Nutrition bars have been around for a while and the variety of them is steadily increasing. They serve as a means for providing the sense of sweetness and decadence without feeling like you’ve completely strayed away from your eating plan. Despite their savvy marketing, I have always considered them to be glorified candy bars. However, I get asked about them often and recognize the appeal. I decided to dive into them and decipher the plethora of variety offered.
I went to my local grocery store and health food store to peek at what’s available these days. There are a variety factors that I take into account when analyzing a nutrition bar – calories, protein-to-carb ratio, insight into how they are labeled, and ingredients. Lastly taste and texture, which are subjective to each person is another factor to include when looking a bar.
Nutrition bars have large calorie ranges. Some bars can be labeled as snack bars and will have 175-200 calories. Some are meal replacement bars and have as much as 400 calories. This is something to pay attention to depending on how you want to use the bar. A bar that is 200 calories can fit into a day as a mid afternoon or post workout snack. However, eating 400 calories as a snack while trying to lose weight is not in your best interest. But it could potentially stand in as a lunch replacement on the day that you are running around and can’t figure out a different option.
Protein – to – carb ratio
The ratio of macronutrients, particularly protein and carbs, in a bar is one of the biggest pitfalls in my opinion. If a bar is high in carbs, even if from a natural source it will cause more of a blood sugar impact. The root to many disease processes comes from blood sugar imbalance. Always look at the ratio of protein to carbohydrates.
While there is no specific ratio that is perfect, the closer these can be to 1g of protein to 1g of carbs the less of a blood sugar impact it will have. That means if the bar has 15g of protein and 18g of carbs there’s less of an impact on glucose. With that being said, you certainly don’t want to go more than 1g of protein per 2g of carbs. As an example, if the bar has 15g of protein having 28-30g carbs is the max ratio for you.
Energy bars vs protein bars
The way bars are labeled is an indicator of the protein to carb ratio. Bars that are labeled as Energy Bars or Sports Bars are typically higher in carbs. These carbs serve as a means of energy or glycogen replacement when performing high energy expenditure. Bars that are labeled as protein bars tend to have higher protein ratio.
The ingredients of these bars vary vastly. Some have only a few ingredients. Others have a large variety of ingredients some of which include added vitamins and minerals. However, they will all have ingredients for protein and sweeteners which I’ll break down.
The protein in a bar almost always comes from a protein powder, such as whey, soy, pea, rice, nuts, or hemp protein. The type of protein powder that is used will make a difference in the taste and texture. Both of these personal preferences and hard to evaluate. Additionally some of these proteins may be inflammatory for some people.
The protein sources are generally whey (dairy), soy, pea, rice, nuts, or hemp and sometimes a combination.
- Whey protein is often associated with weight loss, yet it is a dairy-based protein. For some people whey can be inflammatory and can contribute to insulin resistance.
- Soy protein, especially in the form of soy protein isolates, is known as an endocrine disruptor. This means that soy protein can block the use of estrogen on cells and can also interfere with thyroid hormones.
- Pea, rice, and hemp proteins are plant based, and unless you have a known food sensitivity to the specific ingredient. They are less likely to cause inflammation or hormone disruption.
By the nature of a bar, it is usually expected that it will taste sweet, thus have a sweetener in them. Some sweeteners such as dates, syrups, or honey are natural, yet the will contribute to the carbohydrate content. Some sweeteners don’t contribute to the calorie level or carbohydrates. These include sucralose, allulose, stevia, or monk fruit. These also won’t elevate blood sugar.
Then there is gluten. While it’s well known that gluten for celiac disease is problematic there are a large number of people who are gluten sensitive. Sometimes a bar will be labeled as gluten free, but you can also determine gluten content in the allergens listing on the bar. This is listed under the ingredients list, usually in bold capital letters. If the allergens listing has WHEAT, then you know it has gluten in it.
Other ingredients to pay attention to are caffeine, nuts or nut butters, inulin and chicory. The amount of caffeine in a bar is generally less than a cup of coffee, however, may contribute to anxiety, cause jitters, or sleep disruption. Nuts and nut butters are a high allergy food so should be looked for if you have a food allergy. Lastly, both inulin and chicory are added to bars as a source of fiber. These may cause gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort for some people.
Taste and Texture
Taste and texture are both personal preferences. They also range greatly. Bars have a variety of flavors and flavor combinations such as chocolate, mocha, lemon, fruit, chocolate peanut butter, chocolate brownie, chocolate mint. The textures can be everything from gritty to almost slimy. Your tolerance to the taste and texture depends on your desire to have that hint of sweetness.
I’ve evaluated several bars and put them together in a format for you to compare. While each brand of nutrition bars has several varieties, the information you see here is based on one of the bars. The numbers may change slightly, but typically the ingredients don’t change much. Take a look and let me know what you think.