As a meal replacer, pre- or post-workout treat, afternoon snack, or protein source, here are our top picks for the best tasting and most nutritious energy bars.
Text: Maureen Callahan, MS, RD
April 22, 2010
1 of 9Photo: Lee Harrelson, Styling: Mindi Shapiro
Our Top 8 Energy Bars
Spreading a little peanut butter on apple slices may be a healthier way to snack, but nothing beats an energy or protein bar for convenience. Trouble is, there are too many choices. So we munched and crunched numbers to find the best bars, ones that delivered on both taste and nutrition. It's a tricky business since a bar might offer lots of fiber (really good) and then negate things with trans fats (really bad). And sugars, even dried fruit, do add up. Here are our top picks for when you’re ready to grab-and-go.
We set the “bar” high. Our criteria for healthy bars: Protein: more than 3 grams; Fiber: more than 3 grams; Fat: mostly heart-healthy fats; Carbs: mostly whole grains with 10-20 grams sugar
2 of 9Photo: Lee Harrelson, Styling: Mindi Shapiro
Pros: Offers a nice balance of the nutrient "Big 3"—protein, fat, carb—in a sweet, almost candy-like, bar. With almost 10 grams of protein, the bars can double as appetite quenching snacks or a post workout protein boost. Sugar is about three teaspoons; lower would be nicer, but this is about average since sugars make bars taste good. (A Snicker's candy bar has 29 grams sugar.) Other pluses: Bars are made with 70% organic ingredients and are newly fortified with Vitamin D.
Cons: Geared just to women.
3 of 9Photo: Lee Harrelson, Styling: Mindi Shapiro
Pros: Leave chemical-tasting behemoth protein bars to the body builders. This pairing of peanut butter and dark chocolate offers a delicious 13 grams of quality protein. It's plenty to quench an appetite too. Also noteworthy: Agave nectar for the sweetener and a line that includes gluten, dairy, and soy-free choices.
Cons: Not as widely available as big name brands.
4 of 9Photo: Lee Harrelson, Styling: Mindi Shapiro
Pros: With flavors reminiscent of a slightly sweet Fig Newton, these organic bars deliver a blast of slow-digest carbs gleaned mainly from a mix of dried fruits, chia seeds, and rolled oats. Sugars are a little higher than our benchmark, but we've made an exception because studies show that carbs (plus a little bit of protein) before a workout give exercisers an energy edge, allowing them to workout longer and do more reps.
Cons: A little bit plain Jane in taste.
5 of 9Photo: Lee Harrelson, Styling: Mindi Shapiro
Pros: Made with nuts, seeds, and dried fruits, raw food bars harvest Mother Nature's finest energy with minimal processing. Ranking them depends on your priorities. Organic a must? Pure bars are 100% organic; our runner up, Cashew Cookie Larabar, is not. Fat an issue? Pure edges out Larabar with a little less fat (8 grams versus 13). Love variety? Larabars offer a deliciously longer list of flavors from Cherry Pie to new Tropical Fruit Tart.
Cons: Lower amounts of protein than most energy bars.
6 of 9Photo: Lee Harrelson, Styling: Mindi Shapiro
Pros: Most energy bars are too skimpy on calories to replace a meal. One bar we tried offered a tasty 400 calorie package but was skimpy on protein. Another bar delivered on protein but was dry as chalk. So our strategy: pair this higher calorie oatmeal cookie bar with real food. Add a couple of low-fat string cheeses or a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit to make a nice small meal. Other pluses: it’s fortified to replace nutrients missed at meals.
Cons: Nothing beats a real meal, but good in a pinch.
7 of 9Photo: Lee Harrelson, Styling: Mindi Shapiro
Pros: Half the size of most energy bars, this crunchy cookie-style gluten-free bar tastes like a cross between fruitcake and biscotti. With four grams of protein, as much fiber as many of the big bars, and just under five grams of fat, it puts up respectable nutrition numbers for a light snack. Use it to take the edge off hunger without ruining your appetite for dinner. Runner up contenders: newer mini size Luna and Clif bars offer a skinny 80 to 100 calories.
Cons: Not an option if you're allergic to soy.
8 of 9Photo: Lee Harrelson, Styling: Mindi Shapiro
Pros: Downsized to meet pint-size energy and nutrient needs, Z bars have enough sweetness to appeal as cookies. Yet, they offer a bit of protein and fiber to make a better snack. For teens and older kids: Clif Mojo Peanut Butter & Jelly offers a little less fiber than a PBJ on whole grain bread, but a little more protein too. At 220 calories and nine grams of protein, it's not a bad choice when older kids are caught without something to eat.
Cons: Doesn't let kids appreciate the best nutrition—whole foods.
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Convenience vs. Whole Food
Stashed in a backpack or purse, energy bars offer portable food at a moment's notice. But they can't trump real food when it comes to delivering the best nutrition. Our tip: pair bars with whole foods to up the nutrition ante. And be smart about fortification. If you're using a bar as a meal replacement, extra vitamins and minerals might be a good thing. Just take care that you don't overdo it. Quaffing a daily multivitamin and fortified bars, cereals, and other heavily enriched foods can add up to a dangerous nutrient overload. Bottom line: Bars are good for occasional use, but their convenience comes with a much higher price tag than just as nutritious whole food.