Eating protein bars can be a great way to boost your protein intake, help you build lean muscle, and support your workouts and body composition goals. However, not all protein bars are created equal. Sorry to burst your bubble, but some of them are little more than health-halo-wearing candy bars, packing more added sugar and artificial ingredients than you’ll find in junk foods…and hardly any protein at all. That’s why it’s essential to understand what’s printed on the nutrition labels.
Even the most nutritionally sound protein bars support distinct nutritional needs, so it’s important to match your protein bar with your individual goals, says board-certified sports dietitian Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D., assistant professor of nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University.
Here are the most common types of protein bars—and how to make each one work for you. (We even selected our go-to bars from The Vitamin Shoppe for each category.)
Pre- Or Post-Workout
For a protein bar that’s perfect before or after your workout, look for about 15 to 25 grams of protein and a higher amount of carbohydrates (around 40 grams). “To fuel your workouts and exercise recovery, a bar with roughly twice as many grams of carbohydrates as protein is ideal,” says Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia.
“A lot of these bars will contain sugar, brown rice syrup, or corn syrup as one of the first ingredients on the list in order to boost carb content and fuel your exercise,” Pritchett says. “Meanwhile, bars made with a ‘whole foods’ approach may use dates as their primary carbohydrate source.”
Workout bars also tend to be relatively low in fiber and fat, both of which can slow the delivery of glucose and amino acids to your muscles, she says. While glucose (from carbohydrates) is vital to keeping your energy levels up throughout exercise and improving performance, both glucose and amino acids (from protein) help your body to recover following exercise and get the most out of every workout. Opt for a bar with 200 calories or less.
The Vitamin Shoppe pick: The Orgain S’Mores Plant Based Protein Bar is a lower-calorie option with that 2:1 carbs to protein ratio and lower amounts of fat and fiber than most protein bars at five and six grams.
These bars are good for people with diabetes who follow a carb-counting diet, as well as for individuals trying to lose weight with minimal exercise. Look for a bar that contains about 15 to 20 grams of protein and zero to 20 grams of carbohydrates, Pritchett says. If you are eating low-carb bars as a snack, or are trying to lose weight, cap calories at 200, she adds.
Also, it’s especially important to check the ingredients label of low-carb bars, as many contain artificial sweeteners and inulin/chicory root (a highly fermentable prebiotic fiber that feeds the bacteria in your gut), both of which can cause gas and bloating in some people, she says.
The Vitamin Shoppe pick: The Quest Double Chocolate Chunk bar comes in at 180 calories, 13 grams net carbs, and 20 grams protein. It’s the ultimate bar for chocolate lovers.
These bars can help you get three square meals per day if you don’t have time to cook or have a sit-down meal. Balanced meal-replacement bars contain between 300 and 400 calories, about 50 percent from carbs, 30 percent from protein, and 20 from fat, White says. So for a 400-calorie bar, that’s roughly 50 grams of carbs, 30 grams of protein, and nine grams of fat. Bars with at least five grams of fiber will help keep you full until your next meal, he adds.
Also check the label for calcium, potassium, folate, iron, as well as vitamins A, C, and D, White says. Getting an array of vitamins and minerals is critical to any balanced diet.
The Vitamin Shoppe pick: The Organic Food Bar is 330 calories and contains 33 grams carbs, 22 grams protein, and nine grams fat. This bar uses brown rice protein and whole ingredients like almond butter and dates.
Vegan, Soy-Free, Dairy-Free, Gluten-Free, or Organic
No matter your dietary preferences or restrictions, there’s a bar—workout, low-carb, or meal-replacement—that will fit your needs. Check the front label to determine if it’s free of animal products, soy, dairy, gluten, or non-organic ingredients.
So what does it actually mean if you see the word “organic” on the label? In order for a bar to state that claim along with the USDA stamp of approval, 95 percent or more of the bar’s ingredients must be organic. If it says “Made with organic ingredients,” it means that at least 70 percent of the bar’s ingredients are organic; the remaining 30 percent must be produced without genetically modified organisms or pesticides,” Pritchett says. Only “100 percent organic” designates bars that are made using all organic ingredients and processing methods, she adds.The Vitamin Shoppe pick: The 22 Days Nut Butter Buddha vegan protein bar is certified organic, and gluten, soy, and dairy free. Cashew and sunflower butters give it a super creamy texture.