A Nutritionist Tells Us The Healthiest Protein Bars You Can Buy At The Grocery Store

If you're looking for a pocket-sized source of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients, you can't do much better than a protein bar. Like many commercially available snacks, however, some protein bars are made with excess sugar or artificial sweeteners which can downgrade their nutritional value. With so many different kinds of protein bars lining store shelves, we spoke to Tamar Samuels, MS, RD, co-founder of Culina Health to help narrow down our selection and identify which protein bars may best support our health.

"Generally speaking, I recommend choosing protein bars that are made with whole or real food ingredients, have minimal ingredients, and are higher in protein and fiber (at least 5 grams each), and low in added sugar," Samuels told Health Digest exclusively. She went on to highlight two of her personal favorite brands: 88 Acres Protein Bars and Rx Bars. Although different flavors may have different amounts of nutrients, Samuels stated that most 88 Acres Protein Bars have 12 or more grams of protein derived from nuts, seeds, and other whole foods. "Calories range from 200 – 300 calories per bar, with minimal added sugar (4 – 7 grams depending on the flavor)," she added. As for Rx Bars, Samuels said they also contain around 12 grams of protein, are made with few ingredients, and have the perk of being free of added sugar.

Look for this on a protein bar's nutrition label

Nutrition labels can offer valuable clues when it comes to picking healthier food items. However, this information isn't always easy to decipher. "Keep in mind that the Nutrition Facts Label shows you how many calories and nutrients there are in one serving of the product," Samuels told us. "If the product contains more than one serving per package, you will need to multiply the number of calories and nutrients by the total number of servings you consume." She broke this down using an example, stating, "Pro Bar has nutrition facts listed for both one serving, half a bar, and for the whole bar, which is 2 servings."

But serving size isn't the only way in which navigating nutrition labels can be challenging. You'll also notice that most ingredients are listed in grams or milligrams. While most countries around the world utilize the metric system, the U.S. does not. "To complicate things further, the percent Daily Value (% DV) only tells us the nutrient composition of a product based on a 2000-calorie daily diet of healthy individuals," Samuels went on to say. "Individual nutrition needs vary widely based on several factors including, medical conditions, physical activity levels, body weight, pregnancy and lactation, gut health, and even the quality of our food." For this reason, different people may be in need of different key nutrients.

Be sure to account for calories and saturated fat

"I don't typically recommend protein bars as meal replacements, but they can be a convenient on-the-go snack," Samuels stated. "If weight loss is your goal, aim for products that have no more than about 200 calories if you intend on having the protein bar as a snack. If weight maintenance or weight gain is your goal 200 – 400 calories is a good range to stay in for a snack." Just remember to factor in the other calories you consume throughout the day, she added.

Saturated fat is also important to keep in mind when choosing a protein bar. "Saturated fat has been shown to raise LDL cholesterol, the 'bad cholesterol' that is linked to heart disease for predisposed individuals," Samuels explained. "If you have or are at risk for heart disease, research suggests that reducing your saturated fat intake to less than 7% of your total calories each day can lower your LDL cholesterol." More specifically, she noted that the American Heart Association (AHA) advises keeping one's saturated fat consumption to no more than 5% or 6% of one's calorie intake. "Aim for products that have lower amounts of saturated fat and work with a Registered Dietitian to determine how much saturated fat you should limit yourself to each day to reduce your risk of heart disease," Samuels encouraged.

Be mindful of trans fat, sodium, and added sugar

Like saturated fat, trans fat is also known to raise bad cholesterol as well as reduce our good cholesterol. "Keep this number at 0 when looking at nutrition labels. Even small amounts of trans fat increase your risk for heart disease," Samuels cautioned. "If you see 'partially hydrogenated' on a food label, this is an indicator that there are trans-fats present in the product."

While it may enhance the flavor, you'll also want to be mindful of protein bars made with added sugar. "Too much added sugar can lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes," Samuels explained. "Overtime, excess intake of added sugar can also increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain." Therefore, it's best to keep our sugar consumption to a minimum. "To help decrease your added sugar intake, choose protein bars that have no more than 5 grams per serving," Samuels advised.

Just like some protein bars come with added sugar, some come with excess sodium. This, too, can boost one's susceptibility to cardiovascular disease as well as water retention, particularly for people with high blood pressure. "While we need some sodium each day, many packaged foods including protein bars are high in sodium," Samuels told Health Digest. "Choose low sodium products containing no more than 140 milligrams per serving."

Prioritize fiber and protein

While saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar, and sodium can all potentially increase our risk of health issues, fiber can oppositely help us combat disease. "There are numerous benefits of a high fiber diet, including weight loss, better gut health, and prevention and management of heart disease and type 2 diabetes," Samuels stated. "The recommended intake of dietary fiber for the average individual is 30-38 grams per day for men, and at least 21-25 grams per day for women." To help reach these numbers, Samuels suggests buying protein bars that contain 5 or more grams of fiber.

True to its name, we also want to prioritize protein content. "Protein is important for keeping us full, and maintaining strong muscles, hair, and nails," said Samuels. For this reason, we want to be getting protein from a variety of sources. "Talk to your RD about how much protein you need each day. In general, aim for about 20-30 grams at meals, and 8-10 grams at snacks to keep you feeling satisfied throughout the day."

Concluding our exclusive interview, Samuels reiterated her key tips for choosing a healthy protein bar. "Choose products that contain ingredients you recognize and are mostly whole foods like oats, dates, nuts, and seeds. Avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oil, which contain trans fats that are harmful to heart health." In closing, she stated, "The fewer ingredients the better and make sure the first ingredient listed is a health promoting food and not added sugar."