Whole foods are the most optimal choice when it comes to meals and snacks but let’s face it – we all like quick and easy meals, which makes protein bars pretty convenient in a pinch. While it would be much better to opt for an apple and some almonds or another quick and easy raw snack, sometimes we want something a little different.
Thankfully, plant-based protein bars are abundant these days, alongside all the whey-based protein bars on the market that you’ll want to avoid. Unlike plant-based protein, whey-based protein bars are heavily processed and extremely acidic to the body, no matter if they’re sugar-free, low-carb, low-fat, etc. And while it’s much better to choose a plant-based protein bar over an animal-based protein bar, many plant-based protein bars are still loaded with sugar and oils. To choose the best bars out of the protein bar bunch and avoid all the confusion, just follow these easy guidelines below for ultimate plant-based protein bar bliss!
1. Check the Sugar
Many plant-based protein bars have anywhere from 25-30 grams of sugar, which is more than twice as much as a plain Krispy Kreme glazed donut or half as much as some 16 ounce sodas! While that doesn’t mean you should have the donut or the soda, it’s probably best to choose a different bar. Even if the sugars come from natural sources like dates or agave nectar, it’s still a good idea to pay attention to how many grams of sugar are in processed foods like protein bars. Too much sugar in such a small serving can disrupt your blood sugar levels and possibly lead to weight gain, so go with a protein bar that’s made with minimal ingredients and the least amount of sugar possible. Anything right around 10 grams or under is optimal.
2. Check the Order of Ingredients
You’ll also want to look at where the sugar in the bar comes from. For instance, many plant-based protein bars often list agave or brown rice syrup as the first or second ingredient, which is definitely not a good thing. Ingredients on a nutrition panel are listed from the heaviest amount of ingredients used to the least amount of ingredients used. For example, if you see a protein bar that says: “BROWN RICE SYRUP, AGAVE NECTAR, DATES, ALMONDS, QUINOA, CINNAMON, SEA SALT”, that means that it contains more brown rice syrup, agave, and dates ( all sources of sugar) than it does the rest of the ingredients. Usually the first three ingredients found on a label are those that make up most of the product. So check your ingredients and if you see a source of sugar as one of the first three ingredients, you might want to choose another that lists fewer ingredients or has a lower sugar content. A better option would be something like: “HEMP SEEDS, HEMP PROTEIN, ALMONDS, DATES, COCONUT, CINNAMON, SEA SALT.”
3. Choose One Without Added Sugars
Added sugars are any type of sugar that isn’t in a whole food form. For example, dates are a whole food as are raisins, figs, etc. Brown rice syrup, agave, evaporated cane juice, evaporated cane syrup, brown sugar, coconut sugar, molasses, maple syrup, and coconut nectar are not. Though these are better than refined sugar, they will still raise blood sugar more than whole foods since they contain no fiber. They’re also more processed than whole foods are.
4. Check for Oils
It’s also a smart idea to avoid bars made with oils, even those that are healthy like canola, olive, or coconut oil. Like added sugars, oils aren’t a whole food. It’s much better to choose a bar that contains whole food sources of fats like almond, coconut, chia, flax, hemp, etc. These sources won’t only provide your body with healthy fats, but they also contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals that you won’t find in oils. An oil-free, plant-based diet has also been found to be beneficial for diabetes, heart-disease, and overall weight maintenance.
5. Pick One With Protein
I also always suggest picking a bar that has at least eight to ten grams of high-quality plant-based protein, with more being even better. Protein helps stabilize your blood sugar by slowing down the rate of which sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream. It also fuels muscle cells to build lean muscle and it keeps you fuller longer. A protein-rich bar is also great if you’re looking for to refuel your muscle cells after a grueling workout. Pair it with a post-workout smoothie for an even more filling option.
6. Check the Protein Source
The best plant-based protein sources come from those with a complete amino acid profile. This includes: sprouted brown rice protein, raw hemp protein, pea protein, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and spirulina. Most plant-based protein bars contain at least one or more of these options. Be sure to avoid heavily processed soy protein isolate, which is found in many plant-based and animal-based protein bars since it’s cheaper to use. While whole forms of soy are awesome foods, processed soy is a source of GMOs that you’ll definitely want to avoid in all forms.
7. Try One With Superfoods
I’m all about adding some superfood power into your day however possible, so why not in a protein bar? Many natural foods found in plant-based protein bars are already superfoods, but it never hurts to have a few extra “boosts” in your bar either. Some awesome ingredients to look for are: goji berries, acai berry powder, chia seeds, flax seeds, a green powder, cacao, maca, mulberries, goldenberries, camu camu berries, and spirulina. These will add flavor to your bars, not to mention provide you with tons of energy and nutrition in just a few bites!
8. Go Organic
Organic foods are incredibly awesome, even if they come from a somewhat processed protein bar. Most plant-based protein bars that meet the above ingredients are already organic. However, it’s much better to pay a tiny bit more for an organic bar that will taste better and be better for you than it is to choose one that’s been sprayed with chemicals and pesticides. Look for the USDA Certified Organic seal.
9. Go Raw
A raw vegan diet can be one of the most energizing ways to can eat, so if you’re going to choose a processed bar, raw options will likely be less processed than other varieties and possibly contain less ingredients. Some great ingredients to look for would be: raw hemp seeds, almonds, cashews, dates, raisins, stevia, chia seeds, sprouted brown rice protein, raw oats, etc. Again, try to choose one without agave or other added sugars as the best option.
10. Go Non-GMO
Choosing a bar (or any other food) with the certified Non-GMO Project label is always a smart move. This will ensure that your bar is free from all genetically modified ingredients. Most of the healthiest plant-based protein bar options already have this certification but it never hurts to double check.
Plant-based protein bars make great options when you’re short on time or want something a little different than fruits, veggies, hummus, and nuts for a snack. You can also make your own protein bars at home if you have some extra time. Here are some of our favorite recipes:
- Sugar-Free Plant-Based Protein Bars
- Emergency Vegan Protein Bars
- Vegan Hemp Seed Butter Protein Bars
- Raw Vegan Superfood Energy Bars
If you’d like, you can also create your own DIY vegan protein powder to use in the bars or in your superfood smoothies. These handy homemade options will save you money and be a healthy option anytime you need a snack at home or on the run!
Happy protein bar hunting!
Image source: How to Make Sugar-Free Vegan Protein Bars