I’ve been toying with the idea of doing this post for a while now, but have struggled with the shear volume of protein bars available on the market. I mean, how could I possibly narrow down the crowded multi-billion dollar U.S. protein bar market into just 10 brands, and then go ahead and pick one as a winner? (I ended up reviewing 12 in the end because I couldn’t help myself.) Anyway, here’s how I gave it a go: the first thing I did was eliminate a few categories…I wasn’t looking for the best granola bar, cereal bar, or meal replacement bar. Second, I decided that I really needed to break this down into a two part series – for now, I’m just focusing on your run of the mill protein bars. Natural/organic/paleo options will be covered in the second part of this Quest for the Best series, because they don’t always compete in the same market or on the same criteria as the ones below.
Next, I tried to focus on the most popular brands and widely available options that were targeted at your everyday consumer. Maybe a bodybuilder would eat these, but so would a soccer mom looking for an easy, on-the-go, protein packed snack*. Many are widely available at grocery stores or pharmacies, some are easier to find in a sports or nutrition shop. Either way, I like to think I am at least somewhat up to speed on what’s happening in the sports nutrition world, and most of these picks are “hot” right now.
Finally, I focused on protein bars that I was actually interested in eating. I generally try to stay away from excessive food additives and artificial ingredients, although that can be really difficult when looking at your average protein bar. Even so, I still included a blurb about their ingredients list for comparison. I also don’t necessarily want a 300+ calorie protein and fat (or fiber) gut bomb that wouldn’t leave any room for my next meal. A few of the options below come close, but are still a reasonable snack, especially if you cut the bar in half.
For the sake of a sound comparison, I tried to taste test the same or similar flavors from every brand. Chocolate in some form is pretty much the industry standard, so that’s what I went with. Some of them forced me to venture into cookie dough or chocolate peanut butter varieties, but they’re still somewhere close to that chocolate baseline.
Brands with categories in bold text took the top ranking of the 12 bars for that specific category.
A quick note about red underlines and red boxes on the ingredients list – these are the main ingredients that concern me. Generally (not in all cases) the ones in boxes are artificial sweeteners and the ones underlined are fillers or “natural” sugar substitutes. Fillers (and “natural” sugar substitutes) aren’t always a bad thing, but the fillers explain why many of the bars have a high fiber content…because manufacturers want you to feel full and satisfied after eating one of their products…but just beware of the quality of that fiber when trying to hit your daily fiber intake goals.
While you’re at it, check out this article about potentially misleading product labels/nutrition facts (hint: several of these brands seem to only be counting net carbs toward the calorie content of the bar! I included some of the macro math in the nutrition section below – although every nutrition label is susceptible to the inaccuracies of rounding, some of the bars below seem to be off by 40-60 calories!). I’m not saying they’re intentionally misleading you…but something is definitely off.
Furthermore, my highlighting of sugar substitutes and fillers doesn’t mean there aren’t other ingredients you should concern yourself with. For example, I didn’t highlight fractionated palm kernel oil (which helps keep chocolate coating from melting), but that doesn’t mean the extra processing it goes through is great for you – it’s just not overly concerning in my opinion. The ever mysterious natural flavors added to them could deserve some attention too. I encourage you to have a look, set your priorities and judge for yourself!
*These bars are convenient to eat but in my opinion should be reserved for those times when you really do need a shelf stable protein snack that you can grab-and-go. Real food is generally cheaper and better for you than a bar, but I totally understand that it can be challenging to find/eat healthy food if you’re traveling or just really busy. #FoodForThought
This is a shot of the original 10 bars I intended to review…I added on the MuscleTech Mission1 Clean bars and the Pure Protein bars. And on that note, let’s take a look at how the rankings shook out!
- Taste: 8.5 – I wish that I had been able to snag a purely chocolate version of this bar for a good comparison, because I think the peanut butter was a little distracting in this bar when you put it up against a stack of all chocolate bars (I know, I know – I can’t believe I’m saying it either). The PB flavor was just a touch bland, but I did really like that it wasn’t too sweet.
- Texture: 10 – This bar overall is a little bigger than the others and has some nice layers and crunch to it. Just barely pulls ahead of Grenade Carb Killa bar in terms of texture.
- Nutrition: 270 cals / 20 g protein / 9 g fat / 29 g carbs (21 g sugar, 2 g fiber)
- Ingredients: Interesting ingredients list for this bar…it uses soy protein isolate as the number one ingredient, followed immediately by several different sweeteners (no artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols though, which explains the high sugar content). Overall, a surprisingly innocent list.
