Protein Bars: The good, the bad and the ugly!
Protein Bars… A Review of the Best and the Worst
by Jeannie Brown
When one thinks of nutrition, rarely does ready-made food wrapped in crinkly plastic or shiny foil come to mind. However, even our ancient ancestors of the ice age needed to have transportable nourishment during a long journey or a hunt that could last for days or months. Perhaps they combined ground up dried meat with rendered fat, dried fruits, nuts, grains and some sap from the maple tree for sweetening. They possibly formed them into little cakes, cooked them on hot stones and wrapped them in leather pouches to preserve them. These traveling cakes would have provided high quality protein, carbohydrates and fat for nutritional sustenance during long durations of aerobic and anaerobic activity when food preparation would be impossible. Mass producing something like this is for the most part, unrealistic. There is, however, an obvious appeal to having a quick, easy and portable source of nourishment on the go. The challenge today is in the choosing. There is a dizzying array of choices in the “nutrition bar” isles that can only be summed up by saying buyer beware! Many of the offerings are nothing short of a snickers bar with protein powder added. I hope to narrow down your options by evaluating the dizzying array of protein bars.
I have decided to evaluate only protein bars vs. energy or nutrition bars. I will start with a list of the best protein bars. Be aware that the list of best bars will typically cost a bit more (somewhere in the 2 to 3 dollar per bar range). My assumption is that these bars will be used infrequently enough that a slightly higher cost for a well formulated bar is justified. My goal here is to find bars that have a good balance of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and unsaturated fats) which are low in sugars and other additives. An easily recognizable ingredients list as well as a lower caloric content is cause for a higher rating. The addition of ingredients which impart healthy benefits such as antioxidants, amino acids, vitamins and minerals is also considered a plus.
1) Quest Bar
These bars surface to the top for a variety of reasons. Most Quest bars have about 20 grams of whey protein, and milk protein isolate, and 20 to 25 grams of carbohydrate which is off set by the addition of 15 to 20 grams of a fiber known as IMO, a plant source similar to chicory root fiber which does not cause intestinal upset. The sugars are remarkably low, and fat content hovers around 5 to 10 grams, most of which are unsaturated. The calorie counts are impressively low, ranging from 160 to 200 per bar. The ingredients list is reassuringly recognizable, with no words you feel you would have to look up to understand. Taste wise… pretty darn good for a bar!
2) Advobar Meal Chocolate Peanut Butter
These bars are cast as meal bars, but with a calorie content of only 215, they could also be classified as a snack, or a pre or post workout bar. With 16 grams of protein derived from a blend of soy isolate proteins, whey protein concentrates and isolates, along with 28 carbohydrates, you’ll get ample nutrition to refuel. The sugars and fats are suitably low at 3 grams of sugar and 2.5 grams of fat. There are 16 vitamins and minerals, all at an impressive percent of the recommended daily values. If you like the combination of chocolate and peanut butter (and who doesn’t) you should be pleasantly surprised by the rich taste of this bar.
3) Life Lift by UPX
This bar caught my eye because of it’s easy to read ingredients list. It also contains an impressive amount of the same high quality, easy to digest fiber source found in the Quest bar known as IMO. IMO (isomalto-oligosaccharide) is also a “prebiotic” which creates the optimal environment for probiotics (good bacteria) to work in the gut. With only 185 calories, 20 grams of protein, 25 carbs, 20 grams of IMO fiber, 1 gram of sugar, and 7 grams of fat (1.5 of which is saturated), it is suitable for a quick midday pick me up, or a pre/ post workout bar. The bars are very high on flavor. I hear the apple cinnamon delight is quite tasty.
4) Nu Go Slim
I hear this bar was praised on both the Today show as well as The Biggest Loser. There is a selection of certified gluten free bars such as the chocolate brownie, which offers real cacao dark chocolate, a natural source of flavonol antioxidants. The bars are also low on the glycemic index (a numeric scale which measures how fast and how high a food raises blood glucose levels). The average bar contains 190 calories, protein is 16 grams, and carbs are 19 grams. There are 7 grams of fiber and 6 grams of fat with 2.5 being saturated. There have been very high marks given to these bars in the taste department.
5) Nu Go Slim
These bars are labeled “natural” and as it turns out they are not only natural, but organic to boot. They are made from soy crisps, are covered in chocolate and they have a nice moist texture. The average bar contains 180 calories, 18 grams of protein, 18 carbs, 10 grams of sugar, 2 grams of fiber, and 4 grams of fat, 2 of which are saturated. The bars receive high acclaim for being a satisfying little treat.
I now must delve into the black hole of “worst” protein bars. Unfortunately, there are plenty to choose from. One of the biggest tip offs that these bars are nothing more than a candy bar in disguise, is the copious amounts of sugars and or fats, not to mention the array of processed ingredients, artificial colors, and preservatives they contain. When you consider that a Snickers bar has 250 calories, 27 grams of sugar, and 12 grams of fat, you’ll see that the difference between some protein bars and a candy bar is a little added protein. Bear in mind that the list of worst bars may have your favorite ones in it because they taste good, and are available in most stores that carry nutrition bars. But when put under a nutritional magnifying glass, they may not seem like such a healthy choice. The protein bars with the biggest names and the highest exposure caught my attention the most. That is not to say that they are any worse than other, less well known brands. They are simply the ones that we see in stores most often and therefore seem to merit the most attention. Without any further ado, I give you my worst picks.
These bars offer a variety of flavors that are sure to appeal, but the nutrition facts don’t lie. Notice the high amounts of fats and added sugars:
1) Met-Rex Big 100 Colossal
Protein: 30 grams
Carbs: 47 grams
Sugar: 28 grams
Fat: 12 grams
Saturated: 5 grams
2) EAS Myoplex 30 Protein Bar
Protein: 30 grams (from soy)
Carb: 36 grams
Sugar: 26 grams
Fat: 9 grams
Saturated: 5 grams
Protein: 20 grams
Carbs: 37 grams
Sugars: 25 grams
Fat: 8 grams
4) Oh Yeah! Original Bar: Peanut Butter and Strawberry
Protein: 27 grams
Carbs: 18 grams
Sugars: 9 grams
Fats: 16 grams
Saturated: 9 grams
5) Muscle Milk Vanilla Toffee Crunch Bar
Protein: 23 grams
Carbs: 31 grams
Sugars: 17 grams
Fats: 10 grams
Saturated: 8 grams
Choosing the right nutritional snacks on the go
Life can be fast paced, and nutrition can take a back seat. But with a little information and preparation it is possible to make good choices. My best (and most economical) on the go snacks are the kind I grab from the fridge and throw in a baggie with an ice pack. But if bars are more your style, I recommend buying good quality protein bars in a box and having them on hand when a nutritional meal might not be on the day’s agenda. Hope the information in this article helps you plan your day with a little more thought and not get stuck eating candy for lunch.