The Best Protein Bars
The best protein bar should have enough protein to meet your dietary goals while avoiding unhealthy levels of sugar and fat. After consulting doctors and nutritionist, and taste-testing over 40 finalists to figure out which bars we’d actually want to eat, we landed on our top picks: tasty, healthy options for a post-workout refuel, for tiding you through lunch on a busy day, or for a health-conscious snack.
If you’re trying to build muscle mass, this bar has one of the highest protein counts we could find, at 21 grams — and it was a top pick during our blind taste test.
Detour SMART (Coconut Almond)
This low-calorie bar still provides a respectable 10 grams of protein. It was also the hands-down favorite of our taste-testing team.
GNC Total Lean Bar (Birthday Cake)
FitMiss Delight Bar (Lemon)
These bars provide a balanced mix of protein, fiber, and fat to tide you through a busy day, with a slightly higher calorie range than our “snack” pick. The GNC has a Rice Krispie texture, while FitMiss resembles a cookie bar.
Orgain Organic Protein Bar (Peanut Butter)
Most protein bars use dairy-based protein sources. Orgain Organic relies on plant-based protein instead, providing 10 grams per bar.
The Best Protein Bars
After researching nearly 200 protein bars and talking to multiple nutritionists and experts, we learned that there isn’t a single best protein bar for everybody. It depends on your nutritional needs.
If you’re a bodybuilder looking for a high-protein bar that actually tastes decent, the OhYeah! Nutrition ONE Bar delivers. It has one of the highest protein counts we could find, at 21 grams per bar. The tradeoff? It also has the highest calorie count (230 per bar) and contains 35 percent of your daily recommended saturated fat. In other words, make sure you continue to hit the gym religiously. The Oh Yeah! One Bar is available in 14 flavors; a box of 12 bars will run you about $25.
Looking for a protein-heavy snack? The Detour SMART bar in Coconut Almond has the fewest calories of all our top picks (130 per bar) and was voted “best-tasting” by our testers. It resembles a soft-baked granola bar and has real oats, fruit, and nuts inside — plus a respectable 10 grams of protein. Nine bars for $12.
If you want a protein bar to tide you over when “lunch break” is a wistful dream, the FitMiss Delight Bar and the GNC Total Lean Bar are more substantial than our snack pick and provide a balanced range of nutrients: 170 calories per bar — plus 15 grams of protein, moderate fat and high fiber to keep you feeling full. The GNC Total Lean Lean Bar has a Rice Krispie texture, while the FitMiss Delight is more like a cookie bar. A box of five GNC bars retails for $6, while a 14-bar box from FitMiss is about $12.
If you’re looking for a vegan-friendly option, the Orgain Organic Protein Bar was the only one of our top picks to use plant-based protein, providing 10 grams per 140-calorie bar. It’s also soy-free and gluten-free (although it does contain nuts). A box of 12 retails for about $20.
How We Found the Best Protein Bar
There are a lot of protein bars out there — including ones that might be better off in the candy aisle. We began with 171 contenders, pulling brands from retailers like Walgreens and Amazon, plus sites like Bodybuilding.com and even fitness forums on Reddit. But we knew we had a lot of weeding out to do.
We cut bars that weren’t actually a good source of protein
A surprising number of “protein bars” contain the same amount of protein you’d get from a serving of chips or a bag of microwave popcorn — in other words, not much at all. We learned that Special K’s Protein Granola Bar, for instance, contain just 4 grams. (A bag of mini-pretzels has about 3 grams.)
But if you’re going out of your way to eat a protein bar, you probably want something more substantial. So we only considered bars in which protein accounted for 30 percent or more of total calories.
Why 30 percent? It’s a moderately high amount of protein that will suit the dietary needs of a broad range of people:
- For an “average” person, the USDA suggests that 10-35 percent of your diet come from protein. A protein bar on the high end of this scale helps balance out meals that aren’t as well-rounded.
- Similarly, if you’re looking to build muscle, Monica Auslander, MS, RD, LD/N, and founder of Essence Nutrition in Miami, recommends 25-35 percent of your diet consist of protein.
- If you’re a low-carb dieter, Dr. Joe Feuerstein, MD and associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University, also recommends 30 percent protein.
Then we took a hard line on sugar
Plenty of protein bars use loads of sugar — or sugar alcohols like xylitol — to mask the less-than-palatable flavor of high protein. The Clif Bar, for example, is a popular protein choice, but it comes with 22 grams of sugar — that’s more than you’d get in a serving of Oreos.
