The two aisles that I find most annoying in grocery stores are the yogurt aisle and the “protein bar” aisle. Tons of added ingredients and sugars. You walk in with good intentions, you walk out with confusion and frustration. So here’s how I go about choosing one:
Basic label reading:
- WHAT IS THE FIRST INGREDIENT – is it sugar or a sugar substitute, or does it make sense for what the item is. For a bar, I’d expect the ingredient to be: oats, nuts, seeds. The first ingredient is typically the ingredient that is most abundant in the product. Aka the thing that’s in the bar the most. Hence you want it to be a whole food other than a sugar or version of sugar (brown rice syrup, agave, honey, etc).
- What are the other ingredients, and what are the order in which they appear? Often the order matters, as they appear in order of density, aka which ingredients are used most are the ones listed first.
- SUGAR content – amount of sugars and added sugars. Added sugars is what I’m looking for most, as a lot of ingredients have naturally occurring sugars (especially if fruits are included in the bar). Most nutrition labels will included a separate added sugar column so you can see exactly what’s being added in.
- FIBER – fiber slows the absorption of sugar so helps prevent huge upticks in blood glucose. This helps control overall inflammation and prevents what sometimes masquerades as mood swings, irritability and not very long lasting energy.
- REFINED VEGETABLE OILS: these are typically omega-6 fatty acids which are inflammatory in nature and disrupt the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which should be close to 1. things like palm oil, sunflower oil, and palm kernel oil all fall into this category.
- Sugar alcohols / guar gums / added ingredients: These are often added as binders, stabilizers, and preservatives. If you’re prone to digestive issues, these may lead to feelings of bloating and discomfort.
- Can you pronounce all of the ingredients??? I apply the basic tenets of meal eating to snack eating and choosing a bar. Am I able to recognize each ingredient on the label without any question of what’s in there?
- “natural flavors” – this is kind of a blanket statement and not a specific ingredient. According to one source, “regulations do not restrict the dozens of other ingredients like preservatives and solvents that can go into a so-called natural flavor. Ultimately, because of the wide variety of ingredients that typically go into “natural” flavorings, “there does not seem to be much of a difference between natural and artificial flavors.”
If you’re caught in a situation where the bars that are available to you are things you don’t feel comfortable with, there’s always the option to reach for nuts, seeds, dried fruit, or whole fruit.
OR whip up if I have a busy week or am traveling. Just whole food ingredients, no additives or refined sugars / oils.
Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Protein Bars
- 2 cups oats
- 1 cup almond flour
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- pinch of sea salt
- 2 scoops protein powder of choice (I used collagen)
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1/2 cup peanut butter
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 1-2 tbsp almond milk
Blend all ingredients except almond milk. If dough is too dry, add 1 tbsp almond milk at a time until dough forms. Press into pan and refrigerate ~1 hour. Cut into bars.
For reference, I’ve included the ingredients of a few other bars below. Just so you can see which are based on whole food ingredients and which are not. As always, my goal is never to sway you in one direction of the other. But to present you with the information so you feel you can make the most informed and independent decision on your own!
RX chocolate sea salt: Dates, Peanuts, Egg Whites, Chocolate, Natural Flavors, Sea Salt, Cocoa.
- 13g sugar, 0g added sugar, (5g fiber), 12g protein
GoMacro apple cinnamon: Organic brown rice syrup, organic apples (organic apples, organic apple fiber), organic almond butter, organic walnuts, organic gluten free rolled oats, organic dates, organic protein blend (organic brown rice protein, organic pea protein), organic cinnamon.
- 10g sugar, 10g added sugar (1g fiber), 11g protein
LaraBar chocolate chip: CASHEWS, DATES, SEMISWEET CHOCOLATE* (UNSWEETENED CHOCOLATE, CANE SUGAR, COCOA BUTTER, VANILLA EXTRACT), APPLES, SEA SALT, VANILLA EXTRACT
- 15g sugar, 3g added sugar, 2g fiber, 3g protein,
Perfect Bar peanut butter: organic peanut butter, organic honey, organic nonfat dry milk, organic dried whole egg powder, organic rice protein, organic sunflower lecithin, organic sunflower oil, organic flax seed oil, organic sesame seed oil, organic olive oil, organic pumpkin seed oil, dried whole food powders (organic kale, organic flax seed, organic rose hip, organic orange, organic lemon, organic papaya, organic tomato, organic apple, organic alfalfa, organic celery, organic kelp, organic dulse, organic carrot, organic spinach).
- 18g sugar (18g added sugar), 4g fiber, 15g protein
KindBar chocolate peanut butter:
- Peanuts, almonds, honey, sugar, non GMO glucose, soy protein isolate, palm kernel oil, cocoa powder, peanut butter, chicory root fiber, tapioca starch, vanilla, whole milk, soy lecithin, salt
- 5g sugar (4g added sugar), 3g fiber, 6g protein
Luna s’mores: Protein Grain Blend (Organic Rolled Oats, Soy Protein Isolate, Organic Rice Flour, Organic Roasted Soybeans, Organic Soy Flour), Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic High Oleic Sunflower Oil, Chicory Fiber Syrup, Vegetable Glycerin, Organic Cocoa, Organic Palm Kernel Solids, Palm Kernel …
- 9g sugar, 9g added sugar, (3g fiber), 8g protein
ClifBar chocolate chip: ORGANIC BROWN RICE SYRUP, ORGANIC ROLLED OATS, SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, ORGANIC CANE SYRUP, ORGANIC ROASTED SOYBEANS, RICE FLOUR, CANE SUGAR, UNSWEETENED CHOCOLATE‡, ORGANIC SOY FLOUR, ORGANIC OAT FIBER, ORGANIC HIGH OLEIC SUNFLOWER OIL, COCOA BUTTER‡, BARLEY MALT EXTRACT, SEA SALT, NATURAL FLAVORS, SOY LECITHIN, ORGANIC CINNAMON.
- 21g sugar (21g added sugar), 4g fiber, 6g protein
Quest chocolate chip: Protein Blend (Milk Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Isolate),Soluble Corn Fiber (Prebiotic Fiber), Almonds, Water, Unsweetened Chocolate, Natural Flavors, Erythritol, Cocoa Butter, Palm Oil, Sea Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sucralose, Steviol Glycosides (Stevia).
- 1g sugar, 6g sugar alcohol, (12g fiber), 20g protein