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How To Choose A Healthy Protein Bar That Isn’t Candy

We’ve all been there – in a rush, needing to grab a quick bite – and instead of a sandwich, opt for what you might think is a healthier alternative: the protein bar.

The problem with this “health food” is when you read the nutrition label to find that it has about 30 grams of sugar and only 15 grams of protein. Bummer.

In order to avoid consuming things that can hurt your diet, there are really just a few things you should look for when checking out the nutrition label to make sure that what you’re eating is actually healthy. And with protein bars, when you do look closely at these things, you’ll quickly find that they aren’t really a health food at all.

Tip #1 – The Protein Bar Should Have At Least 20 Grams of Protein

Quantity > 20 grams

Anything with > 20 grams is a bona fide protein bar. It has protein added for the sole purpose of increasing the protein content. In other words, the ingredients in a candy bar will never accidentally amount to over 20 grams protein.

According to the research, 20 grams will give your muscles a little burst of protein synthesis.
Moore & colleagues tested what the response of muscle protein synthesis was to increasing doses of egg protein in healthy young men after a bout of resistance exercise.1 They show that muscle protein synthesis increases with doses up to 20 grams, but with not much improvement thereafter.

However, a study in healthy middle-aged men shows that muscle protein synthesis is maximal with 170 grams of beef, which amounts to 36 grams of protein.2

This shows us that higher protein levels are more satiating, with the cutoff seemingly around 20 grams.

In a study comparing people’s hunger when they ate a yogurt snack with either a 0, 5, 14, or 24 grams of protein, those who consumed the highest dose felt less hungry, more full, and that they could hold out longer until they wanted dinner.3

Lastly, another study comparing participant’s fullness after eating a custard with either 37 grams of casein protein or 15 grams shows that those who ate the 37 grams felt modestly fuller.4 For more on protein, see my article Do High Protein Diets Help You Lose Weight?

Unfortunately, not many protein bars fall into this category, and so many saturate the market making numerous health claims that it becomes confusing to decide whether any are actually good for you.

Tip #2 – The Protein Bar Should Use Whey Protein

For the best quality, look for whey, or a whey/casein blend. Some companies try to boost the total amount of protein by diluting it with soy, and if you really want an optimal snack then you should be looking for whey. It’s also an indicator that the manufacturer is making an attempt to use high quality ingredients.

Tip #3 – The Protein Bar Should Have Less Net Carbs Than Grams Of Protein

Of course, there will be other ingredients in the bar than protein, or it wouldn’t be a food. So, what other things should you take into consideration?

If whatever is left on the label is less than the amount of protein, you might have a winner. Only a few of the most popular protein bars meet this criterion.

An important consideration is the carbs you’ll be eating. Many protein bars contain sugar alcohols, which in large amounts can cause gastrointestinal problems for many people. Most bars also contain hefty amounts of artificial sweeteners and sugar, so the carbs in the protein bar is usually where protein bars start looking more like candy.

If the protein bar contains fiber, think of it as an added bonus – especially if it’s one of the prebiotic super-fibers like inulin or galactooligosaccharides.5 The “net carbs” in the protein bar is the total carbs minus the grams of fiber. If the amount of net carbs is less than the grams of protein, that’s a positive sign.

Tip #4 – The Protein Bar Should Have Enough Fat to Match Your Desired Calories

Basically, the amount of fat in the bar is only going to affect the calorie content. If it’s a meal replacement you’re after, then shoot for > 10 grams, but there’s not a whole lot of variety in this department.

Protein bar manufacturers haven’t gotten into optimizing their fat profiles yet, but I predict they will be doing this soon. Very soon. And when they do, look for things like Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs), coconut oil, cocoa butter, etc. In one study, subjects assigned to supplement with 20 g/d MCTs lost more weight than those who received olive oil.6

In a study by Romestaig & colleagues, rodents fed a diet enriched with coconut oil ate more calories, but gained less weight than those fed a butter-enriched or low fat diet.7 Lastly, unlike most common vegetable oils, cocoa butter is resistant to oxidative stress,89 lacks pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids10,and has a naturally long shelf-life

Tip #5 – The Less Ingredients In The Protein Bar, The Better

The most important tip of all is saved for last, which is the less ingredients you find in a protein bar, the better. If there are 20 ingredients, most of which you are unable to pronounce, that’s a sign it’s best to look for another protein bar.

Oh Yeah Protein Bar Ingredients (over 20 ingredients):
Peanuts, Protein Blend [(OhYeah!® Blend Consisting of Whey Protein Isolate, Soy Protein Isolate, Milk Protein Isolate, Milk Protein Concentrate, Calcium Caseinate), Hydrolyzed Gelatin], Peanut Butter Coating [Maltitol, Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil, Milk Protein Isolate, Partially Defatted Peanut Flour, Whey, Peanut Butter (Peanuts, Peanut Oil, Dextrose, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil {Rapeseed and Cottonseed Oil}, Salt), Salt, Soy Lecithin and Sucralose Sugar, Corn Syrup, Non Fat Dry Milk, Maltitol Syrup, Cocoa Butter, Corn Starch, Butter, Sucralose, Soy Lecithin, Natural and Artificial Flavor), Soy Nuts, Glycerine, Cocoa Powder, Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil, Lecithin (an Emulsifier), Natural and Artificial Flavors, Salt, Sucralose and Potassium Sorbate Added as a Preservative.

