocolate bar.

  1. The first ingredients listed is what the bar has most of –  do you still want to eat it now?
  2. Good protein bars have 10 grams of protein or more
  3. Aim for less than 8g of sugar
  4. Watch out for sugar alcohols
  5. Look for bars that are fewer than 300 calories

Rule #1: Sugar is NOT the first ingredient of a good protein bar. This rules seems obvious, but here’s why it’s so important:

  1. Most people don’t look at the actual ingredients. Get out of the habit of just scanning the packet for calories and/or protein.
  2. Most people don’t know the order of ingredients reflects the quantity in a product. If sugar is first, that means there’s more sugar than any other ingredient.
  3. Sugar has lots of different names so it’s easy to be fooled. So if the first ingredient is dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, or turbinado…beware as this is just different terminology for a form of sugar.

Don’t think that just because a bar looks like it’s made up of whole foods that it’s lighter on the sweet stuff.

Even if you see these nuts and raisins through the label, the bar may have a sugar coating, it just looks like a glob of nuts, so it looks very innocent. But even the ‘whole food’ looking bars have to be held together by something. Usually that’s sugar syrup.

If you want to make sure the bar really is healthy, the bar’s primary ingredients should be a protein source, a fruit or vegetable, or healthy fat source like nuts.

Protein, fat and carbs consumed with fibre (which you’ll get from fruits or grains) all take longer to digest than simple sugars, so they’ll keep you feeling fuller for longer. That means you don’t need sugar to be energised; you just need a good source of fuel.

The benefits of having good primary ingredients (the proteins, fruit/vegetable, or healthy fat source) are part of what distinguishes a good protein bar from a snack bar. Those nutrients have been shown to have a beneficial effect on your weight and waist line too.

For every 10 grams of fibre you eat, you’ll have as much as 4 percent less fat around your belly. Monounsaturated fats, like those found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish, have been shown to help people lose belly fat.

Rule #2: Good protein bars have 10 grams of protein — or more. This rule comes with what should be an obvious “if.”

If you’re using the bar as a protein supplement or meal replacement, you want at least 10 grams or ideally even more.

The biggest thing I tell people is, ‘Know how you plan to use the bar.’  If I’m looking to replace protein specifically, I’m looking for around 20 grams of protein. That means the bar’s first ingredient will likely be a protein source. Whey isolate, casein, pea, or egg protein are all high-quality choices.

If you’re not using the bar as a protein supplement, you can get away with having the lower protein total. Are you just wanting the bar as a healthy snack or is there a purpose to it? If you don’t understand the majority of the ingredients then stop and think, is it something you really want to put in your body?

Rule #3: Aim for less than 8 grams of sugar. Remember I said many protein bars are really just chocolate bars disguised as something good for you?

Well, here’s the proof. Did you know that Gatorade’s Whey Protein Bar has 29 grams of sugar? And CLIF Builder Bars have 1 more gram of sugar  – 21g,  than they do protein – 20g? Compare that to the Met-RX Big 100 Colossal bar. Lots of protein – 30g. But loads of calories overall – 400 and 32g of sugar.

Before you freak out about sugar, know that it’s not the terrible villain it’s made out to be. And there are many great bars out there with more than 8 grams. The catch? If the bar contains more than 8 grams of sugar, most of that should come from fruit or other natural sugar sources like lactose.

Why are natural sugars better? Lactose from milk products and fructose from fruits, like all sugars, contain 4 calories per gram. But unlike refined sugars, these natural sugars come paired with the other nutrients you get from fruit or dairy – such like Vitamin C, potassium, calcium, Vitamin D and other things that help your body function.

Good protein bars are often defined by their nutrients. It’s what helps separate a healthy bar from a chocolate bar. And refined added sugars don’t deliver the added nutrients.

Added sugars also can hurt you in the long run. People who consume more than 21 percent of their daily calories from added sugars have double the risk of death from heart disease compared to people who consume just 10 percent of their calories from added sugars.

Rule #4: Watch out for sugar alcohols. No, the bars don’t have booze in them. Sugar alcohols are a category of artificial sweeteners.

They have names like xylitol, sorbitol, isomalt, and glycerol. You’ll find them in all kinds of things labelled ‘sugar-free.’ For some people, they can lead to a pretty unhappy stomach, depending on how you react to them. That’s real person-specific. I personally don’t have an issue with them, but they can give other people digestive issues.

Just as with the whey concentrate, you have to pay attention to how the ingredient affects you. If the bar produces something less like a feeling of fullness and more like a feeling like you have to run to the bathroom, then obviously you’re going to want to steer clear of it.

Rule #5: Look for protein bars with fewer than 300 calories.

Good protein bars are supposed to be supplements – something you use to assist with a weak spot in your diet, just like protein powder or a multivitamin. They’re meant to supply nutrients, protein or calories you might not otherwise get from your diet, or if you find yourself busy and missing meals.

When a bar weighs in at 300 calories or more, that’s more calories than you’d get from eating a burger from MacDonald’s or a bowl of porridge –  the latter being far more filling and nutritious, so again it goes back to why you want to eat that bar. But remember…a bar isn’t necessarily the healthier choice over a burger!

As an example for you – a popular bar on the market has 200 calories and 6 grams of protein, but a hard-boiled egg will give you 7 grams and it’s less than 80 calories! So if you can eat whole food, then always take that choice. But of course that might not always be possible.

Maybe it’s difficult to pack a meal because of your job and don’t have access to a refrigerator, in those cases, bars do offer you some advantages. They’re portion-controlled and pre-measured. They supply the sort of nutrition you might not get at a drive-thru window. However, even in that situation the 300-calorie rule is still a good guideline to follow.

It’s hard to overeat if you only bring what’s necessary. If you pre plan and only take with you what you will need, you can use this method as a tool to help control yourself. You control your intake with a mobile package of food.

So to summarise – remember the following:

  1. The first ingredients listed is what the bar has most of – do you still want to eat it now?
  2. Good protein bars have 10 grams of protein or more
  3. Aim for less than 8g of sugar
  4. Watch out for sugar alcohols
  5. Look for bars that are fewer than 300 calories