At this time, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have any rules on what constitutes a “protein bar.” This means that the food could have 1 gram of protein or 20 and companies can still market it as a protein bar. You may also hear these products called “energy bars.” These products are definitely trending. For many, these protein or energy bars are really convenient. Television commercials show novice hikers on a trail in the wilderness stopping for a break and chomping on one of these protein bars for a quick snack before tackling the next leg of their trip. I still remember days when these bars would be marketed mostly to hikers and athletes. But because they are so darn convenient and many of them quite tasty, food companies realized there’s a much bigger market out there.
In fact, I happened to be cruising along the cereal aisle at my local grocery store the other day and was amazed at how many varieties of protein bars there are. That day in particular, I had to make a few stops: I needed to go to Trader Joe’s because I like some of their produce better than many of the larger supermarkets (Trader Joe’s, for those of you that may not be familiar, calls itself a neighborhood grocery store, but has chains all over the U.S. It’s basically a supermarket but on a smaller scale and they manufacturer many of their own prepackaged foods). Then, I needed to go to Costco, which is one of those large membership-only warehouse club stores. I like to go to Costco to buy those large tubs of mixed nuts since that’s my daily afternoon snack.
Anyhoo, during my shopping spree, I couldn’t help but notice all of the varieties of protein and energy bars available. At the supermarket, these bars took up nearly half of the cereal aisle–and those shelves were packed from top to bottom! Trader Joe’s had their own selection, albeit not nearly as many. Then Costco had even more options, and because it’s Costco, you could buy like a box of a thousand protein bars for one low price! No wonder there’s so much confusion over these things! But, I digress…
The bottom line with regards to whether these bars are actually nutritious is this: some are and some aren’t. Some products are a good source of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. Others, from a nutritional standpoint, more closely resemble a Three Musketeers bar.
Here’s what to look for before purchasing a protein or energy bar:
- Fiber content – aim for at least 3 grams of dietary fiber per serving
- Protein – the bar should contain 10 to 20 grams of protein per serving
- Ingredients – look at the first 5 ingredients on the ingredients list. Remember, ingredients are listed by weight. The first ingredient listed is what that food is made mostly of by weight. By looking at the first 5 ingredients, it will give you a pretty good picture of what that product is made mostly of. I like this trick because you won’t even need to try and do the math when it comes to figuring out whether there’s a lot of added sugar, for example. The first few ingredients should ideally be real foods like nuts and fruit. If the first 5 ingredients contain the words, “sugar,” “syrup,” or “chocolate,” you may want to keep shopping. If the product has more than 5 ingredients, just know it probably contains some additives or manufactured preservatives.
- Calories – aim for a bar that contains between 100 and 200 calories per serving. For athletes, or those hikers I mentioned before, going up to 500 calories is acceptable if the bar is meant as a meal replacement. If it’s supposed to be snack, then 100 to 200 calories is best.
In general, if you can pack your own snack, like an apple and string cheese, or a banana and peanut or almond butter, you will likely be better off. But if you’re in a hurry and need something quick, I don’t mind when folks use some of these protein or energy bars as a quick snack. I just prefer they don’t make it a habit.