- Flavor Variety: (7 flavors) Chocolate, Chocolate Hazelnut, Chocolate Mint, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Cookies ‘n Cream, Crunchy Peanut Butter, Vanilla Almond
- Value: $21.48 for a 12 pack = $1.79 per bar
- Notes: If you can afford to fit the extra carbs in your daily macros or are sensitive to artificial sweeteners, this is your bar. This wrapper also says it’s low glycemic (although brown rice syrup, the #3 ingredient, is high glycemic) and uses non-GMO ingredients, including several organic ingredients. I gave it the top spot because the taste and texture are pretty much on point, it has great value and the ingredients list doesn’t make me nervous to eat it.
- Taste: 9.5 – This bar is not overly sweet but has a great chocolate flavor with a hint of caramel.
- Texture: 10 – This bar is the most visually appealing when you see the inside – it has nice layers and what looks like a cookie crunch layer topped with caramel-like sticky stuff (almost like a Twix?) and crisped rice under a chocolate coating.
- Nutrition: 210 cals / 23 g protein / 8 g fat / 20 g carbs (1 g sugar, 7 g fiber) – macro math gives you about 240 cals per bar
- Ingredients: Lots of ingredients in this bar, including 3 sugar substitutes: maltitol, xylitol and sucralose, plus several other additives, like polydextrose and glycerol as sweet fillers.
- Flavor Variety: (5 flavors) Chocolate Cream, Chocolate Crunch, Caramel Chaos, Peanut Nutter, White Chocolate Cookie
- Value: $29.99 for a 12 pack = $2.49 per bar
- Notes: I’m bummed that this bar has so many questionable ingredients…although I suppose that’s why it tastes so good. I couldn’t put it in the number one spot because of that.
- Taste: 8 – The flavor is nice and chocolatey and not overly sweet.
- Texture: 8 – These bars have a good crunch to them, but sadly no layers inside and the bar is just a little on the dry side.
- Nutrition: 230 cals / 20 g protein / 8 g fat / 25 g carbs (0 g sugar, 2 g fiber)
- Ingredients: The second ingredient in these bars is maltitol, followed by the filler glycerin – not a great start to an ingredients list in my opinion.
- Flavor Variety: (11 flavors) Chunky Peanut Butter, Cookies ‘n Cream, Creamy Peanut Butter, Dark Chocolate, Lemon Delight, Maple Almond, White Chocolate, Chocolate Strawberry, Brownie Crunch, Chocolate Espresso, Caramel Fudge
- Value: $14.95 for a 10 pack = $1.50 per bar
- Notes: These bars are gluten free, kosher, are touted as low-glycemic and are widely available at grocery stores, convenience stores, etc. Although they claim to be sugar free, there are 12 grams of sugar alcohols.
- Taste: 7.5 – The chocolate is pronounced and has a bit of a caramel flavor. It’s not overly sweet but it toes that line pretty closely.
- Texture: 8.5 – Nice and thick textured/crunch coating with a dense, chewy inside.
- Nutrition: 210 cals / 20 g protein / 7 g fat / 25 g carbs (5 g sugar, 12 g fiber) – macro math gives you about 250 cals per bar.
- Ingredients: A lot of added fiber in the form of isomalto-oligosaccharide, plus sucralose and glycerin.
- Flavor Variety: (9 flavors) Chocolate Cake, Birthday Cake, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Chocolate Coconut, Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup, Cinnamon Twist, Cookies ‘N Cream, S’mores, White Chocolate Raspberry
- Value: $26.99 for a 12 pack = $2.25 per bar
- Notes: If you like a more dense, chewy bar than the first three options, this is a great bar to take a look at.
- Bonus Flavor Review: I also tried the S’mores flavor of this bar – it’s just a bit less chewy, but still pretty chocolatey. I could detect a faint bit of marshmallow and graham cracker flavor. Overall, quite tasty.
- Taste: 7.5 – A little on the sweet side for me but a nice cookie dough flavor overall.
- Texture: 7 – Nice and soft with a good chocolate coating, although the inside of the bar is all the same texture – no crunch or chocolate chips that I noticed.
- Nutrition: 210 cals / 21 g protein / 8 g fat / 24 g carbs (1 g sugar, 10 g fiber) – macro math gives you about 250 cals per bar.
- Ingredients: A pretty short ingredients list, but it does include a lot of added fiber as well as the sugar substitutes maltitol and sucralose.
- Flavor Variety: (12 flavors) Almond Bliss, Birthday Cake, Chocolate Brownie, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Cookies & Cream, Lemon Cake, Peanut Butter Pie, Salted Caramel, White Chocolate Raspberry, Maple Glazed Donut, Mint Chocolate Chip, Blueberry Cobbler
- Value: $26.99 for 12 pack = $2.25 per bar
- Notes: These bars are gluten free.
- Bonus Flavor Review: I also tried out the Birthday Cake flavor of these bars – they’re still quite sweet but yummy. They have a nice white coating with sprinkles embedded on top. The inside isn’t overly dense or chewy and actually has a similar flavor to the Optimum Nutrition Cake Bites that I tried (see #11 below).
