Snack Bar Showdown

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I encourage all my clients to eat snacks in between meals to prevent their blood sugar from dropping too low. Low blood sugar causes anxiety, brain fog, fatigue, mood swings, and is usually the culprit of those annoying sugar cravings. An occasional bout of low blood sugar is nothing to worry about, but chronic dysglycemia contributes to weight gain, fatigue (adrenal fatigue) and perpetuated cycles of food cravings and mood swings. 

It's much more complex than that, but the point is: snacks are important. Now, before you take this as an excuse to eat ALL the potato chips and candy, remember that I'm talking about high-protein, healthy snacks. Some examples are nuts, seeds, cottage cheese, hummus with veggies, a small protein shake, yogurt, etc. 

These types of whole-foods snacks are ideal, but sometimes (and I'm guilty of this too), grabbing a protein bar is just way more convenient. There are so many different snack bars out there, and it can be hard to know how to make the best decision. The good news is, I've broken it all down for you into a simple guide, as well as picked apart some popular brands for you. 

What to look for

Here are 3 things to look for when choosing a snack bar, and notice that none of these involve counting calories.

  1. Ingredients: This is key. There are plenty of seemingly healthy snack bars out there, but the ingredient list never lies. Look out for bars with added sugar (cane syrup/sugar/juice, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, tapioca syrup, and of course sugar. ) Also beware of excessive additives, preservatives, and hydrogenated oils. Even "natural flavors" are a little red flag (MSG, aspartame, and bugs fall into this category!) If you don't know what it is or can't pronounce it, it's probably best just to steer clear. Look for ingredients that are whole-foods and things you recognize like dates, nuts, fruits, seeds, etc. 

  2. Protein to sugar ratio: The goal is to find a high protein, low sugar snack. A good rule of thumb is to aim for no less than 10 grams of protein and no more than 10 grams of sugar. Or, try to get your protein-sugar ratio to be either equal, or better yet, higher in protein per gram than in sugar. 
  3. Organic: Thankfully there are more and more food companies that are catering to the increasing demand for organic foods. If you can find a snack bar that meets the above requirements and contains organic ingredients, then you've hit the jackpot. Organic foods have been shown to contain higher amounts of nutrients than their conventional counterparts. They also limit your exposure to harmful chemicals and pesticides.

Bonus:  Many snack bars these days include a powdered greens blend that usually contains green veggies, spirulina, chlorella, and other alkalizing greens. I wouldn't say that this is a necessary requirement for a healthy snack bar, but it's definitely an added bonus. Why not go for that boost of vitamins, minerals, and phyto-nutrients?! 

Let's look at some popular snack bars

Now that you have some guidelines for choosing healthy and blood sugar balancing bars, let's see how some of the popular ones measure up.

CLIF: There's a reason CLIF bars taste like cookies; they pretty much are. First of all, let's take a look at the ingredients in the basic CLIF bar recipe. The very first ingredient is brown rice syrup (sugar!). Then if you read on, you'll find cane syrup, dried cane syrup, and barley malt extract (sugar, sugar, and more sugar). You'll also find "natural flavors" and added vitamins and minerals that, apart from the foods they occur in naturally, can't be assimilated well by the body. Some of the ingredients are organic, depending on which flavor you buy, so at least there's that.  Lastly, CLIF bars average about 9 grams of protein and 23 grams of sugar. YIKES! 

The verdict: If you really are that guy climbing up a steep rock face, then the high sugar content might be just what you need to keep you from bonking, and even then there are better sources of this sugar. But for the average person on an average day, 23 grams of sugar is way too high for only 9 grams of protein, and you're better off attaining essential vitamins and nutrients from whole food sources rather than the added ones in these bars. 

What about CLIF Builder and Luna bars? One thing the Builder bars have going for them is that they contain more protein than regular CLIF bars. The Luna bars have about the same amount of protein as the regular CLIF's, but are much lower in sugar that the regular and the Builder.  Other than that though, they aren't a much better choice. They still contain multiple sources of added sugar, additives, and synthetic vitamins and nutrients. 

The verdict: They're candy bars with some protein powder in it. Move on. 

