Someone once asked me "If I only have time to eat either a banana or a protein bar in the morning, which one is best?"
A discussion about health priorities and time management aside, my answer is the protein bar. A dietician or naturopath might have a different take, but my overwhelming observation is that most people don't eat enough in the morning and one single banana after not eating anything for several hours is hardly enough energy to get you through your morning routine let alone getting you out the door and to lunch 5-6 hours later. You need more. Now - don't take that as license to eat a protein bar every day and think it will solve all your nutrition problems. It won't. (I'll save my rant for eating enough in general at breakfast - and how badly breakfast has been marketed FOR YEARS - for another day.)
Protein bars are, gently put, typically a chocolate bar on drugs. They've gotten a little better in past years. However, this is not a case for eating them every day in an effort to "be healthier". Like most supplements, they can be useful when used as a supplement based on your activity level.
In full disclosure, I eat protein bars too, usually when I'm on an army training exercise and meal timings are inconsistent. I have a high metabolism and making sure I'm fed in a hurry means I can do my job and also means I'm less likely to be cranky at the people I'm working with.
All that said, not all protein bars are created equal. I have a hard and fast rule: the amount of protein in the bar MUST be higher than the amount of sugar in the bar. CHECK THE INGREDIENTS.
I try to stay away from sucralose (sometimes makes my tummy rumble-y), soy protein (for a multitude of reasons), sugar alcohols, and Stevia (it sometimes doesn't get along with me), however, I've found it's impossible to find something Slow Carb compliant that doesn't have at least one of those. (Although to be honest, if I'm in a Slow Carb Diet cycle, I probably am not in a situation where I need or want a protein bar.) So I focus on the lesser of the evils and what will be the best choice for the situation surrounding why I'm eating the protein bar in the first place.
Here's a breakdown of the ones I've tried, my 25 cents on them, as well as which ones I tend to get the most, and why. Disclaimer: These should be used as a SUPPLEMENT or occasional on-the-go item, not a regular meal replacement. Real food with all macros still wins EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
- Bars tested: IronVegan, QuestBar, GoodFats/LoveGoodFats, Powerbar Clean Whey, CLIF Whey, ONE Bars, SimplyProtein Whey, GoodTo Go, CLIF Builder's.
- SimplyProtein Whey: Best bang for buck and nutritional content overall. 14g protein.
- GoodTo Go: Best Keto friendly. 8g protein.
- CLIF Whey: Best overall for avoiding soy, Stevia, sucralose, sugar alcohols, and other artificial crap. 14g protein.
- IronVegan: Honourable mention for a slightly higher protein content than most, low in the crappy stuff, and one of the only plant-based options that doesn't contain soy.
- Texture more like a dense brownie
- Flavour good (tastes good)
- No artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols
- Contains Stevia
- Limited flavours, hard to find, and expensive
- No soy or whey products
- Protein: 16-17g
- Causes gas, especially the Sweet & Salty Caramel
Overall these check out well and the chocolate one is indeed pretty tasty, and aside from containing stevia, they don't contain any other funky crap. I ate one a day of these last summer when I was teaching army training. The two biggest downsides: they are one of the most expensive, over $3 per bar even on Amazon. The other - and IMHO - worse downside is that they caused gas. Especially the Sweet & Salty Caramel flavour. And I mean, like, room-clearing gas. I probably owe my roomie from the summer an apology.
- Typical protein bar consistency: nougat/tough to eat
- Has artificial sweeteners
- Whey protein
- Wide flavour selection
- Protein: 20-21g
These are one of my "I'm desperate/last resort" choices. While they have whey protein in them, they also contain sucralose. Ick. The consistency is more like what many people think of in a "power bar" - tough and not super tasty. I won't tell you these taste great. They don't. They're also quite tough and if - like me - you might be out in the winter with them, you risk breaking a tooth if they freeze.
