If you've ever trolled the aisles of a bodega, gas station, or highway rest stop looking for a protein bar, you know that the options are plentiful. There are so many different types of bars, with varying labels, convincing claims, and decadent flavors, so it's tough to know exactly which ones are the best to eat when you need nutrients and you're in a bind.
But the thing is, most of the time, a protein bar isn't the best option for a snack or meal replacement, says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition. "I always encourage my clients to practice intuitive eating and mindfulness at meals, and that can be tough to do with a bar you can finish in just a few bites," she says. And a protein bar typically isn't made out of whole foods (a.k.a. fruits, nuts, grains, or vegetables), since these products are usually mishmashes of processed ingredients. "Although protein bars may be nutritionally adequate, they may not be nutritionally complete or completely satisfying the way a meal would be," she says.
However, if you are in a situation in which you can't have a full meal — because you're hiking, don't want to spend tons of money on airport food, or are stuck in an all-day meeting — a protein bar can be a convenient option, Harbstreet says. In other words, protein bars don't have to be totally off-limits, but you may want to be wise about which kind you choose.
Protein bars tend to pack in a lot of excess ingredients, like vitamins and minerals, just so brands can make them seem more appealing, says Amanda Kruse, RD, CD. If you're in an emergency situation, and need a meal's worth of protein, Kruse says anything between 10 and 20 grams of protein is ideal to keep you full. But keep in mind that if you eat a protein bar that's chock-full of unnecessary ingredients, those ingredients might not be as filling as they would be if you consumed them via whole foods, Kruse says. (Not to mention, the combination of ingredients in some bars may not be particularly tasty, either.)
So, what are some things to consider when choosing a protein bar? First, look at the ingredients. Generally, ingredients are listed in order of their weight contribution, Kruse says. "This means if cocoa powder or whey protein is the first ingredient, it makes up the most of the bar," she says. If you're choosing a bar for its protein content, you'd want the protein source (such as whey protein, soy protein, or nuts) to be one of the first ingredients, she says.
But, depending on a person's goals, there are all sorts of things to look for in a protein or snack bar, so there's not necessarily a "right" or "wrong" way to choose one. A person with diabetes, for example, has very different needs than someone who doesn't have diabetes. And an elite athlete would also have far more rigorous nutritional needs than someone who just exercises casually. If you're not exactly sure what you should be looking for, it's a good idea to ask your primary care physician. In some cases, they might refer you to a registered dietitian who can help figure out what to eat based on your personal needs.
That said, in general, the closer the ingredients in your bar are to their whole food state, the better, Harbstreet says. "Many meal replacement bars and protein bars are highly processed, but you can find some that rely on nuts, grains, dried fruit, and natural sweeteners," she says. Many of the sweeter bars use sugar alcohols (such as erythritol or sorbitol) to keep the sugar content low. "Sugar alcohols can cause uncomfortable GI symptoms for many people, so if they are included you may want to pass," she says. (But again, talk to a doctor or RD if you want to find out what's best for you, specifically.)
Ultimately, a good goal when you're choosing a protein bar, or any snack or meal for that matter, is to eat whole foods as much as possible, Harbstreet says. So, that means if there's a cinnamon roll-flavored protein bar calling your name, you might be better off eating an actual cinnamon roll instead of a bar masquerading as one. That's just the way the protein bar crumbles.