LARABAR: Now we're getting a little closer to something of substance. All LARABAR products contain simple, whole-food ingredients with the main source of sugar being dates. Most of their bars are not organic, but they have recently released a few new ones that do contain organic ingredients. The downside is that most LARABARS only contain about 5 grams of protein and 20-25 grams of sugar! Their "Crunchy Nut and Seed" bars are a slightly better option with only 7 grams of sugar, but still low on protein. 

The verdict: A LARABAR is a good option when in a pinch, but I'd recommend eating it with an additional protein source to help balance out the protein-sugar ratio.

KIND bars: The ingredients in KIND bars are not organic, but the list is pretty short for all their products. You will find some added sugar, but generally just one source per product, as opposed to 3-4 sources of sugar in the CLIF bars. The protein-sugar ratio varies from bar to bar, and most of them have more sugar than protein. 

The verdict: Similar to LARABARS in that they'll do in a pinch. The ingredients are decent, but make sure you read the nutrition facts before choosing your flavor, as some KIND bars have a better protein-sugar ratio than others. Their "Strong and Kind" bars are the best option, containing 10 grams of protein and around 5 grams of sugar. 

Pro Bar: I am looking specifically at their line of "Base" bars, as these are their high protein bars. The protein-sugar ratio is excellent, containing 20 grams of protein and about 15 grams of sugar. The ingredients are where things get tricky. They do have a good amount of organic and whole foods ingredients, but then you'll also find natural flavors, 3-4 sources of added sugar, fractionated palm kernel oil (trans fat!!!), and other processed oils such as partially defatted peanut oil. 

The verdict: It's really hard to pass this bar with flying colors after reading some of its ingredients. The sugars and processed oils are too high up on the ingredients list to be ignored, but the protein-sugar ratio is excellent. This bar is not a terrible choice, but eat these sparingly too minimize trans fat intake. 

Nature Valley: Nature Valley has quite a wide variety of granola and protein bars, and all of them have a pretty offensive ingredient list. They all contain added sugar of the worst kind (corn syrup, fructose, barley malt extract, sugar), as well as vegetable oils, corn starch, and preservatives. None of their products or ingredients are organic, and the only bars with enough protein are their "Protein Chewy Bars". 

The verdict: Not worth it. These bars are full of poor quality ingredients, and most have too much sugar. You'd be better off with a CLIF bar!

My Top 8 Healthy Protein Bars

So if a CLIF bar has too much sugar and a LARABAR has too little protein, what's a health nut to do? Here are eight of my favorite snack bars that pass the above standards. 

  1. Oatmega: 
    1. 14 g protein/about 5 g sugar depending on flavor
    2. Grass fed whey protein
    3. Mostly organic ingredients, does have 1-2 additives per product
    4. High in omega 3's
  2. RX Bar:
    1. 12 g protein/about 12 g sugar depending on flavor (I love that the protein in these bars is from eggs rather than protein powder)
    2. Not organic, but all ingredients are non-GMO, non-soy, and non-dairy. Also contains very minimal, completely whole-foods ingredients (similar to LARABAR)
  3. Amazing Grass Protein Superfood bar:
    1. 12 g protein/ 13 g sugar
    2. All organic ingredients, no additives
    3. Includes "superfood" greens powder blend
  4. Whole Earth and Sea Greens Vegan Protein Bar
    1. 15 g protein/ 23 g sugar (sugar content is a bit high, so save this one for a post-workout snack)
    2. All organic ingredients, no additives
    3. Includes "superfood" greens powder blend
  5. Epic bar:
    1. 8-15 g protein/ 2-7 g sugar depending on flavor
    2. Meat sources are either grass-fed, organic, or all natural
    3. Minimal, whole-foods ingredients with no additives
  6. Health Warrior Superfood Protein bar
    1. 10 g protein/ 10 g sugar
    2. Some organic ingredients, mostly whole-foods, only 1-2 additives per bar
    3. High in omega 3's
  7. 22 Days:
    1.  6-20 g protein/14-17 g sugar depending on flavor
    2. All organic ingredients, all whole-foods ingredients, no additives
    3. High fiber
  8. Greens Plus:
    1. 15-18 g protein/6-19 g sugar depending on flavor
    2. All ingredients are GMO free, some are organic
    3. Includes "superfood" greens powder blend and herbs

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it's a great place to start. Most of these can be found at Sprouts, Whole Foods, and online. If you have a preferred protein bar or even a recipe for one, please share!