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Sure, a “protein bar” can be a good option for recovery after a hard ride, but do they make for good snacks? As more and more athletes opt for protein bars and energy bars as part of their everyday food choices, it’s important to determine which, if any, works as a healthy snack. You see, some bars are full of nutritious, whole-food ingredients, while others are little more than an expensive, glorified candy bar on steroids. This week, we’ll discuss five criteria for judging a protein bar as an everyday snack, apply these criteria to a few popular ones on the market, and even make our own protein brownies (in less than 15 minutes prep time).
Recipe of the Week: Homemade Brownie Protein Bars with Dairy-Free and Crunch Options
- 1 can no-salt-added black beans, drained and rinsed thoroughly (or 1 3/4 cup cooked black beans)
- 4 large cage-free organic eggs
- 1/4 cup Greek yogurt or 1/4 cup coconut milk
- 2 Tbsp organic coconut oil, melted
- 2 scoops (~6 Tbsp.) high-quality protein powder to equal 40 grams protein (whey, soy, pea, rice, PB2)
- ¼ cup cocoa powder
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup organic honey or real maple
- ½ cup 70%+ chocolate chips or chopped chocolate bar
- Optional crunchy add-ins: 1/2 cup cocoa nibs, hemp seeds, or chia seeds
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Grease an 8-inch baking pan with organic coconut oil or spray. Place all ingredients, except chocolate chips in the bowl of a food processor and blend well until completely smooth. With a spoon, gently stir in the chocolate chips and any optional crunchy add-ins. Transfer mixture to the prepared pan. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until just set in the center. Cool completely before cutting into bars. Makes 12 brownie bars.
***Most recently, I’ve been making these brownies for myself and my family with coconut milk, maple syrup, and chocolate pb2.
With such a healthy, easy, chocolaty, and inexpensive brownie bar recipe, you’ll likely never need to buy a protein bar again. Right. Even with my best intentions, I find that buying commercial products from time to time a necessity. At least for back up. For those days when I ride a little longer, and spend a little less free time in the kitchen. But don’t get me wrong. I do my best to steer myself, my kids, and my clients away from “products” for everyday nutrition, and towards whole foods.
Still, I do also live in the real world, and I know that a “bar” sometimes just fits the bill. It offers “Grab ‘n’ Go” convenience. It’s quick, easy, and not messy (for breakfasts in the car). So, how do you pick an acceptable snack protein bar at the store? Here’s what I look for:
- First, I try to identify any refined carbohydrates. I look at both refined grains and sugar sources. If the bar uses grains, I want them to all be 100% whole. If sugar (which most do), I look for “real food” types of sweeteners (organic honey, molasses, real maple, fruits, etc) and aim for no more than 10 grams sugar per serving, and 20 grams or less of carbs.
- Next, Fats. Absolutely no hydrogenated oils. Then, I look for good sources of fats…specifically organic coconut oil, nuts, high oleic oils (such as high oleic sunflower or high oleic safflower). I don’t like to see soybean, cottonseed, or corn oil.
- Number of Ingredients/Chemical Ingredients. I “heart” most any bar with ten ingredients or less. If more, I want to have an idea of what the ingredient actually is. Not too much to ask, right?
- Since we’re talking protein bars, I look for one with 10 grams of protein or more. In fact, I think any snack should include a protein source, and we should steer clear of pure carb snacks.
- Overall Satisfaction/Taste: Of course, it’s gotta taste good, “settle” well, and not leave me hungry 30 minutes later.
If you think I’m hard to please, you’re right.
Let’s take a look at a few bars on the market and see how they stack up. And, we’ll compare them to this week’s recipe of the week:
Pro-Bar (Peanut Butter Chocolate):
Nutrition: 290 calories, 10 gm total fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 0 grams transfat, 400 mg sodium, 30 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 15 grams sugar, 20 grams protein
Ingredients: Soy Protein Isolate, Organic Tapioca Syrup, Ground Peanuts, Organic Agave Syrup, Glycerine, Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil, Organic Agave Inulin Partially Deffated Peanut Flour, Omega Blend (flaxseed, chia seed), Tapioca Starch, Cocoa, Organic Soy Protein Concentrate, Natural Flavor, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Cocoa, Unsweetened Chocolate, Gum Arabic, Rosemary Extract, Tocopherols added to protect flavor, Citric Acid, Ascorbic Acid.
Overall Comments: Overall, this bar uses really good, high-quality ingredients. It’s vegetarian based, gluten free, and dairy free. However, 2 of the top 5 ingredients are refined sugars/syrups. Also, very few whole foods are used – most ingredients are portions of foods, isolates, etc. The calorie level is a bit high for a snack, so it could work as part of a meal on the go. At only 15 grams of sugar, this bar can work within a meal or a large snack on a sedentary or active day.
