by Matt Weik
I spent just about ten years of my life working for a supplement company who was very well known for their protein bars. Sure, I ate them—but mainly because I was able to get them at no charge. They were convenient when I was traveling around the US for work or when I needed something quick to eat and didn’t want to make a whole food meal option (which isn’t ideal). In a world where convenience is king, many people are grabbing bars off the shelf and consuming them more now than ever before. Flavor profiles have drastically improved from back in the 90’s when protein bars tasted like cardboard. While the flavors have improved, has enough changed with them to make them a staple in your quest to reach your health and fitness goals?
There’s no shortage of brands out there launching protein bars. The unfortunate side is that most protein bars out there today are honestly glorified candy bars fairy dusted with some protein (and sometimes not even a good source of protein). So what do you choose? Well, that depends on your ultimate goal.
Meal Replacement Bars
Meal replacement bars have been around since the 90’s. It seems like MET-Rx has been known for bringing to market some heavy hitting bars (generally around 100g total weight) loaded with over 400 calories and around 30g of protein. While that’s great, the sugar and carbohydrate counts are high as well. If you aren’t concerned with your macros or are simply looking to add calories any way that you can, then a meal replacement bar would suit you quite well—or you live by the motto “Dirty Bulk for Life”.
If you are looking for an option that is lower in calories and have a lower to moderate amount of protein, then a nutritional bar would be ideal. These bars are generally smaller, around the 50g total weight range. The protein content is generally anywhere from 8g up to around 18g max. These are more geared for helping give your body an energy source so it’s very common to find these types of bars containing a moderate to high carbohydrate count and even a higher fat content, generally coming from nuts. When you think of nutritional bars one would look at Luna, Clif, and Balance Bars.
Protein bars are probably some of the best-selling bars in the fitness industry. Everyone is trying to increase their protein intake and bars seem to fit the bill for many people. Many of these bars carry a profile very similar to the meal replacement bars. Yet, there are also options out there who push net carbs of around 2-10g. The overall protein content of these bars can really vary. These bars can range from anywhere between 18g of protein to upwards of 40g. The decision on which is best for you comes down to how much protein you are looking to take in along with if the profile blends well with your individual nutrition plan and macros.
Taste is pretty subjective, but I’ll toss my hat in the ring and try and answer this one from both sides of the fence. You have bars that taste amazing, and then you have bars that taste like fecal matter. What I think tastes amazing you might think tastes terrible. It seems like the people in the industry will tend to enjoy a protein bar more so than if someone outside the industry tries the bar. We are seasoned to having things taste a certain way so I guess we either train our taste buds or simply deal with the taste and make the best of it. When I get a new protein bar I like to give a piece to my wife to try. I know she’ll give me an honest answer. There have been quite a few times that I tried the bar, enjoyed it, and gave her a piece where she asked if I was trying to poison her.
With the variety of flavors on the market, it’s pretty easy to find one that you enjoy. There are brands that have upwards of 20 different flavors of bars—there has to be one there that you can eat without thinking you unwrapped a dog turd. Find a brand you trust, a profile that matches your goals, and decide from there which flavor you want to try.
This is where you’re going to have to know what you want out of this particular bar. The nutrition panel can make or break you depending on your goals. Dirty bulk? Eat away. If you are looking to stay low carb, you need to pay very close attention to the nutrition panel. As mentioned earlier, many bars are labeled protein or nutritional bars yet they are truly candy bars in disguise—the bottom of the panel you discover an insane amount of sugars. Generally, if you see a bar that is low in carbohydrates and sugars, look for a line that states “sugar alcohols” which is generally directly below sugar on the panel. There is where the sweetness will come from if the bar is low in carbs and sugars. Many people are sensitive to sugar alcohols so be aware that if you see them listed, that you want as little as possible or you may be spending some time on the porcelain throne soon after eating the bar.
I’m going to make this short and sweet. If you look at the ingredients on a protein bar and you can’t pronounce the words or it looks like somewhere in the list you’re going to read “kitchen sink” then put the bar back. There’s no reason to consume a bar that has a long list of ingredients. Those bars aren’t going to do you any good nutritionally and it’s best if you skip them all together and move onto another option (as there’s plenty). Try to find bars that don’t contain high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, or similar ingredients that really give you no nutritional benefit. These ingredients are only added to enhance the taste and does not serve any health benefits and therefore you want to stay away from them.