- Excellent flavours
- Cake-like consistency, crumbly
- Lower in protein, high in healthy fats
- No artificial sweeteners, soy, or stevia
- Contains low amounts of sugar alcohols
- Protein: 6-10g
- Melts easily
These have been marketed as a "keto-friendly" bar, and as a result are lower in protein but higher in fats. They're generally filling. Over the past year or so they've come out with more flavours as well as some "nutty" versions - I haven't tried the latter. The flavours are excellent. Sometime in the past two years they've changed the formula a bit and I do find they don't taste as good as they "used to". They are also crumbly and melt easily, making them a poor choice for a hot day. That said, these are generally high on my list of healthier options for snack bars, depending on the situation.
Powerbar Clean Whey
- Standard protein bar consistency: nougat/tough to eat
- No artificial sweeteners or soy
- Contains stevia and sugar alcohols
- Whey protein
- Limited flavours
- Protein: 20g
These are low on my list. They taste okay, but, much like the QuestBars, they're hard to eat. They're also hard to find. The protein content is higher, which is nice. I've only had these a couple of times as - reference two sentences ago - they're hard to find in any of the three or four places I tend to buy my protein bars.
CLIF Whey Protein Bars
- Limited flavours
- Protein: 14g
- Higher in sugar
- No artificial sweeteners, stevia, sugar alcohols, or soy
- Contains oats and rice flour
- Second best bang for buck
These are one of my staples for field training exercises. The flavours are limited but they don't contain most of the crap I try to avoid. The downside is that due to the oats and rice they aren't Slow Carb compliant. But overall I can't complain. They don't have any of the crap I'm trying to avoid and the protein content is decent. The downside is because they are sweetened with sugar, they are - for obvious reasons - higher in sugar. They're more expensive than the SimplyProtein Whey bars but on my list of top 3 bars.
- Lots of flavours
- Protein: 20
- Contains both sucralose and sugar alcohols
- Nougat-like consistency
- Very sweet, doesn't taste very natural
These are also at the bottom of my list as one of my "I'm desperate" choices. I personally find they and my stomach don't get along particularly well. They are also higher in sugar alcohols than many other bars. They have a ton of flavours that are sorta true to taste (of the very few I've tried), and are softer and easier to eat than QuestBars.
- Best budget option
- Protein: 16g
- Very limited flavours
- No soy, artificial sweeteners, stevia, sucralose, or sugar alcohols
I feel these are the best bang for your buck. Make sure you're getting the Whey version and not the plant based version (which contains soy). They are not slow carb compliant due to the tapioca, but they taste pretty good overall. I find them a little bit crumbly and there are only a couple of flavours.
- Keto friendly, almond based
- Variety of flavours, tastes good
- Soft, almost cake-like consistency
- Protein: 7-8g
- Contains sugar alcohols and stevia
- No soy, whey or sucralose
Much like the LoveGoodFats bars, these are promoted as a keto friendly bar, which makes them higher in fats but lower in protein. I really like these and I don't find the sugar alcohols or stevia too offensive in them. The advantage these have over the GoodFats bars is that if you leave one in a warm vehicle, it won't turn into a mess of oil and chocolate in the wrapper.
CLIF Builder's Protein
- Soy protein
- No artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, or stevia
- Very high in sugar
- Filling and taste good
- Protein: 20g
- Limited flavours
I know. I said I tried to stay away from soy. And I do 99.9% of the time. In full disclosure, these taste pretty good and I usually have one with my on-the-go breakfast when I'm on an army training exercise. They are not my first choice for anything else. These have one of the highest protein contents of all the bars I've found, and aren't a nougat-style, which means I'm not in danger of chipping a tooth while eating one. They also fill me up, and in that environment, I actually need the sugar as much as I need the protein. For day-to-day use, this one would be at the bottom of my list.
There are many other choices out there for "power" bars, protein bars, and "energy" bars. Before you load up on them, think about WHY you are including them into your diet. Does the bar fit with the activity level you are doing? If you have a desk job where you're sitting most of the day, tread carefully with "energy" bars and supplements. Too much is still too much. Any kind of artificial bar is just that - artificial. And as I mentioned above, REAL FOOD with all the right macros still wins every single time.
Need help assessing what's best for you, developing a plan to improve your health, and guidance sticking to that plan? That's what I'm here for. Give me a shout for a free goal setting session and let's start the conversation.