“More than 12 grams and you’re eating a glorified candy bar,” Auslander told us. Capping sugar also helped weed out bars that simply weren’t as healthy: “If sugar is high, carbs and total calories are likely to be high, as well,” says Sarah Mattison Berndt, RD, MS, CPT — a dietician, personal trainer, and nutrition advisor for Complete Nutrition. “So sugar is a good indicator of the nutritional status of the bar overall.”
And we made sure each bar would leave you feeling full
To make sure our top picks provided more than empty calories, we also looked for these nutritional benchmarks:
A moderate amount of fiber. “Fiber contributes to satiety and it’s a really underappreciated dietary component,” says Emily Braaten, MS, RD, LD. “Most Americans aren’t getting enough.” The USDA recommends 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories consumed — or at least 1.4 percent of total calories. We cut any protein bar that didn’t meet that benchmark.
Not too many carbs. Carbohydrates aren’t bad for you, but too many net carbs — the sugar and starches left over after you subtract fiber — can cause blood sugar spikes and lead to increased hunger. “Ideally, I like to see no more than 15 grams of net carbs,” Feuerstein told us.
Then we conducted a taste test
These cuts left us with 44 bars. All looked decent from a nutritional standpoint, but we were wary: Protein bar connoisseurs know a product that looks good on paper can end up tasting like sidewalk chalk. We wanted something that was nutritionally balanced, but delicious.
So we rounded up all 44 finalists for a taste-test. And perhaps unsurprisingly, most of them received a massive thumbs-down from our testers. The NuGO Smarte Carb Bars (in Chocolate Black Cherry) reminded one tester of “cough medicine,” and we were told the MuscleTech Mission1 Clean Protein Bar “doesn’t taste like food.” In fact, the adjectives “weird,” “bad,” “artificial,” and “bitter” popped up again and again in our testing notes. Two protein bars received comparisons to dog food.
But a handful were actually tasty, and we eventually narrowed our picks to the top 10 bars that received the most positive response from our testers.
Our Top 10 Protein Bars
Our Picks for the Best Protein Bars
Best for Bodybuilders
If you’re trying to build muscle, you need protein — and a lot of it. Both Auslander and Feuerstein agreed that people who are bodybuilding or highly active should look for bars with at least 20 grams of protein. The Oh Yeah! One Bar delivers, with 21 grams.
But plenty of high-protein bars provide roughly this same level of protein. What sets the Oh Yeah! One Bar apart is taste. We tried its Almond Bliss flavor, which testers reported was “like an Almond Joy, but less intense,” with a “very subtle taste.” Others agreed, praising its coconut-y flavor and the fact that it wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet.
Know Your Proteins We couldn’t find a single best protein source — they all seem to be absorbed similarly by your body. Just make sure the type you opt for is compatible with any dietary restrictions. Most protein bars use calcium, milk, and whey proteins from cows, but common dairy-free and vegan choices include soy protein, plus protein from peas and brown rice.
It’s a fairly soft bar that required less intense chewing than options like the ANSI Gourmet Cheesecake Protein Bar or the Chef Robert Irvine FortiFX FIT Elite Bar, which testers found too dense to eat comfortably. And if you don’t like almond and coconut, the Oh Yeah! One bar does come in 13 other flavors, including Cookies & Creme, Salted Caramel, and Maple Glazed Donut.
The Oh Yeah! One Bar’s other standout feature is its high fiber content — 36 percent of the average person’s recommended daily intake — which, combined with the high protein level, makes it very filling. But no bar is perfect: The One Bar also has more saturated fat than our other finalists, at about 35 percent of your recommended intake. (Almost as much as a real Almond Joy.) This bar gets its protein from dairy sources, and a box of 12 retails for about $25.
Want even more protein? We suggest the Grenade Carb Killa, which contains 23 grams of dairy-derived protein. This bar wraps a layer of chocolate around a “cookie-like” center; it’s like eating an extremely chewy, extremely filling candy bar.
Our testers found the bar surprisingly sweet for something with such a hard-edged name: It’s sweeter than the Oh Yeah! One bar, with one tester noting it “had that candy feel that made me want to eat more right away.”
Still not enough protein? If 23 grams aren’t enough for your post-workout snack, Grenade Carb Killa suggests spreading a layer of peanut butter on your bar as an added boost.