- Taste: 7 – Really chocolatey, but also a little too sweet.
- Texture: 7 – Nice textured chocolate coating with some pecan pieces visible on top. The inside is a little chewy and the little chocolate pieces scattered throughout the bar are hard to detect.
- Nutrition: 230 cals / 20 g protein / 8 g fat / 25 g carbs (5 g sugar, 12 g fiber)
- Ingredients: Kind of a lengthy ingredients list with a couple questionable ingredients including dextrose.
- Flavor Variety: (10 flavors) Birthday Cake Batter, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Chocolate Iced Brownie, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Cookies and Cream, French Vanilla Almond, Frosted Cinnamon Roll, Homemade Pumpkin Pie, Mint Chocolate Chip, Raspberry Chocolate Truffle
- Value: $27.99 for a 12 pack = $2.33 per bar
- Notes: The packaging says this bar is non-GMO, gluten free, and contains no artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners.
- Bonus Flavor Review: I also tried the Birthday Cake Batter flavor of this bar…it’s coated in a white confetti like coating that’s reminiscent of white chocolate and the inside does have a cake batter flavor. I was expecting more of a birthday cake flavor but this one does taste like the raw batter and is quite sweet. Overall not bad.
- Taste: 8 – The chocolate flavor is good and fudgy without the cloying sweetness of some of the other bars.
- Texture: 5 – There’s no chocolate coating on this bar, which makes it kind of sticky and dense to chew. It has some little chocolate chunks stuck to the top of the bar though.
- Nutrition: 190 cals / 20 g protein / 6 g fat / 24 g carbs (1 g sugar, 20 g fiber)
- Flavor Variety: (4 flavors) Chocolate Brownie, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Cookies ‘n Cream, Chocolate Peanut Butter
- Value: $22.99 for a 12 pack = $1.92 per bar
- Notes: They call this bar clean because it’s sweetened with Stevia and sugar alcohols, but be careful if you get a different flavor – some of them have sucralose.
- Taste: 6 – You can kinda-sorta taste the cookie dough flavor but honestly, it’s a little hard to detect through the sweetness.
- Texture: 7 – On the outside, this bar has a similar look as the Oh Yeah! ONE bars…a nice chocolate coating. On the inside, the Dymatize bars were even softer (too soft I thought), but they did have some good chocolate chips in there.
- Nutrition: 260 cals / 25 g protein / 8 g fat / 26 g carbs (7 g sugar, 8 g fiber)
- Ingredients: One of the longer ingredients lists out of the 10 bars I tested, but overall not bad. It’s sweetened with stevia and brown sugar and includes added fiber in the form of isomalto-oligosaccharide, plus glycerin as a filler.
- Flavor Variety: (5 flavors) Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Coconut Creme, Peanut Butter, Vanilla Cupcake
- Value: $24.84 for a 12 pack = $2.07 per bar
- Notes: These bars boast that they also include 4.5 grams of BCAAs per bar, which help muscles recover and grow, plus they’re gluten free.
- Taste: 6 – The taste starts out chocolatey and sweet but ends with an artificial aftertaste that’s reminiscent of something metallic.
- Texture: 6.5 – A little on the chewy side (and smaller than the other bars), but a nice chocolate coating with a center that has a few little chocolate pieces inside.
- Nutrition: 180 cals / 21 g protein / 4.5 g fat / 17 g carbs (2 g sugar, 3 g fiber)
- Ingredients: The sugar alcohol maltitol makes it’s way onto the ingredients list twice, as does sucralose. The #4 ingredient is the filler glycerin.
- Flavor Variety: (10 flavors) Chocolate Deluxe, Chewy Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Chocolate Peanut Caramel, Chocolate Salted Caramel, Dark Chocolate Coconut, Greek Yogurt Blueberry, Greek Yogurt Strawberry, Peanut Butter Caramel, S’mores
- Value: $7.85 for a 6 pack = $1.31 per bar
- Notes: Gluten free. Don’t eat this one if you have peanut allergies – it contains peanut flour (and almond butter). Also interesting to note that each bar contains 15% of your daily calcium value, which likely comes from the added calcium carbonate on the ingredients list. Pure Protein also offers a Pure Protein Plus line of bars with similar nutrition info that are non-GMO and contain no artificial sweeteners (sweetened with Stevia and sugar alcohols).
- Taste: 6 – I’ve had this flavor before and it used to taste chocolatey, but they must have changed their formula and now it tastes a little cardboard-y. Maybe it’s because I’m tasting it next to some really sweet bars?
- Texture: 5 – Quest bars don’t have a chocolate coating and this particular flavor doesn’t have much in the way of texture differences to keep me interested. It’s a bit dense too.
