15 Best Healthy & Low-Sugar Protein Bars in 2020, According to Dietitians
Whether you're looking for a nutritious, on-the-go option to tide you over between meals or a portable snack to maintain muscle mass between workouts, low-sugar, high protein bars are often the answer to your nutritional needs.
"Protein bars are great for traveling, pre- or post-workout snacks, and as a snack to keep blood sugar balanced during busy days," says registered dietitian nutritionist Krista King, MS, RDN, LDN, CPT, of Composed Nutrition. "They are convenient to keep with you at your desk or in your bag for a quick snack on-the-go. They can also be a great addition for a fast and easy breakfast on-the-go," she adds.
When determining if eating protein bars is good for you, the protein source, how much there is, and what other nutrients it's paired with all need to be taken into consideration.
That's why we asked nearly a dozen nutritional experts for help in determining what criteria make the best protein bars.
What makes a protein bar "healthy"?
If you're looking to further your better-body goals, you may consider eating high protein bars. While it might sound beneficial, unfortunately, most of the protein bars in the market are loaded with sugar alcohols or saturated fat and lack fiber.
Registered dietitian Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, and owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition tells Eat This, Not That! that they key in selecting a clean and healthy protein bar is to "look for a nice balance of healthy fat, protein, and fiber to help keep you satisfied. Choose a protein bar with between 200 to 400 calories and up to 20 grams of protein per serving."
It's not just macronutrients that matter when it comes to determining the best protein bar. Rachel Fine, MS, RD, CSSD, CDN, of To The Pointe Nutrition says ingredients are equally important. "Look at the ingredient list and identify transparent foods like nuts, whole grains, and fruit."
Angie Asche, MS, RD, CSSD owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition adds that she looks for good sources of protein, "like whey protein isolate, pea protein, brown rice protein, and eggs."
The nutritional criteria for the best protein bars.
Not just any protein bar landed a spot on our list of best protein bars. We compiled a list of over 100 protein bars so we could compare their nutrition and ingredient information. With the help of dietitians, we came up with specifical nutritional and ingredient criteria we had to follow to select the best protein bars:
- 8 grams protein minimum: To qualify as a "protein bar," each bar had to have no less than 8 grams of protein. Hillary Cecere, RDN of Eat Clean Bro, a meal delivery service, recommends aiming for 15-20 grams of protein if you're looking to gain muscle and 7-12 grams of protein for a satiating snack.
- 13 grams sugar maximum: The best protein bars have no more than 13 grams of sugar.
- 3 grams fiber minimum: When it comes to fiber, Fine recommends opting for a protein bar with 3 or more grams per bar or serving. "However, caution with those boasting more than 10 grams of fiber as these are likely loaded with isolated fibers that can cause stomach discomfort," says Fine.
The ingredient criteria for the best protein bars:
- High-quality protein sources: We prioritized protein bars that sourced their protein from high-quality isolates and concentrates (such as grass-fed whey protein) as well as whole food ingredients (like nuts or antibiotic-free meat). "Nuts, nut butters, grass-fed meats, egg whites, and seeds are my favorite whole food protein sources for a protein bar," Cecere says.
- Natural sweeteners: "Last, in regards to added sugar, check ingredients and choose options with natural sources of sugar like cane sugar or fruit. Whole fruit (in comparison to fruit juice and fruit concentrate) is not considered an added sugar," says Fine.
- Whole-food ingredients: Whether they're used to flavor or sweeten, the best protein bars only use whole food or natural ingredients—no artificial ingredients allowed.
- Healthy fats: Fats are essential for your body to absorb certain nutrients and they also help to keep you satiated. We prioritized protein bars that contain healthy fats from nuts and seeds rather than those that use vegetable oils as fillers and binders.
- Low to no synthetic or isolated fiber: "Ingredients I watch out for and advise athletes avoid (especially around the times they're training as they can cause bloating, gas, abdominal pain) include artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols like maltilol, erythritol, and xylitol, and large amounts of synthetic fibers like soluble corn fiber or chicory root," adds Asche.
- No sugar alcohols: Sugar alcohols have risen in popularity recently because they are a low-calorie way manufacturers can sweeten protein bars; however, dietitians advise against consuming large quantities of this ingredient. "In some people, sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal distress," says Cecere.
The following 15 low-sugar, best protein bars met our nutritional requirements and deserve a spot in your pantry. After discovering the best of the best, keep reading to uncover the protein bars that are Not That!s below.