Why didn’t this bar get our top ranking? Testers found it slightly less appetizing than the Oh Yeah! Bar — denser, chewier — and it came out of the wrapper with the outer layer of the chocolate melted, leaving a mess on our testers’ fingers. It also doesn’t come in as many flavors. We tried the Chocolate Cream, which we liked, but there are just four other options. Still, the Grenade Carb Killa does include slightly more protein, so if that’s your sole consideration, we give it the thumbs-up. A box of 12 retails for about $27.
Our testers had to get through a sticky layer of melted chocolate to get to Grenade Carb Killa’s cookie-like interior.
Best Meal Replacement
If you’re looking for a high-quality, healthy protein bar to eat for breakfast or lunch, here’s the advice we got from Berndt: “Most people looking for a meal-replacement bar are on the go and working to stay fit. To ensure you make a good choice and don’t end up with a pseudo candy bar, look for bars with 200-250 calories, 3-5 grams of fiber, a maximum of 5 grams of fat and 10-15 grams of protein.”
The problem? None of our 44 protein bars met all of those requirements. We’re highlighting our two favorite options, but as Dr. Feuerstein pointed out: “I don’t even know if you can find a bar with all of the things that a doctor or nutritionist might want.” Like we mentioned earlier: no bar is perfect.
First, there’s the GNC Total Lean Lean Bar. This bar is 170 calories — a lower calorie count than Berndt’s recommended range — but otherwise, it does a decent job of hitting her recommended nutrient levels. It’s heavy on both protein (15 grams) and fiber (10 grams), which should help you feel full longer. “Pair your bar with yogurt or a piece of fruit if you find yourself feeling hungry,” Berndt also suggested.
We tried GNC’s Vanilla Birthday Cake flavor, which had a crispy, chewy texture and tasted like a Rice Krispie treat covered in birthday cake frosting. While we liked it, be aware that it’s by far the sweetest of our ten finalists, with one tester noting, “I think I’d get tired of the birthday cake flavor really quickly.” Luckily, the bar also comes in Blueberry Yogurt and Chocolate Peanut Butter. The GNC Total Lean bar uses soy protein, and a box of five bars retails for about $6.
If you prefer a cookie-like texture and a flavor that’s less sweet, the FitMiss Delight Bar is also worth a look. It’s another 170-calorie option, with a nutrition profile that’s very similar to the Total Lean. The Lemon Cake flavor that we tested was tangy and slightly sour, with one tester comparing the bar to lemon Skittles. If you’re not a lemon fan, FitMiss also offers Salted Caramel and Chocolate Peppermint.
Depending on your dietary needs, 170 calories might be a little too small for a meal replacement, and both FitMiss and GNC are sweet enough that you might feel like you’ve eaten a dessert, rather than a meal. But if you enjoy sweet treats for breakfast, these bars are likely to hit the spot — especially paired with a cup of coffee. FitMiss uses dairy-based protein, and a box of 12 retails for about $14.
We did try a few bars marketed as meal replacements, but they didn’t perform well during taste tests and were often nutritionally lacking. The WonderSlim Meal Replacement Bar was only one of these contenders that made it into our final round of testing, but at 160 calories, it’s even less of a full meal than our top picks — and contains less fiber and more sugar, to boot.
Best for Healthy Snacking
If you’re looking for a high-protein, low-calorie snack, we recommend the Detour Smart Gluten Free Oatmeal Bar. This 130-calorie bar is easy on the sugar and fat, but includes a full 10 grams of protein. It was the hands-down favorite of our testing team, reminding us of a soft-baked granola bar — and for a truly soft-baked taste, you can even warm it up in the microwave.
Our testers all agreed that this bar tasted “natural” and “healthy.” The first item in the ingredients list is gluten-free organic rolled oats, followed by a dairy-based blend of proteins. We tested the Coconut Almond flavor and discovered that the bar included both grated coconut and almond chunks, which added to the feeling that we were eating something a little better for us than soy protein crisps covered in frosting.
This bar is smaller than the other protein bars we tested — it’ll fit into the palm of your hand — but if you’re looking for a satisfying snack, we highly recommend it. A box of nine runs about $12. It also comes in four other flavors: Apple Cinnamon, Blueberry, Cookie Dough, and Peanut Butter Chocolate.
We also loved the Ooh Snap! Crispy Protein Bar. It came in second in our taste tests, with testers reporting it was “just like a Rice Krispie treat.” It’s a heftier snack than the Detour Oatmeal Bar, at 150 calories, with 15 grams of protein. It also boasts more fiber than the Detour bar (10 grams, versus Detour’s 3 grams.).