- Nutrition: 170 cals / 20 g protein / 7 g fat / 22 g carbs (1 g sugar, 15 g fiber) – macro math will give you about 230 cals per bar.
- Ingredients: These bars are gluten free and Quest claims that there is no added sugar, although they use sugar substitutes in place of regular sugar. There is also a ton of added fiber in the form of soluble corn fiber.
- Flavor Variety: (21 flavors) Chocolate Brownie, Apple Pie, Blueberry Muffin, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Cookies and Cream, Mint Chocolate Chunk, Mixed Berry Bliss, Oatmeal Chocolate Chip, Peanut Butter & Jelly, Peanut Butter Supreme, Rocky Road, S’Mores, Vanilla Almond Crunch, White Chocolate Raspberry, Banana Nut Muffin, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Cinnamon Roll, Coconut Cashew, Double Chocolate Chunk, Lemon Cream Pie, Strawberry Cheesecake
- Value: $24.29 for a 12 pack = $2.02 per bar
- Notes: Quest has a huge flavor variety and in my experience, the texture varies from flavor to flavor and has evolved over the last several years – some of their bars can be sticky and some of them can be a little dry and crumbly. I’m personally a fan of the Blueberry Muffin, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and S’Mores flavors. Side note – the last 7 flavors listed above are sweetened with Stevia.
- Taste: 4 – Way too sweet for me, it distracted from the intended flavor of the bar in my opinion.
- Texture: 5 – I thought the Opti-Bar was too chewy and after trying all the other bars, I found myself missing the chocolate coating on the outside. It does have some nice chocolate chips throughout though.
- Nutrition: 230 cals / 20 g protein / 7 g fat / 23 g carbs (4 g sugar, 9 g fiber)
- Ingredients: Overall not a terrible ingredients list and pretty short, though it does include fillers like isomalto-oligosaccharide, maltodextrin, and glycerin, plus the sugar alcohol erythritol.
- Flavor Variety: (5 flavors) Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Chocolate Brownie, Cookies ‘N Cream, Cinnamon Pecan, White Chocolate Raspberry
- Value: $26.99 for a 12 pack = $2.25 per bar
- Bonus Flavor Review: I also tested out the Birthday Cake flavor Optimum Nutrition Cake Bites. They have a nice white coating with sprinkles embedded on top of the coating. The inside is like a dense vanilla cake that’s a bit chewy, but pretty yummy.
- Taste: 5 – I thought the chocolate flavor in this bar was off, but at least it wasn’t overly sweet.
- Texture: 4 – This bar is smaller than the packaging makes it look…it’s actually a pretty small, dense bar with the same texture throughout and no chocolate coating.
- Nutrition: 200 cals / 20 g protein / 8 g fat / 25 g carbs (2 g sugar, 20 g fiber) – macro math gives you about 250 cals per bar.
- Ingredients: The number one ingredient in these bars is fiber…which is kind of a bummer for a protein bar. The second ingredient is almonds, which accounts for a lot of the fat in these bars – although healthy fat isn’t a bad thing in my book. Other than that, the ingredients list is pretty simple with the only questionable ingredient being xylitol.
- Flavor Variety: (9 flavors) Chocolate Brownie, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Chocolate Mint, Red Velvet Cupcake, Sugar Cookie, Peanut Butter, Vanilla Peanut Butter, Cinnamon Roll, PB&J
- Value: $24.99 for a 12 pack = $2.08 per bar
- Notes: You can buy single bars of each flavor on the Yup Brands website with free shipping (and 10% off when you use this link) – not bad if you want to try them out before committing to a 12 pack!
Even with 12 protein bar reviews, I know there are TONS of other options out there. Here are a look at some of the alternatives:
- Pro Supps MY BAR – A bit higher in fat than others (10 g), but otherwise similar. Sugar is the number 3 ingredient on it’s list, plus 3 sugar substitutes and evaporated cane juice. I suspect these are pretty sweet bars.
- Nitro Tech Crunch Bar – Pretty bro-ey packaging on these bars…plus the #2 and #3 ingredients are essentially fillers/fiber. Cane sugar plus 2 sugar substitutes on this one.
- Met RX Protein Plus – They recently redid their packaging to look nice and sleek…but it doesn’t hide the fact that they use a ton of sugar substittutes (maltitol syrup is the #2 ingredient), plus corn syrup and carrageenan.
- Gatorade Whey Protein Recovery Bar – Only 20 g of protein like the bars above, but each bar is 340 cals (with 29 g sugar per bar).
- Power Bar Protein Plus – Honestly, I remember eating these in high school and the thought of eating them now kind of grosses me out. What can I say? And don’t even think about putting one of those sticky original Power Bars near me.
- Luna Protein Bar – Only 12 g protein, gluten free, low glycemic
- Pro Max Protein Bar – 26g sugar per bar but no artificial sweeteners or fillers