You reach for a protein bar a few times a week, and why not? They’re convenient, affordable and portable. Plus, bars make portion control easy, since there’s usually just one per package. Slip one in your work or gym bag and you have an instant source of fuel to prevent you from getting ‘hangry’ while doing errands or after a workout.
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“[They’re great] if you’re on-the-go or if you aren’t able to sit down for a meal,”, says Alissa Rumsey, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer variety of protein bars at the supermarket. And with flavors like “chocolate covered brownie,” it’s hard to tell if what’s lurking inside is really better for you than treats from the candy aisle.
We asked Rumsey and Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSC, team nutritionist for the Kansas City Royals and CLIF Nutrition Partner, how to decode protein bar labels and separate the best from the rest.
6 Tricks to Spot the Healthiest Protein Bars
1. Eyeball ingredients.
Glance at the list of ingredients before checking out the nutrition stats, Rumsey and Dulan suggest. “Many protein bars have a lot of junk added to them,” says Dulan, who suggests avoiding chemically derived additives. She favors products that have shorter ingredients lists. While skimming the packaging, ask yourself, “Can I pronounce them?” and “Do I recognize them?” If not, put it back on the shelf.
Our pick: GoodOnYa Peanut Butter Chocolate, which stands for clean eating at its best.
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“Your goal: Aim for eight to 10 grams of sugar per bar.”
2. Scope out sneaky sugar sources.
Beware the protein bar that contains the same amount of sugar as the Snickers you’re trying so hard to avoid. The sweet stuff can go by many different names, says Rumsey, who says she’s seen up to five different forms of sugar in some bars. “Maltodextrin, agave, brown sugar, dextrose, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, corn sweetener, fruit juice, maple syrup, molasses and any of the –ose words” are sugar sources, says Rumsey. “It’s all broken down quickly,” says Rumsey, which could result in a sugar high and crash later on. Your goal: Aim for eight to 10 grams of sugar per bar. If the product is fruit-based, Rumsey says it’s OK for the sugar count to be higher, as long as the bar also contains three to four grams of fiber.
Our pick: Simple Squares, which have just the right amount of sweet stuff.
3. Check in on calorie counts.
If you’re scarfing down 100-calorie diet bars only to feel ‘hangry’ later on, opt for something more substantial next time. Your snack’s calories should correlate with your weight, gender and fitness goals, says Dulan. For a 130-pound woman, she recommends noshing on between 175 to 250 calories per snack. For a 180-pound man, Dulan suggests eating 200 to 350 calories.
After a workout, you’ll need even more to replenish your energy and prevent soreness. Most women should aim for 300 calories, and men should shoot for 350 to 400 calories, which can come from a combination of a bar and protein shake, or other high-protein snack.
Our pick: Rise Almond Honey Protein+, which will energize you with 20 grams of protein for under 300 calories.
3. Refuel with the right ratios.
Are carbs your sworn enemy? They shouldn’t be. Essential after tough gym sessions, carbs help stimulate muscle repair and growth by replenishing glycogen. When consumed before a workout, they can provide energy for the central nervous system, which helps you mentally power through those long runs. “You’ve got to refuel your muscles,” says Dulan, who works with baseball players on the Kansas City Royals. The key lies in consuming the proper ratio of carbs to protein, Dulan says. “It can range anywhere from 1:1 to 4:1,” she says. “I actually prefer [consuming] closer to a 2:1 ratio, especially for people who are going to the gym and need a good source of protein without so many calories.” A 4:1 ratio (or close to that) is optimal for longer endurance events like marathons.
Our pick: Builder’s Clif Bars, for macros that will support your training.
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5. Avoid faux sweeteners.
If you have a sensitive stomach, Rumsey recommends steering clear of sugar alcohols and substitutes because they can cause GI problems like bloating, diarrhea or discomfort. Plus, studies demonstrate that these additives could spur you to binge later on. “There’s a lot of research that shows when you eat or drink something sweet but you don’t get the sugar, you end up craving something sweet later on,” she says. Red flag ingredients include erythritol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol, says Rumsey.
Our pick: STRONG and KIND Bars, made with all-natural ingredients.
6. Focus on healthy fats.
Fats are your friend — as long as they come from natural and nutritious sources. Nuts about nuts? That’s a good thing, according to Dulan, who says almonds and other nuts will fuel you and keep you satiated. “Less healthy types of fats can come from added oils…like partially hydrogenated oils,” she says. Less than 10 grams of fat and six grams of saturated fat per bar is ideal.
Our pick: Health Warrior: Dark Chocolate Coconut Sea Salt, for a bar that’s chock full of healthy nuts.