Protein bars are insidious, menacing little gremlins. They’re capable of playing devious mind games and derailing diets, unassumingly, without receiving any of the blame when diets stall, or worse — spontaneously combust, opening the floodgates for fat to flow in.
At first glance, the prospect of a quick, convenient, high-protein infusion sounds fantastic. The blunt reality, though, is that most protein bars fall closer to chemically engineered, nuclear fuel rods than actual food itself. They’re a feeding ground for synthetic, processed ingredients, with a smathering of protein mixed in.
To varying degrees, manufacturers leverage high protein counts to mask the overwhelming amount of saturated fat, sugar, and artificial ingredients hiding inside, yet people continue to shove them down their esophagi, unfettered, as if they’re health food.
Let’s rehash a little game used in our review of Quest Bars. Below is the nutritional profile for three mystery bars — 2 protein bars, 1 Snickers — with their protein content stripped away:
Bar A — 410 calories, 12 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 28 g sugar1
Bar B — 300 calories, 8 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 25 g sugar2
Bar C — 250 calories, 12 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 27 g sugar3
Remove their precious protein — 31 grams and 20 grams, respectively — and the Met-Rx protein Bar/ProMax protein Bar look eerily similar to a Snickers, plus they’re loaded with A LOT more artificial sweeteners and ingredients (the Met-RX bar has SIXTY-NINE ingredients).
The Protein Bar Power Rankings — 30 Popular Protein Bars Ranked
We’ve power ranked 30 juggernauts from the protein bar universe based a number of factors, including: ingredient profile, protein quality, % of calories as protein, sugar, sugar alcohol, sweeteners used, fiber, and fat quality.456 Taste & flavor were EXCLUDED to filter out subjectivity; caloric composition — NOT volume — was used, due to varying bar sizes.
Bars are ranked in descending order (30→1), in order of quality, and fall into 5 distinct tiers:
Tier 1: Lean, Clean Powerhouses — Lean It UP’s top picks and the absolute best protein bars on the market; buy in bulk and stock up. They’re clean, lean, muscle-building powerhouses.
Tier 2: Upper Echelon — Not quite as pristine as the bars in tier 1, but high quality options in their own right. Whole food is still preferred, but they’re healthy to eat as a snack or post-workout on a regular basis.
Tier 3: Travel Companions – Seek out if you’re in a bind. Solid options if you’re on-the-go, trapped in an airport, or stuck on a golf course and need a protein-packed snack. Don’t buy them proactively though, and always opt for real food if it’s available.
Tier 4: Middle-of-Nowhere Bars — Last resort in a bind. These are edible as a last resort if nothing else remotely healthy is available. Think gas station or convenience store in the middle of nowhere. Don’t buy them proactively, and DO NOT eat them regularly.
Tier 5: The Nuclear Waste Zone – Do. Not. Put. Into. Body. These bars are complete garbage, either due to a poor nutritional profile or an overabundance of artificial ingredients and sweeteners. They should NEVER go into your body; you’d be better off with a McD’s Quarter-Pounder.
A few other notes on the rankings and protein bars in general:
- Protein bars are ranked and graded based on their utility as an everyday, protein-rich snack or meal replacement; NOT as a performance enhancer, intra-workout, or endurance booster.
- Rankings include the most popular bars from BodyBuilding.com, Amazon, and any other ones I’ve seen often in the wild (aka my local bodega or health food store). Prices are based on Amazon.com.
- Predominant protein quality is a critical marker of a bar’s overall quality and impact on the body. Whey protein isolate, whey hydrolysate, and egg protein are viewed as extremely HQ; whey concentrate, milk, rice, and casein are viewed as quality; soy and veggie-based protein are viewed unfavorably as low quality.
- Sugar alcohols are extremely popular in protein bars (typically sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, or erythritol); they’re a class of reduced-calorie sweeteners that substitute for sugar and have minimal impact on blood sugar. SA’s often have a laxative effect and cause major gastrointestinal discomfort (gas and bloating) in high doses, especially if you have IBS. Maltitol causes the worst GI pain.78
Tier-5: The Nuclear Waste Zone
30. Met-Rx Big 100 Colossal Protein Bar — $1.74/bar
Nutrition facts and ingredients are based on 1 flavor – randomly selected — for each bar. Nutrition and ingredients will vary slightly from flavor-to-flavor. For bars that come in small and large sizes, the smaller size was used. [↩]
All nutrition data is sourced from Bodybuilding.com and individual company websites [↩]
Bars must contain > 10g of protein for inclusion [↩]
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