The Best Healthy Protein Bars
1. Best Overall: RXBar Chocolate Sea Salt
If you want to feel like you're eating a decadent salted brownie while meeting all your protein needs, you've met your match with an RXBAR. Dubbed a favorite by many of the experts we spoke to, Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian, particularly likes the simplicity of ingredients: "RXBAR does a nice job of making bars out of recognizable ingredients. They are very straightforward on their packaging and tell you that each bar contains dates, nuts, egg whites, and flavors. My personal favorite is the Chocolate Sea Salt, and I find that the 12 grams of protein really keeps me full."
2. Best Tasting: KIND Protein, Crunchy Peanut Butter
With creamy nut butter and crunchy peanuts, this healthy snack bar packs in a respectable amount of digestion-aiding fiber and muscle-maintaining protein.
3. Best for Muscle Gain: ALOHA Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Plant-Based Protein
Say "aloha" to a toned body when you include this bar in your diet. And don't worry about the 24 grams of carbs: "Carbs actually help protein get into the muscle fibers," says Isabel Smith MS, RD, CDN and founder of New York-based Isabel Smith Nutrition.
4. Best Vegan: GoMacro Macrobar Protein Paradise, Cashew Caramel
Asche notes that "excellent option for athletes looking for a vegan protein bar." You can thank the vegetarian dynamic duo of organic sprouted brown rice protein and organic pea protein for those 11 grams of protein. This bar is also loaded with healthy fats from cashews and flax seeds, which are a great plant-based source of anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Plus, it's really one of the tastiest protein bars out there.
5. Best for Weight Loss: Primal Kitchen Almond Spice
If you want to lose weight, you'll want to keep your blood sugar balanced to remove thos dreaded spikes in blood sugar that can leave you hungry. "This bar has 8 grams of protein and minimal sugar, which helps keep blood sugar balanced by preventing a blood sugar spike (and subsequent drop)," says King. "This flavor, specially, contains cinnamon. Cinnamon has been shown to improve fasting blood sugar levels, making it a great addition for people with diabetes, pre-diabetes, insulin sensitivity, and those with PCOS experiencing blood sugar irregularities."
6. Best Whole Ingredients: ThinkThin Protein & Superfruit Bar, Coconut Almond Chia
Unlike their chewy, Play Doh-like bars, this thinkThin bar gets most of its protein from whey, almond, and sunflower. protein and is sweetened with real dark chocolate.
7. Best Meat Bar: Mighty Bar Grassfed Organic Beef, Cranberry & Sunflower Seed
Organic, grass-fed beef isn't cheap for a reason. Testing shows that when cattle graze on their natural food instead of inflammatory corn, their protein consists of more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids (CLA): fats that have been utilized in weight-loss pills.
8. Best for Men: Clif Bar Whey Protein Salted Caramel Cashew
If you're hungry for a delicious protein boost without sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners or zero-calorie sweeteners, this bar will become your go-to. It's the perfect blend of creamy nut butter and crunchy cashews.
9. Best for women: Health Warrior Organic Pumpkin Seed Bars
"Pumpkin seeds are a great source of plant-based protein, essential fatty acids, and minerals like zinc, iron, and magnesium," says King. And these nutrients are particularly important for women's health. "Zinc plays a crucial role in hormone balance. It has anti-inflammatory properties that help ease period pain, it helps to balance excess androgen levels (like testosterone) that are often seen in PCOS, it helps to clear the skin, plays a vital role in thyroid hormone synthesis, and helps ease the stress response. Magnesium plays a role in regulating blood sugar and insulin levels, in the production of hormones, supports the thyroid, and calms your nervous system to help ease the stress response." Plus, as women are more prone to osteoporosis, adding magnesium-rich pumpkin seeds to your diet will help the formation and maintenance of healthy bones.
10. Best Paleo Protein Bar: EPIC Bar Smoked Maple Bacon
These Paleo, gluten-free bars are made from hormone-free pork and not much else. These high protein snacks are loaded with protein, so enjoy one after your workout to rebuild the muscles broken down during your gym sesh.
11. Best Keto-friendly: Bulletproof Collagen Protein Bar
With nine grams of net carbs, Bulletproof's bar is a bit higher than your average keto protein bar, but it's a worthwhile carb expenditure. Its protein comes from grass-fed collagen, a trendy protein derived from bovine or marine sources (in this case, it's from grass-fed cows). It's particularly beneficial because it "helps to boost collagen production in the body, which has benefits for hair, skin, nails, joints, and gut health," says King. Plus, this bar is rich in MCT oil, which studies show can prevent long-term weight gain due to increased energy expenditure.
