It’s snack time. What’s your go-to choice? If you’re on the move, chances are you’re looking for something convenient and, of course, portable. Nutrition matters, too—so vending machine junk and fast food don’t make the cut. For many of us, a protein bar is an ideal option. But with so many varieties to choose from, how do you know which ones are best?
Checking a protein bar’s label for wholesome food ingredients is a good place to start. Depending on your dietary needs, there are some things you’ll know you want to include—or to avoid. The trouble is, some ingredients may be unrecognizable to you. Rather than taking chances, it’s best to brush up on common food additives so you can make the best decision for your health.
Here are some of the most common less-than-healthy ingredients found in popular protein bars:
Sugar alcohols. Xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol and other sugar alcohols are often used to sweeten sugar-free foods, including sports and protein bars. For some people, these sugars can cause intestinal gas, leading to irritable bowel symptoms such as intestinal pain, constipation or diarrhea. (Some people, however, don’t have adverse reactions to these ingredients, so they can be consumed without worry of side effects.)
Carrageenan. A seaweed derivative that’s used as an emulsifier in many products, carrageenan is often found in protein bars. It has been known to cause intestinal irritation in many people. Always check the label for this ingredient if you suspect that it’s a problem for you.
Soy. Frequently found in protein bars, soy can be an allergen for some people. And if it isn’t organic, you can count on it containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Sugar and high fructose corn syrup. These are included in many protein bars, and they add unwanted calories that can quickly increase your waistline. They can also feed unhealthy yeast and bacteria, adversely affect cholesterol and promote inflammation.
Casein and whey. If you’re allergic to dairy products, or have an intolerance to them, you need to avoid eating these two ingredients.
Other miscellaneous synthetic ingredients. Many protein bars contain various preservatives and chemical compounds to make them last longer and taste better. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend that you avoid protein bars if you have no idea what the ingredients are, and you don’t know how to pronounce their names. If it doesn’t come from a food source you recognize, don’t eat it.
Now that you have a short list of ingredients to avoid, let’s consider some of the healthiest protein bars on the market that come from organic, real-food sources. These include bars made with natural sugars such as agave syrup or sweetened with the fruits that they’re made with, bars that contain nuts and seeds (potentially a great source of healthy fat and protein), and bars made from raw foods. These are my top picks:
Optimum Nutrition Opti-Bar High Protein Bar. Designed to support muscle recovery, this bar delivers 20 grams of protein with less than 5 grams of sugar.
Go Macro. This high-protein, vegan, gluten-free, organic bar is sweetened with brown rice syrup.
Clif Kit’s Organic Fruit & Seed Bar. Loaded with pumpkin seeds, this protein bar contains cherry and dates as sweeteners.
Betty Lou’s Just Great Stuff Organic Bar. This protein bar comes in a number of flavors, including chocolate dream greens, cocoa and acai, and superberry and acai.
Vitacost Organic Spirulina Energy Bar. A great non-GMO and gluten free option, this bar contains dates, sesame seeds, banana, coconut and spirulina.
Coconut Secret Organic Bar. In addition to coconut, this bar contains almond, cocoa, vanilla and lecithin.
Raw Revolution Organic Live Food Bar. This bar comes in a variety of flavors, including almond butter cups, cherry chocolate chunk, chocolate raspberry, golden cashew and spirulina dream.
18 Rabbits Organic Granola Bar. Yes, that really is the name! It comes in various flavors, and it’s sweetened with honey and maple syrup.
Nature’s Path Organic Qia Superfood Snack Bar. This bar contains dried coconut, tapioca syrup, brown rice syrup, cashews, peanuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almond butter and vitamin E.
Earthlings Organic Rawnola Sprouted Granola Bar. Another good option, this bar comes in four flavors: vanilla, matcha, cacao and gogi berry.