As a snack bar, 3.25 stars (out of 5).
Clif Builder Bar (Chocolate):
Ingredients: Soy Protein Isolate, Beet Juice Concentrate, Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Palm Kernel Oil, Organic Rolled Oats, Unsweetened Chocolate, Cocoa, Organic Soy Protein Concentrate, Vegetable Glycerin, Natural Flavors, Organic Dry Roasted Almonds, Rice Starch, Cocoa Butter, Inulin (Chicory Extract), Organic Milled Flaxseed, Organic Oat Fiber, Organic Sunflower Oil, Soy Lecithin, Salt.
Overall Comments: Overall, I think this bar uses good, high-quality ingredients. Also, it works well for anyone who wants a vegetarian/vegan high-protein bar (20 grams protein). However, I do think it is rather high in sugar (20 grams), and the sugar sources are brown rice syrup and evaporated cane juice, which are refined sources. Also, at 270 calories, it’s more calories than most would need for a snack (but, this is highly variable). Overall, this one’s best left for an active day, or as a recovery option. It’s too high in sugar for a sedentary day at the office.
As a snack bar, 3.25 stars (out of 5).
KIND Bar (Almond, Walnut, Macadamia + Protein):
Ingredients: Mixed nuts (peanuts, almonds, walnuts, macadamia, cashews, brazil nuts), soy crisp (soy protein isolate, tapioca starch, salt), honey, Non GMO Glucose, chicory fiber, soy lecithin,
Overall Comments: This one scores high with me. Only 13 ingredients total, even when counting all the nuts separately. Also, a good choice for anyone who wants a vegetarian choice, but it doesn’t work for someone who wants a completely vegan bar (due to the use of honey). I would love to see “organic/raw honey” as conventional, highly processed honey is void of almost all its natural benefits…and, of course, I could do without the added glucose (simple sugar). However, it’s likely a very small amount since its way down the ingredient line and the entire bar only contains 8 grams of sugar (including the honey).
As a snack bar, 4 stars (out of 5).
Nature’s Valley PROTEIN Bar (Peanuts, Almonds & Dark Chocolate):
Ingredients: Roasted Peanuts, Almonds, Soy Protein Isolate, Chicory Root Extract, Sugar, Vegetable Oils (Palm Kernel, Palm Canola), Roasted Sunflower Seeds (Sunflower Seeds, Sunflower Oil), Toasted Coconut, Whey Protein Concentrate, Tapioca Syrup, High Maltose Corn Syrup, Fructose, Cocoa, Vegetable Glycerin, Rice Starch, Rice Maltodextrin, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Dextrose, Baking Soda, Natural Flavor.
Overall Comments: While this protein bar is much better than many high sugar, low protein granola bars on the shelf, it still doesn’t really fit as a whole-food bar. It has too many refined sugar sources, and even a couple refined starches (rice starch, rice maltodextrin).
Overall, better than your average granola bar and worse than a whole-food bar. I’d give it 2.75 stars.
Homemade Brownie Protein Bar
Ingredients: See above.
Overall Comments: Of course, since it is an Apex Recipe of the Week, it is the perfect food, and perfect recipe. Actually, it’s a bit unfair since I started with my criteria, and then worked backwards. I like it because it uses organic honey as its only sugar source, complex carbohydrates like black beans as a base (you won’t taste them), 2 whole food sources of high quality protein (and one protein powder), and healthy fats in organic coconut oil. It’s a tad bit too high in sugar…maybe I’ll keep working on that. And, it is clearly not vegetarian or vegan, which some readers may desire. As a side note, if you think black beans are a no-go in a brownie bar, let me assure you no one in my household has detected them, and a batch lasted little more than a day (and my kiddos are generally very suspicious of my baked goods).
I’d give it 4.25 stars, but you can be the unbiased judge on this one.
If you’re looking for a high protein snack bar, choose, or bake, wisely. Remember, most sports bars are designed for training nutrition, not daily nutrition. They are often high in calories, refined carbs (because you need efficient fast carbs on the bike), and sodium. This is a good thing when you’re pedaling, but not necessarily when you’re sitting in front of your computer.
And although I usually recommend simple (and easy) whole food options such as nuts or hard-boiled eggs and a small piece of fruit as a snack, clients ask for bars. I get it. Bars are in. They fit a niche, and they are convenient. If you’re wondering about my opinion of your go-to bar, please leave a comment and let me know which one you’d like me to add to the review. This week, let’s make (and choose) the best of them!
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