While this bar is great for those following the Bulletproof or cyclical keto lifestyle, King also likes to recommend it in general for a snack for those working on blood sugar balance.
12. Best for Fiber: Exo Bar Chocolate Fudge Brownie
It might remind you of Fear Factor, but eating insects is the next big thing. And did we mention that they pack a nutritional wallop? In terms of high-protein snacks, crickets have about as much protein as chicken breast but with three times the calcium. And in this bar, they provide a big chunk of the protein in this bar.
13. Best Indulgence: Luna Protein Mint Chocolate Chip
Gluten-free and made with real chocolate, this Luna protein bar won't just maintain your better body, but it will also help crush those dessert cravings in a healthy way.
14. Most Natural: Rise Bar Lemon Cashew
Just four simple ingredients make up this bar that tastes addictively similar to lemon shortbread: organic cashews, coconut nectar, pea protein, and lemon extract. That's it. Don't you love simple high-protein snacks?
15. Best Whey: Naked Nutrition Peanut Butter
Do you hate reading through ingredient lists on the back of protein bars wondering when you're going to run into a sketchy ingredient or something you know you should avoid? Us too. Which is why we're giving extra points to Naked Nutrition's Naked Bar. This protein bar is made of just five fully transparent ingredients (no "natural flavors" here). Fuel your active lifestyle with this grass-fed whey protein powered bar.
If you wonder which protein bars are not good for you, here are the 7 worst protein bars:
Even though these low-sugar protein bars meet the same low-sugar, high-protein requirements as our best protein bars, they don't meet other important nutritional marks.
The following worst protein bars landed a spot on our list of bars to avoid for numerous reasons:
- They contain more than 10 grams of sugar alcohol, which can have laxative-like effects.
- The protein is from highly-processed sources rather than whole foods.
- The higher fat content is from inflammatory vegetable oils rather than healthy fats like nuts and seeds.
- They contain artificial flavors and/or sweeteners.
1. ThinkThin Chocolate Strawberry
Don't be fooled into thinking you're getting a deal with this sugar-free bar. To compensate for the lack of sugar, thinkThin loads this bar up with sugar alcohols—22 grams exactly. One of those is maltitol, a low-calorie, plant-based sweetener that a study in the International Journal of Dentistry found to be associated with stomach and abdominal pain as well as excessive internal gas and flatulence. Not something that makes us want to eat these high protein snacks.
2. Nature Valley Coconut Almond Protein Chewy Bars
It may look like your favorite of high protein snacks, GORP (good-old fashioned raisins and peanuts) in a bar, but what you're really eating when you chomp down on this Nature Valley bar is more fillers than whole foods. It looks like roasted peanuts and coconut, but more of the protein and fat you see in the nutritionals is from soy protein isolate and palm oil than whole foods.
3. SimplyProtein Bars
SimplyProtein Crispy Lemon Bar
SimplyProtein Baked Chocolate Chip Bar
These bars may be high protein snacks, but their ingredient lists read more like supply lists from a chemistry lab than foods from your pantry: soluble tapioca fiber, vegetable glycerin, and "natural" flavors. None of the ingredients are harmful to your health, but why miss out on the additional health benefits and micronutrients you get from whole foods for the same amount of protein?
4. ZONE Perfect Nutrition Bar Dark Chocolate Almond
Don't be fooled by the name of this bar; the "dark chocolate" is less of what you'd picture in an 85 percent dark chocolate bar and more sugar, alkalized cocoa powder (which renders all antioxidants useless), milk powder and fractionated palm kernel oil (instead of healthy-fat-rich cocoa butter). Not ideal in terms of high-protein snacks.
5. QuestBar Protein Bar Cookies & Cream Flavor
Don't believe everything you read. QuestBar describes this bar as being made "with real cookie crumbles and delicious white chocolate cream," but according to the ingredients, the only place that cream could be lurking is in "natural flavors." Not to mention, the bar may be almost sugar-free, but it's made with a laundry list of additives and chemicals, including artificial sweetener sucralose, and the only whole food is almonds.
6. Pure Protein Chocolate Peanut Butter
Is 20 grams of protein worth having to eat fractionated palm kernel oil, artificial sweeteners, disodium phosphate, natural flavors, and laxative-like sugar alcohols? We think not and say no thanks to this protein bar.
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