The biggest drawback is that the bar itself isn’t particularly satisfying; it’s kind of like eating air, and although it’s got enough protein and fiber to fill you up, there’s less immediate gratification. In other words, it doesn’t taste like a heftier snack, and you may have to restrain yourself from eating more than one. A box of seven bars costs about $14. We tested the Vanilla Marshmallow flavor, but it also comes in Chocolate Peanut.
Best Vegan Protein Bar
The Orgain Organic Protein Bar is dairy, soy, gluten-free — and vegan. This is a standout feature in the protein world, where most bars rely on dairy-based calcium caseinate or whey protein isolate. Instead, the Orgain Organic Protein Bar’s 10 grams of protein come from organic brown rice protein, organic pea protein, and organic chia seeds. Certain flavors, like the peanut butter bar we tested, also include protein from peanuts.
Our testers had mixed reactions to the Orgain bar: Some loved it; some complained that the peanuts got stuck in their teeth. All of them noticed that the Orgain Organic Protein Bar was the only bar in our top 10 to include both sweet and savory flavors — the peanut butter bar had a salty, almost smoky taste — a plus for people who don’t want their protein bars to resemble candy or birthday cake. This protein bar felt like eating actual food.
There were a few drawbacks; the bars we tested were sticky and chewy, and some of our testers got peanut chunks stuck in their teeth. But if you’re focused primarily on health and natural ingredients, the Orgain Organic Protein Bar is the way to go. A box of 12 retails for $20, and the bar is also available in Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
Did You Know?
Don’t skip the ingredient list when picking out a protein bar.
“Remember that ingredients are listed in order of dominating weight, so pay extra attention to the first couple of ingredients listed,” Berndt recommended. “It’s like a snapshot of what makes up the majority of the bar.” Ideally, the protein source comes first or second, along with other whole foods like nuts or oats. In terms of red flags, favor bars with ingredients you can recognize and pronounce, said Feuerstein. “If you’re looking at a cheap bar made by a multinational corporation,” he explained, “by line two, you’re going to be deep in a chemistry lesson.”
Sugar alcohols give you low-calorie bars, but they can also give you gas.
Sugar alcohols — sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, and more — sweeten products while keeping the sugar count low. They’re great if you’re cutting calories, but they can sometimes cause gas, bloating, or gastrointestinal discomfort. Our bodies cannot completely absorb sugar alcohols, which means rather than passing into the bloodstream, they travel through the gastrointestinal tract. Once there, they can ferment, causing abdominal cramping, flatulence, and diarrhea. “A lot of people experience bloating after eating a protein bar, and this is why,” added Feuerstein.
If you’re considering a protein bar with a lot of sugar alcohols, try buying just one first — and making sure there aren’t any unexpected gurgles in your stomach — before committing to a 20-pack.
Protein isolates give you a lot of protein in a small package, but they’re not everyone’s favorite.
Protein isolates show up in most protein bars, and they’re exactly what they sound like: Protein that has been isolated from its source, whether soybeans, milk, or peanuts. Because isolates are very concentrated, bars can pack lots of protein into a small snack, but not all of our experts are fans of the practice. “It’s really hard to fit a lot of protein into a bar and make it affordable. So companies will use poor sources like soy protein isolates, other kinds of isolates, and other strange chemicals (artificial sweeteners, inulin fibers that can cause gas, gums, etc.), which I don’t love,” Auslander explained.
What makes a protein isolate a poor source of protein? Think of it like drinking a juice box; you’re getting a lot of juice in a small, highly processed package, but you’re losing some of the nutritional benefits that you would have gotten if you’d eaten a piece of fruit. A 2004 protein study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine notes that whey protein isolate, for example, can become “denatured,” which can “reduce the effectiveness of the protein.”
That said, the only bar on our top 10 list that didn’t include protein isolates was the Orgain Organic Protein Bar. In other words, protein isolates are really, really common — and, as Dr. Feuerstein reminded us: No protein bar is perfect.
Don’t forget about natural protein sources.
When you go to grab a snack, you could eat a protein bar — or you could eat two eggs. Or a single-serving tuna pouch. Or a tablespoon of peanut butter. There are a lot of natural protein sources out there, and many of them don’t have the extra sugar and preservatives packed into even the best protein bars.
Auslander recommended natural protein sources over protein bars, especially if you’re using protein bars as a meal replacement. “Why are you replacing meals with a bar, anyway? Dieticians always like food first!” She also suggested that you consider nut butter, cheese, yogurt, or cottage cheese after a workout, instead of always going straight for the protein bar.