While nutrition bars can be part of a busy, healthy lifestyle, there are a few good reasons they’re not stocked next to the kale and blueberries at your grocery store.
Many are made with cheap, low-quality ingredients and are hiding tons of sugar and additives that can cause digestive distress and prevent absorption of important nutrients says Ariane Hundt, MS, a star Clinical Nutritionist and founder of Brooklyn Bridge Boot Camp.
To help you avoid those and grab the healthiest one the next time you really need portable protein, we asked Hundt to help us evaluate close to 40 of the most popular bars on the market, based on ingredient lists, nutrient balance, sugar content, and more.
Read on for the five best and worst nutrition bars currently available, plus a bonus selection of “snack” bars that have less protein but are great for a quick pick-me-up bite when you need it. —Lisa Elaine Held; research by Emily Karr
Superfood chia seeds are the protein powerhouse ingredient in this bar, and many of its other clean, whole-food, plant-based ingredients are organic. It has 10g of protein and 5g of fiber to balance out the sugar, plus an omega 3 boost you’ll get from the chia. “This is great for people who want something that’s crunchy and slightly sweet for a snack,” Hundt says (and for vegans!). “It’s delicious and well-balanced in terms of the ingredients.”
(Photo: Health Warrior)
“The great thing about this one is just the high fiber and protein content,” Hundt says, referring to 17g and 20g, respectively, packed into just 170 calories. Quality ingredients like almonds, coconut, sea salt, and whey protein isolate also satisfy other nutrition requirements, although they’re not organic. One note: Hundt says to steer clear of Quest’s bars that contain sucralose, like the popular Cookies & Cream.
Hundt discovered this Austin-based brand recently and fell hard for the tasty, low-sugar, gluten-free bars made with mostly organic ingredients and whey protein from grass-fed cows. This chocolatey one has 14g of protein, 7g of fiber, and added fish oil (that you don’t taste!) for the essential fatty acids.
“One of the things that athletes eat during long endurance events is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and this bar tastes almost like the real deal,” Hundt says, of this bar she recommends for right after a really tough workout (or during a super long bike ride), because of its higher sugar content. It comes with natural ingredients and 15g of protein and tastes “fantastic.”
(Photo: Bonk Breaker)
Perfect for a Paleo eater (who loves jerky), Epic’s bars have only a few ingredients and are literally meaty. This one comes with 11g of protein from nutrient-dense, lean, organic, grass-fed bison meat and uncured bacon, and the only sugar is from dried cranberries. “It’s very clean, and sodium can be helpful after a workout to refuel lost electrolytes,” Hundt says. (Just be warned: if you’re not into chewy hunks of meat, it’s not for you.)
This “bar for women” has more sugar than both protein and fiber and is filled with processed soy in many forms. While some of those are organic, the very first ingredient listed (which means it makes up the highest percentage of the bar) is ultra-processed “soy rice crisps” made with non-organic soy protein isolate, AKA likely GMO soy drenched in pesticides. It also contains “natural flavor” which can disguise many unhealthy additives you don’t want. “They’re just using really cheap ingredients,” Hundt says.
When corn syrup is listed twice on an ingredient list (in addition to sugar), take that as a warning sign. This is another bar where Hundt says you can tell the company is using super cheap ingredients, and non-organic, processed soy is the very first one. “And then they add so many vitamins that you don’t need or want,” she says.
Twenty gram of protein is a great number, but not when that protein is from cheap, processed sources and paired with canola oil and “natural” flavors. Also, “caseinate” ingredients (calcium caseinate, sodium caseinate), can actually suppress mineral absorption, Hundt says, and while the 0g of sugar may intrigue you, the sugar alcohols used to sweeten this bar may do a number on your gut. “All that sugar alcohol, if you eat a lot of it, it will upset your digestion, make you gassy, and give you diarrhea,” she says. Think “no, thanks.”
Hundt calls this bar “syrup, syrup, syrup” for its whopping 27g of sugar from a variety of sweeteners like cane invert syrup, fructose syrup, and malitol syrup. It’s also got lots of processed, non-organic soy, a combination that’s not likely to power you through any workout (or towards long-term health). “That’s going to cause you some digestive issues, for sure,” Hundt says. “I can’t see it sitting in your stomach well.”
“I don’t think you need to add vitamins unless you’re trying to cover up the low-quality ingredients,” Hundt says of this bar, which she says is another example of a syrupy, fructose-laden, processed-GMO-soy bar, but boasts its “23 vitamins and minerals” to entice you. What your body will definitely absorb: tons of unhealthy oils and sugar.
(Photo: Balance Bar)
Bonus Good-For-You Snack Bars!
These three runner-up picks are less substantial, so they won’t necessarily fill you up or function as post-workout fuel, but they’re great for a quick afternoon snack.
An option for raw foodies that Hundt likes because it has “only a few ingredients and is organic.”
“It’s a well-balanced snack bar, good ingredients, and low on the sugar,” she says. And major bonus: these are super easy to find, from Starbucks to local delis.
“It’s not going to be very filling, but the ingredients look pretty good,” Hundt says. “It’s a balanced bar for weight maintenance.” Not to mention its give-back mission, which is good for your heart.
Originally published July 16, 2012, updated July 29, 2015.
Not feeling the store-bought kind? Here’s why you should make your own nutrition bars (and how to do it).