They ain’t cheap and can contain more calories and sugar than chocolate bars. Choose wisely with our expert’s guide and top picks.
Protein is so much more convenient these days. Where once gym-goers had to tuck into a couple of rotisserie chickens to refuel their muscles after a hefty workout, they can now mix up a protein shake or, more convenient still, tuck into a protein bar.
Protein bars are now widely available, involve zero preparation, and generally taste good enough to seem like a treat as well as a way to help build muscle. However, there are downsides to protein bars, mainly involving the diamond-hard texture of some of them, and you need to be careful not to overindulge because they’re not simply a guilt-free replacement to chocolate. Read on for the full lowdown on what to look for in a protein bar and a few of our favourites.
Protein Bars Buyer’s Guide
Before you start grabbing fistfuls of bars it’s important to know what you should be looking for. The headline is obviously how much protein they contain, but as with all processed food you have to be careful to avoid hidden nutritional nasties. To help determine what you need to check, we enlisted Kurtis Frank from nutrition and supplement encyclopaedia examine.com.
What should people look for when choosing a protein bar?
“The main factors for choosing a protein bar would be taste, macronutrient composition – how many carbs, proteins and fats there are – and price,” says Frank.
Most protein bars will deliver somewhere between 15g and 25g of protein. Beyond that, you want to look at how much protein you are getting per calorie.
“For macronutrient composition, most bars are either just under 200 calories while giving 15g of protein or are around 250 calories for 25g of protein,” says Frank.
“Both these options are good for overall health and performance since, at the end of the day, they should only be making up a small percentage of your total calories.”
Also make sure you are actually buying a protein bar, not a general energy bar that’s aimed at endurance activities where loads of carbs are required.
“There are quite a few performance bars out there, such as Clif bars, that are meant for snacks during athletics such as biking or hiking,” says Frank.
“They're pretty much all carbs so they don’t work as a protein bar to eat at work or between meals.”
The price of protein bars can vary hugely, and there will be monstrously bad ones at the cheaper end of things. However, if you can find a cheap bar you like, it will obviously help you save money and there are bargains available, especially if you shop online.
“When it comes to price, a premium protein bar can easily be one of the most expensive things in your diet on a per-calorie basis,” says Frank.
“They aren’t cheap, but the cheap ones also tend to taste worse and be made with poorer ingredients so it ultimately ends up being a balancing act based on your preferences and how much you are willing to spend. It is always worth it to at least try the cheaper bars since they might taste good to you and end up saving you money.
“Aim to get a decent amount of protein per calorie and don’t spend too much money unless you need to. If you’ve found a brand you really like then consider buying in bulk online as you can save a lot that way.”
What difference does the type of protein make?
Protein brands will offer many varieties in their bars, and the terms used can be pretty confusing for the layman. Luckily, it shouldn’t matter too much which protein is in your bar.
“The different types of protein matter much less in a protein bar than they do in shakes,” says Frank, “since the rate of absorption for proteins are inherently slowed when put into a solid form and paired with dietary fats and fibres.
“The types of protein with higher biological values [the percentage of the protein that is absorbed by your body] are still technically better but ultimately they're all close enough that debating about milk protein concentrate versus whey isolate is irrelevant.”
A couple of things you should look out on the label is whether there is a high amount of gelatine or soy concentrate, says Frank.
“The only real ways that the protein type is relevant is if there is a high gelatine content, which provides amino acids and appears as protein on a nutritional label but is not a nourishing protein type, or if you're getting 30g of soy concentrate, since in high doses there could be a mild oestrogenic effect [ie it will raise your levels of oestrogen, the female sex hormone] and 30g of the protein is a pretty high dose. Keep in mind soy lecithin is not soy protein and is totally fine in a protein bar.”
Should you be wary of calories and sugar in protein bars?
It’s easy to view your protein bar as a healthy snack, especially as you’ll regularly eat it before or after a gym visit and won’t be so concerned about keeping tabs on your food. However, they can contain more calories and sugar than you might expect, as we found out in our taste test.
