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 sports 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.
Grenade Carb Killa
Our favourite bar: Jaffa Quake
The Jaffa Quake bar makes a solid first impression, mainly because I was braced for it to be very sweet, and it isn’t. In fact it’s a little bland, which can never be said of real jaffa cakes. But then real jaffa cakes are not high in protein – they’re full of delicious jaffa. The Grenade bars are chewy, but not offensively so. That’s the best way to describe them all round to be honest – inoffensive.
The fine details:
Hello fibre! A chunky 6.8g of the stuff in each 60g bar, which is just lovely to see. The protein count is impressive too at 21.8g, while carbs (16.2g) and sugars (2g) are kept low. Tip of the hat to Grenade here – the nutritionals are solid.
Strippd Protein Cookie
Our favourite bar/cookie: Chocolate
A fine approximation of a cookie, this. The chocolate flavour is rich and fulfilling – I felt fulfilled, anyway – and it’s moist, which is a hard trick to pull off in a protein-filled baked good. Strippd also does a vanilla flavour cookie, and sells flapjack mix if you want to make your own post-workout snacks.
The fine details:
As I ate the Strippd Protein Cookie I suspected there would be a high sugar price to pay for its fine taste, and I wasn’t wrong – 19.7g per 75g cookie. Wowsers. Protein comes in at 15g, and carbs at 36.1g. This is definitely one to consider a treat, then, but there’s good news to be found in the fibre column – 6.5g of good news, to be precise.
£19.99 for a box of 12, buy on strippd-uk.com
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.
£20.99 for box of 12 bars, buy on myprotein.com
Our favourite bar: Pro X Brownie Flavour
It’s not going to fool anyone in a blind taste test with a real brownie, but this is a decent approximation which will satisfy the post-workout munchies. It’s a bit chewier than we’d like, but not so much that it takes a full ten minutes to finish eating.
The fine details: At 19g of protein for 196 calories and just 1.2g of sugars, this ersatz brownie is undoubtedly healthier than the real thing. However, what really got us excited – and excited is the right word – is the 6.7 of fibre each bar packs in.
£24.99 for box of 12 bars, buy on nutritionx.co.uk
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.