There are bars out there today that are made of whole food natural ingredients. The Best Bar Ever is one of those brands. The bar itself must be refrigerated and the shelf-life is around 3 months whereas any other bar you find on the retail store shelf ranges between 1-2 years. You will pay a little more for these bars, but they are well worth it if you are in the market for a bar. Personally, I keep a stash of these bars in my refrigerator at all time—they are super tasty and the profile is exactly what I’m personally looking for to fill in some macro gaps while eating something that satisfies any cravings I may be having.
Here is where you’re going to find me pumping the brakes. To do a little comparison, let’s look at another option that many people get their supplemental nutrition from—protein shakes. More specifically, protein powders. There’s no shortage of protein powders taking up space in retail stores or online. These protein powders can range from around $0.50 per serving to $1.00 per serving depending on the brand and the makeup of the protein powder and quality of protein used. You’ll generally find whey protein concentrate (WPC) pretty inexpensive when you compare it to a higher quality protein like whey protein isolate (WPI).
Another thing you have to factor into the cost is what additionally is thrown into the product. Some protein powders contain added BCAAs, creatine, powdered peanut butter, digestive enzymes, greens powder, cookie pieces… the list goes on and on. Be aware of that when you go to make a purchase. The more that is added to the protein powder, the higher the cost. But overall, even the most loaded protein powders are still cheaper per serving than protein bars with similar if not higher protein contents when comparing them to the bar option.
But going back to protein bars, costs vary depending on where you are purchasing the bars as well. Some grocery stores purchase bars in bulk and you can find a bar for $1.99 that contains around 30g of protein whereas that same bar would sell for $2.99 or $3.99 in a supplement/nutritional store. Likewise, you can find a nutritional bar in grocery or mass market locations for around $1 per bar. Again, if you went to a supplement/nutrition retailer, you’re going to pay around double. Walmart is another retailer that seems to have extremely low prices on protein bars. But it’s all about volume. And for that reason it’s why many places can’t compete with the mass market (or FDM) or other channels that have much greater buying power than a small mom and pop supplement store on the corner.
If I had to weigh in on the cost of these bars, I’d say don’t waste your money unless you truly prefer to “eat” your macros versus “drink” them like in a protein shake (protein powder). Per serving, you could get 2-6 servings out of a protein powder for the same cost a one protein (or nutrition) bar.
Another note to make sure everyone understands is that these are “supplements” and should be treated as such. They shouldn’t replace whole food meals if you have the option to eat such. There are more vitamins and minerals found in whole food options than protein powders and bars. Only use protein powders and bar options if you are finding you aren’t taking in enough protein in your diet.
I honestly don’t want to talk you out of purchasing protein bars as many of them taste amazing and the profile on them aren’t bad assuming you aren’t prepping for a competition. The Best Bar Ever ranks as my personal top bar of choice. The taste is great, profile is amazing, but you’re also paying an arm and a leg for that particular bar. Quest Nutrition also puts out great tasting bars with a good nutritional profile. They have a wide assortment of flavors that are sure to catch everyone’s attention. Quest bars are also top sellers on many online retailers. And more recently Cellucor has launched their FitJoy bars which are a direct competitor to Quest bars.
As mentioned above, if you’d rather chew your macros compared to drinking them, then go for the protein bar option or throw it in for some variety every once in a while, but pay attention to the profile of the bar you pick up. I (personally) would still choose a protein powder over a bar just from a cost savings perspective (and for post workout nutrition and recovery), but to each his or her own. There are plenty of powders out there that taste amazing and come in an assortment of flavors to suit anyone’s tastes. I also like the convenience of being able to take protein powder with me in a shaker bottle no matter where I go and simply add water (easily found anywhere), shake it up, and slam it down in no time for a quick on the go protein fix. I don’t have to worry about protein bars melting or freezing in my bar depending on the temperature outside, and I don’t have to worry about any crumbs falling on my clothing causing a stain right before I’m about to walk into a business meeting.
If increasing your protein intake is what you are looking to do, you honestly can’t go wrong with a protein bar. The convenience of unwrapping it and the satiety you get from a bar is unmatched when compared to a protein shake. Find a bar that suits your needs and don’t be afraid to try different brands.