“You definitely should be worried about calories and sugars in protein bars,” says Frank, “just as much as you would with candy bars. Just because it can be seen as healthy doesn't make its consumption a free pass to be omitted from your dietary logs or calorie counts.”
On the other hand, you can also pick up protein bars that contain unexpected health bonuses, especially when it comes to upping your fibre intake.
“It is usually a good idea to get at least 5g of dietary fibre in a protein bar,” says Frank. “It helps it go down better, and a lot of us need help to get a decent amount of fibre in our diets.”
What else should you look out for in a protein bar?
Reading the label on protein bars won’t tell you anything about the texture. The worst of them can be rock-hard and leave you chewing for hours.
“Whether or not it can be used as a brick cannot easily be conveyed through the label,” says Frank. “It will ultimately require some taste testing to find out which ones can break a window when thrown.
“Sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol are more common in the cheaper protein bars that are looking to reduce calories by swapping natural sugars out for these ones. While they can be consumed in moderation and aren't necessarily bad, they can definitely cause gastrointestinal upset in some people. If you're eating a protein bar before exercise, this is the last thing you want.”
The Best Protein Bars
Armed with this knowledge about what to look for in protein bars, we bravely chomped our way through as many as possible. Many brands offer a huge range of different bars, so we picked our favourite to eat, based on taste and texture, and then looked into the macronutrients it offered. In no particular order, here are our favourite protein bars.
Grenade Carb Killa
Our favourite bar: Birthday Cake
The bar has multi-coloured sprinkles on it, which immediately makes it a winner in our book. The flavour is reminiscent of white chocolate mixed with icing, but nowhere near as cloyingly sweet as that sounds – it’s actually very pleasant. Make no mistake, if this was produced as your actual birthday cake, you’d feel let down, but it’s a great treat to have after a workout.
The fine details: The 60g Carb Killa bar delivers 20g of protein for 218 calories, and each contains just 1.7g of sugar, with sucralose used as the sweetener. The birthday cake flavour contains just 1.8g of fibre in each bar, which is less than other options – the Jaffa Quake packs in 6.8g per bar – but then to our knowledge it contains 100% more sprinkles than any other flavour, so swings and roundabouts.
OTE Protein Bar
Our favourite bar: Milk Chocolate Peanut
We won’t lie to you, this is a dry one. The texture is a little pasty, which is never what you want, and the peanut butter only adds to that. Have a glass of water handy. Plus, more chocolate is required.
The fine details: So, if it doesn’t taste great, why is it here? It’s because the 45g bar packs in 22.4g of protein for just 159 calories, which, according to OTE, is the best protein-to-calories ratio on the market. It’s the best we’ve seen for sure.
NamedSport Crunchy Protein Bar
Our favourite bar: Dark Orange
We like a bit of crunch in our protein bar, because many of them stray into the way-too-chewy category, and the texture of NamedSport’s bar certainly lives up to its moniker. The flavour is excellent too, with the orange bringing plenty of zing to the party.
The fine details: Not the highest protein content you’ll find, at only 13g for a 40g bar, but the calories are also low at 152.
Our favourite bar: Chocolate Cherry Almond
You really can’t go wrong with chocolate, cherry and almond. The taste is excellent, and the bar’s texture is spot on too. Crispy and immensely satisfying.
The fine details: At just 35g this is one of the smaller bars we’ve tried and the calorie count is kept low as a result – just 151. Consequently, at 10g per bar the protein content isn’t that high either. But despite packing in plenty of chocolate chips and dried cherries, the amount of sugar is also low at 6g, and the 4g of fibre is music to our ears.
