Whether you’re stuck in the airport or need to refuel after a long run, a protein bar can make for a great mini-meal replacement or quick snack. With flavors like chocolate coconut almond and carrot cake, they’ve come a long way taste-wise, too.
But in a day and age of chemicals and confusing food labels, it’s only natural to wonder: Are protein bars just glorified candy bars? If not and they can be part of a healthy diet, how often should you eat them compared to whole-food sources of protein, like lean meats, beans, soy, eggs and nuts?
Here, everything you need to know about what makes a protein bar healthy (or unhealthy), plus what to look for on the label should you stock up, according to registered dietitians.
Generally, protein bars contain a source of protein — usually in the form of whey, soy protein isolate, rice protein, pea protein, egg white protein or nut-based protein, says Yasi Ansari, RD, a California-based dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
But some protein bars may not offer as much of the macro as you think, says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RD, owner of MNC Nutrition. A good rule of thumb is to look where the protein ranks on the ingredient list: “The lower on the list, the less protein there is.” The type of protein matters, too. For example, soy is often found in bars to bump up protein content, but it can be a common food allergen and some people may be sensitive to it, notes Cohn. “You’d likely know this because you’d have symptoms that could range from an itchy throat and headaches to skin rashes and GI upset.”
What’s ‘healthy’ depends on your individual dietary needs — whether you’re trying to up your protein intake to bulk up and improve your performance or create a calorie deficit to slim down and preserve lean muscle, for example.
It’s also important to note some protein bars not only add extra calories, but they also pack an added sugar punch, says Cohn. Think: low- or no-calorie sweeteners like sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners (which can upset your stomach), brown rice syrup or cane sugar (sometimes even more than you’d find in a candy bar, says Ansari), plus high-fructose corn syrup or corn syrup. While a bit of sugar, especially for athletes, isn’t going to be problematic, too much is linked to a number of health problems, including insulin resistance (which can lead to Type 2 diabetes), heart disease and cancer, says Cohn.
How frequently it’s OK to eat protein bars is highly individual and dependent on your specific goals and lifestyle. Most people who exercise a lot have increased protein (and calorie) needs, so if you’re a competitive athlete, protein bars come in handy, considering optimal intake of protein can skyrocket from 1.2 to upwards of 2 grams per kilogram of body weight each day, depending on your training plan and intensity, says Ansari. Protein bars should be considered a supplement. Also: Research shows evenly distributing protein throughout your day is key for building muscle (Think: 25–35 grams per meal).
For vegetarian or vegan athletes who struggle to rack up plant-based sources of protein like soy, lentils, beans and grains, adding a protein bar, especially during long workouts, can also help you make sure you’re getting in enough protein, especially on busy days, says Ansari. Some vegan brands to try include No Cow, Raw Rev Glo, SimplyProtein and Pegan.
If you’re not training, it’s better to eat whole foods like meat, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes and grains. “If you’re not working out at high intensity or for long periods of time and don’t have dietary restrictions, treat protein bars as an occasional snack for when you need to quiet your hunger bells and keep your blood sugar stable,” says Cohn. Think of protein bars as something to eat out of necessity (if you’re in a pinch when traveling or otherwise would skip a meal) rather than a daily “healthy” snack.
In general, the most nutritious bars have a short ingredient list and contain whole foods you can recognize, says Ansari. For example, some bars contain whole foods like dates, dried and whole fruits, nuts, nut butters, chia seeds, cinnamon and vanilla extract, she says. “Whole foods tend to have a larger variety of vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants,” adds Cohn.
“Look for a protein bar with 150–250 calories max, at least 10–15 grams of protein, 3–5 grams of fiber and less than 10 grams per serving of added sugar,” suggests Ansari. Bars from ONE, Quest Nutrition, Oatmega and NuGo Slim tend to fit the bill, she says. But keep in mind if you’re not training, you should look for one with fewer calories.