Protein bars are a convenient way to get some extra protein in your diet when you're on the go, but given that there are so many different varieties out there, it's hard to know which one to go for - especially if you have dietary requirements (such as being vegan), allergies or suffer from IBS.
To make things easier, we asked nutritionist extraordinaire Jenna Hope to give an expert verdict on some of the most popular protein bars on the market right now (as well as subjecting them to a very rigorous taste test ourselves). "Many protein bars contain a wide range of ingredients from polyols, to sugars, stabilisers and artificial flavourings," explains Hope. "As a result, they shouldn’t be viewed as a healthy snack but rather a convenient way to increase protein and in some cases they can be seen as an alternative to a chocolate bar."
She advises not to consume them in place of a nutrient dense meal, but but to treat them as a good option if you’re snacking in the afternoon, or after finishing a workout and are short on time. "Many protein bars contain polyols too, a type of sugar alcohol which is used to provide sweetness," Hope adds. "Polyols can cause gastrointestinal symptoms for those who suffer with IBS and therefore shouldn’t be over-consumed."
Here's our round-up of eleven widely-sold bars, complete with tasting notes and nutritional info.
Best flavour overall: Grenade's Carb Killer (Chocolate Chip Salted Caramel)
This triumphs on the flavour front (it was perfect for a filling, mid-afternoon snack that isn't too sweet) and has a high protein content. However, warns Hope, this Grenade bar also contains a high amount of maltitol (a polyol which is a sugar alcohol - sugar alcohols are used as sweeteners in foods as they’re low in calories, can bulk out the food and they provide sweetness) making it one to limit if you have IBS.
"This bar contains 20g of protein but contains 18g of polyols largely from maltitol which can have laxative effects and stimulate gut symptoms such as bloating and flatulence in IBS suffers," she advises. "It also contains 5.1g of saturated fat which should be limited in the diet."
Best overall according to a nutritionist: The Protein Ball Co
Not a bar per se, but a winner in our expert's eyes. "These balls are great for portion control as you don’t have to consume them all in one go," says Hope. "They’re made with natural ingredients, lower in saturated fats than other bars and don’t contain polyols."
Best for when you're craving chocolate: Mars Hi Protein Bar
Okay, so while nothing can truly imitate a bona fide Mars Bar, the Mars Hi Protein Bar does a commendable job. All the flavours are there, but the centre is chewier (well, it's densely packed with 20g of protein, so what do you expect?). "This is a high protein version of a chocolate bar and shouldn’t be mistaken for a healthy nutrient dense snack," notes Hope. "While this bar is a better alternative to a regular Mars Bar as it’s lower in calories, fat and sugar, it’s still high in saturated fats."
Best lower calorie option: MAXIMUSCLE's New York Vanilla Cheesecake bar
These pocket-sized bars are perfect if you're really craving something indulgent, as they're extra sweet, and come in at around the 150 calories mark. "This bar does contain numerous artificial additives," notes Hope. "As a protein bar, it’s lower in calories than many of the others although it’s high in polyols and contains 11.7g per bar."
Best for vegans: Barebells Protein Bar (Salty Peanut)
This bar isn't overly sweet and has a good texture - but don't go thinking it's a rival for a Snickers. Hope says that this is one of the better options due to the no added sugar (and being overall lower in sugar than many bars), however the Barebells vegan option does contain artificial sweeteners, which should be consumed in moderation. "It’s high in saturated fats too, which should be accounted for as part of your total saturated fat intake," advises Hope. "I personally found these bars to taste more artificial than some of the others."
Best for those with allergies: Creative Nature
Creative Nature prides itself on being the safest option for those with allergens, the bars are all nut-free, vegan-friendly and gluten-free. All of the flavours we tried (Spiced Apple, Salted Caramel and Orange Cacao) were eminently edible. However, on the protein content front they only have around 8g per bar. "These bars are the most natural as they’re packed with whole foods such as oats, seeds and dates," agrees Hope. "They’re lighter in flavour than many others and are therefore easier to eat."
Best for when you're sick of protein bars: Bulk's Protein Millionaires Slice
Bulk have a great selection of protein inspired sweet treats with protein bar-rivalling benefits, our favourite of which is the Protein Millionaires Slice. "This offers a large serving size which can explain how it is considered a protein bar," explains Hope. "It’s higher in calories than many of the other bars and contains nearly 7g of saturated fats per bar."
Best gluten-free option: Beachbar Amande Crunch
This is a winner on the taste front, but only has 9g of protein. Also on the more expensive side at almost £40 for a box of 15. "This is lower in calories than the other bars and contains 150kcals per bar," says Hope. "It’s less dense and lighter in weight than some of the other options too."
Best for the planet: Bodyhero Plant Protein Rich Chocolate
While this bar didn't kill it on the taste-test front (it's drier and more powdery than a lot of the other contenders on this list), we do love that Bodyhero is committed to being kind to the planet with 100% recyclable packaging made from sustainable materials. They've also pledged to plant a tree for every online purchase. So, if being an eco warrior is your top priority, this is a solid option.
Best cereal-based protein bar: Eat Natural
"These are a slightly more natural bar than some other protein bars although there are more natural ones on the market," says Hope. "They vary in saturated fat content so it’s always worth comparing flavours." These are much lighter and easier to consume, she adds.
Best for IBS suffers: Clif Builders Protein Bars
While these are higher in calories than other bars, they don’t contain polyols and therefore may be a more friendly option for those people who suffer with IBS, says Hope. "The bars are made with soy protein which is the most nutritionally similar to whey protein."
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