Protein Bars 101

img_4776Bars are a go-to for many people looking for an easy snack or meal on the go. They can be a fast and easy breakfast or snack or aid in post-workout recovery. Protein bars, granola bars, breakfast bars, energy bars, meal replacement bars, raw bars… there are lots of types of bars and endless brands. If you’ve ever felt confused when trying to pick a healthy bar, you’re not alone.  Many bars out there aren’t much healthier than a candy bar!

Today, we are talking about protein bars.  These are geared toward folks looking for a convenient protein source (around 10-20 grams protein per bar).  They are often lower in carbohydrate (than energy bars for instance) and may have added fiber to slow digestion and keep you full longer. Protein bars can be a great option for quick nutrition after a workout, especially strength training.  A mix of carbs and protein 15 to 20 minutes after exercising helps muscles repair and replenish their energy.

Common Protein Sources

So where does all this shelf-stable protein come from?  Generally, in the diet we think of meat, poultry, fish, and beans as the main protein foods.  Protein bars often contain one or a mix of the following protein sources:

  • whey (comes from milk) and milk protein
  • soy
  • rice
  • pea
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts: almonds, cashews
  • egg whites

A Word about Sugar Alcohols

In order to keep the sugar low, but still maintain flavor and sweetness, many bars have added sugar alcohol instead of traditional sweeteners (think sugar, sucrose, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, etc).  Sugar alcohols are sugar substitutes that have fewer calories than regular sugar.  They aren’t easily absorbed by the body and can cause an upset stomach in some people at higher amounts.  Sugar alcohols are safe to eat.  They can help reduce sugar intake without compromising taste, and they may protect against tooth decay, feed good gut bacteria, and improve bone and skin health. If you notice a bar upsets your stomach (diarrhea, gas, bloating), you may want to check to see if it has sugar alcohols and how much, as these could be the culprit. Every body is different, and everyone has different amounts and types of sugar alcohols they can tolerate.

A good way to recognize if a bar or food contains sugar alcohol is to look in two places:

1) Nutrition Facts label under Total Carbohydrate will list out total Sugar Alcohol

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2) The Ingredients list will include the sugar alcohol, often one of these common ones: sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates.  While these names sound a bit like a chemistry experiment, remember sugar alcohols are actually made from plant products.

Meal Replacement Bars

Some bars contain a higher number of calories and a slightly different mix of nutrients. They are intended to replace meals and often provide workout recovery as well. A nutritionally sound meal replacement bar will include a mixture of complex carbohydrates, a moderate amount of protein, and a small amount of fat as well as some fiber. These bars are generally close to 300 calories with around 20 grams of protein and more carbohydrates than a typical protein bar.

Some meal replacement bars are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals; however, it can be a good idea to pair the bar with a piece of fruit to boost the nutrition and fiber. While these bars can be an easy, portable alternative, it’s worth stating there is no true replacement for a well-balanced meal!  We don’t recommend replacing more than one meal a day with these replacement bars.

One meal replacement bar we sampled and like is the Pro Bar Base.  It is not advertised as a meal replacement, but with almost 300 calories we place it in this category.  We liked the 20 grams of protein and the natural peanut butter, chocolate flavor.  The sugar is a bit high at 15 grams, and we would like to see more of it come from fruit rather than agave and cane syrup, but it does have a reasonable amount of fat, total carbohydrates, and fiber. Overall, not a bad option if using as a meal replacement.

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Our Basic Nutrition Criteria for Protein Bars

If you choose to use protein bars as part of your post-workout recovery, here are some general guidelines to help you pick the most nutritious options.

  1. More than 10 grams and ideally 15-20 grams of protein
  2. Around 200 calories (unless being used as a meal replacement)
  3. Less than 10 g sugar
  4. The fewer ingredients you can’t pronounce, the better 🙂

 

A couple bars we like in particular include:

Oatmega – Chocolate Mint Crisp

With 14 grams protein (grass-fed whey), 300 mg of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids (a unique feature), and 7 grams fiber, this bar has a lot to offer as a post-workout recovery snack. We liked the flavor and texture of the Chocolate Mint Crisp bar, especially given the lower amount of sugar (5g). It was a satisfying bar that carried us from our workout to dinner a few hours later.

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NuGo Slim – Raspberry Truffle

Just the name alone and the promise of “real dark chocolate” had us hooked.  But really, this bar was pretty amazing with 17 grams of protein (soy, whey, casein, rice mixture), only 2 grams of sugar, 7 grams of fiber and no sugar alcohols. The bar had a great, rich flavor and almost felt like eating dessert (maybe a stretch!).  If you are particularly sensitive to sugar alcohols, this would be a great option to try and it comes in a range of equally delicious sounding flavors.

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More to try if you’re feeling adventurous:

 

thinkThin –  White Chocolate

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OhYeah! One – Birthday Cake

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Bounce Protein Energy Ball – Peanut Cacao 

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RXBAR – Coconut Chocolate

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If you choose to add protein bars to your post-workout routine, make sure you’re picking the right bar to fuel your recovery. Let us know which protein bars are your favorite!

 

Sources:

http://www.joslin.org/info/what_are_sugar_alcohols.html

https://authoritynutrition.com/sugar-alcohols-good-or-bad/