Almond Rise Protein Bar (3 ingredients):
Almonds, Honey, Whey Protein Isolate

Recommended: Almond Honey Rise Protein Bar

There is a protein bar that meets all the guidelines listed and is the most natural with the fewest ingredients: Almond Honey Rise Protein Bar. Here are some of the reasons why this is a healthy protein bar:

If you are going to eat protein bars, taking these tips into consideration when shopping for a snack, or meal replacement, hopefully will help you find something that is good for you, your diet, and maintaining your health.

Show 10 References

  1. Moore DR, Robinson MJ, Fry JL, et al. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr. Jan 2009;89(1):161-168.
  2. Robinson MJ, Burd NA, Breen L, et al. Dose-dependent responses of myofibrillar protein synthesis with beef ingestion are enhanced with resistance exercise in middle-aged men. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme. Feb 2013;38(2):120-125.
  3. Douglas SM, Ortinau LC, Hoertel HA, Leidy HJ. Low, moderate, or high protein yogurt snacks on appetite control and subsequent eating in healthy women. Appetite. Jan 2013;60(1):117-122.
  4. Veldhorst MA, Nieuwenhuizen AG, Hochstenbach-Waelen A, et al. Comparison of the effects of a high- and normal-casein breakfast on satiety, ‘satiety’ hormones, plasma amino acids and subsequent energy intake. Br J Nutr. Jan 2009;101(2):295-303.
  5. Lagakos WS. taking the fun out of FODMAPs. The poor, misunderstood calorie 2012; http://caloriesproper.com/?p=1348. Accessed 3/24/2013, 2013.
  6. St-Onge MP, Bosarge A. Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil. The American journal of clinical nutrition. Mar 2008;87(3):621-626. Excerpt – “Dietary fat is often blamed for the rising prevalence of obesity. However, all fats are not equal in their metabolic effects. For example, medium-chain triacylglycerols (MCTs), which typically contain fatty acids with chain lengths of 10 carbon atoms, are processed differently from long-chain triacylglycerols (LCTs) by the body. Because of their chain length, medium-chain fatty acids can be absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and transported to the liver via the portal circulation without incorporation into chylomicrons. As a result, it is hypothesized that MCTs are oxidized to a greater extent than are LCTs and have less opportunity for deposition into adipose tissue.
  7. Romestaing C, Piquet MA, Bedu E, et al. Long term highly saturated fat diet does not induce NASH in Wistar rats. Nutrition & metabolism. 2007;4:4.
  8. Wang ZJ, Liang CL, Li GM, Yu CY, Yin M. Stearic acid protects primary cultured cortical neurons against oxidative stress. Acta pharmacologica Sinica. Mar 2007;28(3):315-326.
  9. Wang ZJ, Li GM, Tang WL, Yin M. Neuroprotective effects of stearic acid against toxicity of oxygen/glucose deprivation or glutamate on rat cortical or hippocampal slices. Acta pharmacologica Sinica. Feb 2006;27(2):145-150.
  10. Shapira N. Women’s higher risk with N-6 PUFA vs. men’s relative advantage: an “N-6 gender nutrition paradox” hypothesis. The Israel Medical Association journal: IMAJ. Jul 2012;14(7):435-441.


  • Ellen says:

    I've been eating NuGo Slim bars. Three of their flavors have only 2 grams of sugar (no articificial sweeteners). As a reformed sugarholic, this is very important!

    While they don't quite meet the criteria in this article, they are much better than all the other bars I've researched (including all the bars sold in Whole Foods).

    But, I'm open to trying a new (healthier) protein bar, so I'll definitely order these RISE bars.

    Any input about the NuGo slim bars is greatly appreciated!

    • Bill Lagakos says:

      Hi Ellen,
      I've reviewed these as well elsewhere (caloriesproper.com/?p=2320). In brief, not a bad value and good fiber content, but as you mentioned, they don't meet the criteria set forth in this article. And yeah, I agree, Whole Foods is becoming notorious for carrying a lot of "organic" junk food :/


  • Hank says:

    Nice article that presents clearly the main facets of the protein bar that are important. I wanted to know if there could be a list of bars that are recommended because of the variablility of stocking in health stores and pharmacies.

  • Bill Lagakos says:

    Hi Hank,
    As mentioned above, Quest & Rise Protein+ are two good ones, and I have reviewed a LOT of others in the past - you can access those articles here:

  • Monica says:

    How about the Quest bars... they have 20 g protein, 16 grams of fiber and they are all natural.