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Our favourite bar: Choc Orange
If it didn’t have “protein bar” written on the packaging we wouldn’t have considered it for this round-up as it’s packing meagre amounts of the stuff. We’re glad we deigned to try it, though, because it is the most delicious bar here. Both sea salt caramellow and choc orange flavours are built on a tasty fruit, nut and seed bar, but the latter throws in orange oil and a cocoa top layer. That’s right, cocoa and not chocolate – this is a bar vegans can safely wolf down.
The fine details: Are you ready? Remember it’s tasty as heck. Protein registers, barely, at 6.4g for 198 calories and since it’s all “real” food the lack of sweeteners means sugar ranks high, with 12g in every 40g bar. And because nuts are the main ingredient fat is a punchy 13g, though only 3.6g of that is saturated.
MyProtein Carb Crusher
Our favourite bar: Carb Crusher Strawberry Cheesecake
MyProtein seems to have developed the knack of making what could be disgustingly sweet flavours remarkably pleasant. That was the case with its PRO BAR Elite Toffee Vanilla, and the brand has repeated the feat with this strawberry cheesecake bar, which scores high for both its taste and its not-too-chewy texture.
The fine details: Our hats aren’t just off here, they’re hovering several feet above our head, because MyProtein has found space for 11g of fibre in a 60g bar. Lovely to see. Our hats did return slightly closer to Earth when we discovered the 2.7g of sugars, but still, that’s not very much sugar. On the protein front you get 21g and there are 212 calories in each bar. A nice bonus comes in the shape of a whole load of vitamins and minerals that MyProtein has chucked into the mix. There’s around 100% of your recommended daily allowance of 20 different vitamins and minerals, in fact.
The HiLo Bar
Our favourite bar: Dark chocolate and mint crunch
The first time we opened the dark chocolate and mint crunch bar we were hit with a knee-trembling whiff of rich chocolate. The bar stood up to the taste test too, although it couldn’t escape that protein supplement aftertaste – unlike the milk chocolate and caramel option, which didn’t scale the taste highs but deftly sidestepped the lows.
The fine details: 20g of protein for 190 calories is strong stuff, 9.6g of fibre is top-notch as is the 1.1g of sugar, and the bar even provides your recommended daily intake of five vitamins and throws in some minerals for good measure. While it’s a very different experience from the MyProtein Carb Crusher above, it’s got a very similar nutritional profile.
Optimum Nutrition Whipped Bites
Our favourite bar: Chocolate
These guys are not afraid to be different. Rather than one large bar, the Whipped Bites come as TWO smaller bars. And the bars look like mini rolls. So far, so exciting. And they back up their mini-roll looks with a rich chocolatey taste and a not-too-chewy texture. It’s a winner all round.
The fine details: You get the standard 20g of protein per 76g bar, with the calorie count a reasonable 243. Fibre is strong at 7g and there’s only 1.9g of sugar.
Eat Natural Protein Packed
Our favourite bar: Peanuts And Chocolate
Unlike supplement companies who move to protein bars from protein powders, Eat Natural have a snack bar heritage which means its protein offering should be especially tasty. And it is – it tastes like a crunchy cereal bar, with chunks of dark chocolate and coconut. The catch is that you get a lot less protein…
The fine details: Just 10g of protein per 45g bar, a little under what most people like to put away straight after a heavy workout session. As a way to top up your protein intake during the day, however, Eat Natural bars are a better snack than biscuits or cake, but keep an eye on the sugar – each bar contains 8.4g. Finally, the fibre – a decent 3.3g per bar.
SiS Protein Bar
Our favourite bar: Mint chocolate
Think of this as the best version you can get of the traditional protein bar. It’s chewy – really clamp-that-jaw-down chewy – and swerves the artificial sweeteners, although that does mean there’s a hefty dose of sugar. That’s why we’d plump for the mint flavour – it balances out the sweetness nicely. On the plus side, it packs in a mix of proteins (whey, casein and soy), plus it’s sporting the Informed-Sport mark.
The fine details: There’s a healthy 20g of protein in the 220 calories, but 17g of sugars and a meagre 1.1g of fibre.
Our favourite bar: Dark chocolate mint
Some protein bars and brands will forever be associated with extremely hench men and women, but Staxx is your friendly, pick-me-up-by-the-supermarket-checkout kinda bar. Branding aside, the make-up of these bars is no different to the muscle-building sort. They have improved on the texture though, with a beguiling combination of a crisp top layer and dense, chewy centre. The peanut and caramel flavour does a decent approximation of a Snickers, but the new dark chocolate mint is the real standout.
The fine details: The dark chocolate mint flavour has just 0.7g of sugar, claiming the crown for the lowest levels on this list. Protein clocks in at 20g, which is bang on the money for a 222-calorie bar, and there’s a decent 6.6g serving of trusty fibre.
Barebells Protein Bar
Our favourite bar: Coconut-choco
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but Barebells’ design is worth precisely one – “lifestyle”, with a premium 1950s Americana look that’s undeniably alluring. However, the flavours are a bit of let-down – the salty peanut is lacking in salt and the milky aftertaste of the proteins tends to dominate across the range. If pushed, we’ll recommend the coconut-choco because the topping of desiccated coconut is a nice touch.
The fine details: It’s another of the new breed of bars with very low sugar, just 1.6g, and with 20g of protein in just 199 calories it’s punching above its weight class. There’s also a respectable 3.9g of fibre per 55g bar.
Maximuscle Promax Lean
Our favourite bar: Chocolate Mint
The packet bashfully says low sugar. We say “bashfully” because it’s got one of the lowest sugar content of any bar on this list, with a mere 1g per 55g bar. It’s quite the achievement since the bars still taste like a sweet treat and somehow they’ve been able to mask the gross aftertaste of protein powder. While both Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel Flavours have fans in the Coach office, Chocolate Mint is the most impressive with its tangy mint notes and a sprinkling of cocoa puffs on top.
The fine details: A perfectly respectable 20g of protein is complemented by a hefty 7.5g of fibre per bar. The Promax Lean is going to be a tough act to follow.
The Primal Pantry
Our favourite bar: Cocoa Brownie
Vegans aren’t always well served by protein bar makers, but these bars buck the trend by using hemp protein. Not vegan? You may still want to pick these bars because while making a virtue of being made from “real food” may be groan-inducing, the consistency is real nice. The Mixed Berry flavour has a pleasant tang but Cocoa Brownie edges it by tasting like the real thing.
The fine details: The 15g of protein per bar is an impressive tally given they couldn’t lean on whey protein as an ingredient, but – holy sweet tooth Batman! – sugar clocks in at 20g. To be fair, that’ll be the dates, but still, that’s a lot of sugar.
Our favourite bar: Chilli & Red Pepper
Heavens to Betsy, what’s this? A protein bar made with something you’d recognise as real food? Prime beef, no less! These bars are designed to be eaten on the go during ultramarathons and other endurance events. To help it go down, the beef is deliciously moist and the flavour puts it miles ahead of artificial alternatives, with a warming kick from the chilli.
The fine details: The Prime Bar might not rack up the same protein count as the other bars on this list, with 12g per 50g bar, and there’s 5.5g of sugar and 1.25g of salt in each one, but it’s the taste that counts here.
Sens Protein Bar
Our favourite bar: Peanut Butter & Cinnamon
Crickets are the ethically sound protein source of the future, requiring 12 times less feed, 15 times less land and 2,000 times less water to produce the same amount of protein as cattle. They also produce 100 times less greenhouse gases than cows thanks to all the farting and burping done by the latter. Do crickets fart and burp? Presumably, but less than cows, at least.
Why enlighten you so? Because this protein bar is 20% cricket, which is great news for the planet and also for you, because crickets are flavourless. This allows the delicious cinnamon taste to come through with force. The texture is dry and crumbly, but it’s not a problem providing you have a drink to hand to wash it down. It’s like halva, if you’ve ever had that. If you haven’t, try halva. It’s delicious, like this bar.
The fine details: Crickets pack in the protein to the tune of 20g per 60g bar. The fibre content is modest at 1.6g, while sugars are fairly high at 7.4g, and the overall calorie count is sizeable at 318. Still though, crickets! What a time to be alive.
Our favourite bar: 53% Coconut
This. Is. Incredible. The texture is perfect, no more chewy than any non-protein chocolate bar, and the taste is a coconut sensation. It’s a hench Bounty bar. In fact, all of Multipower’s 53% and 40% bars impressed when it comes to taste and texture – they’re thin and easy to eat.
The fine details: There’s more good news here. Despite their svelte shape, the 53% Coconut bars contain 27g of protein for 210 calorie. There’s only 1.5g of sugars too, but the fibre content isn’t listed, so there’s one black mark.
Our favourite bar: Maximuscle Oat & Raisin Progain Flapjack
There are a lot of options in the Max Nutrition protein bar range. Many of them fall into the too chewy category, but not this oaty treat. Flapjacks are one of the finest foods available and this protein-filled version does them justice.
The fine details: As you’d expect from a flapjack, the calorie count is high at 305 per bar. The protein tally is a respectable 20g, but there’s also 41.2g of carbs including 7.8g of sugar to consider, so these have to be classed as an energy-providing treat to use before or after your more intense workouts. One big plus is the 6.9g of fibre they pack in. That’s over a fifth of your recommended 30g a day.
Our favourite bar: Pro2Go Duo Caramel & Vanilla
This is aimed squarely at those with a sweet tooth, but if you do enjoy something sugary post-workout, it’ll hit the spot and then some. The level of chewiness is just about perfect.
The fine details: The sugar levels are menacingly high at 11g per bar. In contrast, the fibre levels clock in at precisely 0g, which isn’t great. The protein-to-calories ratio isn’t the best either, at 20g for 221 calories. They are inordinately sweet though, so if that floats your boat they’re hard to beat.
Our favourite bar: PRO BAR Elite Toffee Vanilla
Toffee vanilla is a flavour that normally makes teeth itch before you even take a bite, but these bars actually keep a lid on their sweetness. More impressive still is the texture, which hits the sweet spot of being satisfying without having to chew until your jaw aches.
The fine details: Hats off to MyProtein – this is a strong all-rounder in the nutritional stakes. There’s 26g of protein for 231 calories, a not unreasonable sugar tally of 3.9g, and a solid 3.9g of fibre.
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Our favourite bar: Cacao Orange
Its chewy, dense texture is one of the most satisfying of the protein bars we tried, and despite the massive amounts of sugar involved it doesn’t taste cloying. We could (and have) eaten a lot of these.
The fine details: Unfortunately the ratio of protein to calories and sugar is off the charts, and not in a good way. You get 16.2g of protein for 251 calories and a monstrous 15.1g of sugar with these guys, all of which is only partially compensated by the 3.3g of fibre and assorted vitamins and minerals they contain.
Nutrition X Pro X
Our favourite bar: White chocolate
Nutrition X has doubled the available flavours in its Pro X range. Where once you were stuck with brownie flavour, you can now choose between that and white chocolate. While the former isn’t going to fool anyone in a blind taste test with a real brownie, the latter does taste like white chocolate with a thin caramel filling and a slight crunch thanks to the soy crisps.
If you’re an Olympian in waiting, it’s also worth mentioning the range is Informed-Sport accredited so you shouldn’t fall foul of testing positive for something on the World Anti-Doping Agency banned substance list. Well, not from eating these bars, at least.
The fine details: At very nearly 20g of protein for 200 calories and just 2.3g of sugars, this ersatz white chocolate bar is undoubtedly healthier than the real thing. However, what really got us excited – and excited really is the right word – is the 5.7g of fibre each bar packs in.
Written by Nick Harris-Fry for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected]
Featured image provided by Coach