  • Liza in NYC says:

    Great article. I appreciate the product suggestions from the author and those who commented. I'm going to try all of these bars!

    Suggestion for Mark and team: I suspect that if any author recommends a product, they do so because they truly believe in it. I trust you all -- I'm a big fan of BuiltLean. But in the spirit of transparency, I'd love to see you include a statement in italics at the end of such an article that says whether or not the writer is a paid endorser. For example, "The author is not a paid endorser of any products mentioned" OR "The author is a paid endorser of the product mentioned because he/she really believes in it and uses it."

    Whether or not it's a product placement/endorsement doesn't matter, as long as there is transparency, imho.

    Again, please know I am a true fan and really rely on your excellent advice. Keep it coming! : ) Thank you.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks, Liza, I think that's a really good suggestion. We take making product recommendations very seriously, which is why we make very, very few on the site. No, Bill is not a paid endorser of any of the products listed in this article, but we do make a small commission from some product links through amazon (whether we suggest them or not, we typically link a given product on amazon). In a month, or so, we will be adding a financial disclosure page to help make everyone aware of exactly how BuiltLean makes money, which is mostly the program, we also have a private personal training practice in NYC, then advertisements, and then affiliate/t-shirts etc.

  • Frank says:

    I am interested in a recommendation for a vegan (non-whey/non-dairy) alternative?

    • Bill Lagakos says:

      Hi Frank,
      I would say just line up all the options and see which is most in line with the tips above. I don't know of any vegan protein bars off the top of my head.

  • Lee says:

    Good Info - Thanks!
    I have been using the Walmart brand of "Life Choice" - Reasonable price and these Nutr Facts: 21g Prot, 4.5g Fat, 16g Carb,2Fiber, 8 Sugers - I do however see alot of reference to SOY in the ingredients and says "Contains Milk, peanuts,soy, almonds and wheat". I don't see any reference to sugar alch. - see soy protein isolate, soy lecithin.

    Here is the nutritional info:
    Would like some feedback to see if this is on par or if this is too much soy



    • Bill Lagakos says:

      Hi Lee,
      Those bars have some soy protein and a ton of ingredients, but a really good macronutrient profile. Not bad. Added vitamins & minerals are unnecessary in a "protein" bar, imo, and usually just drive up the price.

      • Lee says:

        Thanks Bill - Good point about the vitamins - That's I'm sure a whole other discussion! I find having the Protein Bars, Almonds, Tuna Packs and my favorite - Cans of smoked oysters(ones low in chol) in my desk drawer at work and in my car help me the most as it keeps me from spiking in hunger and gives me the patience to make a healthy dinner instead of 'reacting' to hunger pains. - Great work Bill and Marc.

  • Ed says:


    Do protein bars offer any advantage over milk, other than convenience?

    It's pretty rare that I'm more than a few minutes from a pint of milk.

  • Martin says:


    What about bars that are made of only casein, but no whey at all? I've seen those in a store and bought one, it tasted well but I'm not really sure if it's something worth buying in the long term.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Martin - It's tough to opine on your question because I am not familiar specifically with any of those bars. I would, however, follow the advice in this article to make your own determination.

  • Dawid says:

    What do you think about PhD Protein Flapjack:

    75g oat bar has:

    6.6g fat (2.8g saturates)
    37.0g carbs (2.0g sugars)
    2.4g fibre
    19.0g protein

    it does have a lot of ingredients though:

    Oat Blend [Malted Oats (Barlet Malt Extract, Palm Oil), Rolled Oats, Oat Flour], Protein Blend [Milk Protein, Hydrolysed Gelatine, Whey Protein Concentrate (Milk)], Humectant (Glycerine), Yoghurt Coating (8%) [Sweetener (Maltitol), Non-Hydrogenated Powder Vegetable Fat (Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Oil, Shea Oil), Sweet Whey Powder (Milk), Yoghurt Powder (Milk), Emulsifier (Soya Lacithin), Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid)], Dried Glucose Syrup, Water, Sweeteners (Maltitol, Sucralose), Flavourings, Rapeseed Oil, Freeze Dried Rasperry Pieces, Salt, Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid), Colour (Caramel), Dried Apple Pieces, Antioxidant (Mixed Tocopherols)

    It's the only one on the market I like because it's a bit fruity - I can't bear the chocolate/toffi/caramel ones. It has low sugar but still high-carb. What are your thoughts?

    • Kristin says:

      Hi Dawid - based on the ingredients list of the PhD Protein Flapjack, it's not something that I would personally eat. First, there are a lot of ingredients in that bar, some of which I make a point to avoid. In particular, artificial sweeteners (maltitol and sucralose), palm oil, and added flavors and colors. I would recommend looking for a bar with fewer ingredients, such as RXBars. These bars contain fewer than 10 ingredients, use mostly whole foods, and don't add artificial or chemical ingredients. I hope that helps. Try those out, and let us know what you think!

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor