Loving the BITE: Protein Bars Exposed



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


  • 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
  • 2 Tbsp organic coconut oil, melted
  • 2 scoops high-quality protein powder to equal 40 grams protein (whey, soy, PB2)
  • ¼ cup cocoa powder
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ cup organic honey
  • ½ cup 70%+ chocolate chips or chopped chocolate bar


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. 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.

*To make Dairy-free, omit yogurt & increase organic coconut oil to 4 Tbsp.


With such a healthy, easy, chocolatey, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

Clif Builder Bar (Chocolate):

Nutrition: 270 calories, 8 gm total fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 0 grams transfat, 230 mg sodium, 30 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 20 grams sugar, 20 grams protein

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):

Nutrition: 190 calories, 12 gm total fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 0 grams transfat, 170 mg sodium, 14 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 5 grams sugar, 10 grams 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):

Nutrition: 190 calories, 12 gm total fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 0 grams transfat, 170 mg sodium, 14 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 5 grams sugar, 10 grams protein

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

Nutrition: 170 calories, 6.4 gm total fat, 3.5 grams saturated fat, 0 grams transfat, 50 mg sodium, 22 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 13 grams sugar, 10 grams protein

Ingredients:  See above.

Overall Comments:  Of course, since it is a LovingTheBite 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.  So, this week, let’s make (and choose) the best of them!

Fuel Your Ride.  Nourish Your Body. 

Enjoy Your Ride

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13 Responses to “ Loving the BITE: Protein Bars Exposed ”

  1. Todd on November 14, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Looking forward to trying this recipe. Does it matter what flavor or protein powder to use? I usually have just some form of Vanilaa around the house.
    Also, have you had a chance to review the Quest Bars? They seem to be catching on.

    • Kelli Jennings on November 15, 2012 at 1:37 pm

      Hi Todd, Hope you like the protein brownie bars. I used unflavored Natural Factors whey protein in the recipe, but I think unflavored, vanilla, or chocolate will work. If your flavored protein is sweetened (usually with a sugar sub like Stevia), the brownies will come out slightly sweeter than the original recipe, but should be fine as the originals are not overly sweet to begin with. I have not reviewed Quest bars, but will add those to my list for the next Protein Bar post. Thanks for the comment and all the best!

  2. Kelli Jennings on October 11, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Just in case anyone misses it in my reply to Justin below – let’s put more bars, that you like to eat as snacks (not on the bike), to the test. Let me know which ones you’d like me to review, and we’ll do a Bars Exposed Part 2 sometime in the near future.

  3. Justin on October 11, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    I always have bars around for when I need a quick snack or feel hungry. I often wonder if I’m making the best choice so this information is quite valuable to me. I’ll be taking a closer look before grabbing the next set of bars. I like some of the other bars from clifbar and I wonder if those are any better then the builder bars.

    • Kelli Jennings on October 11, 2012 at 4:55 pm

      Hi Justin, Thanks for your comment. It’s definitely worth looking at the differences in bars even within one brand, such as within Clif Bars. They do market some more for Training Nutrition, and others for everyday nutrition, so some of their other bars may be more suitable for a snack. And, I do think Clif Bar does a good job overall of choosing high-quality ingredients. I was asked specifically about “protein” bars for this post, and eating them as snacks, but I think it would certainly be worth a 2nd post that includes other bars often eaten for snacks. If you, or any other reader wants to request a specific bar, please let me know and we’ll review them! Coming soon…

  4. Brent on October 11, 2012 at 11:11 am

    It’s good to see you giving the Kind bar a good rating. Those are the bars that I eat most often and have always enjoyed them. It’s nice to get a second opinion on them.

    • Kelli, RD on October 11, 2012 at 11:40 am

      Yeah, I’ve always liked them too, and I am happy to see that they offer some with more protein now. Whether protein added or not, they always use minimal ingredients and whole foods. And, they taste good!

  5. Al on October 11, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Beans and chocolate? Okay, I’m willing to give it a go. I’d much rather make my own bars so I hope I like them.

    • Kelli, RD on October 11, 2012 at 9:59 am

      That’s what I thought, too, before I started experimenting with it…they seems to just work as the starchy component, not really contibuting to the taste (which is a good thing, in my opinion). Anyway, I’ll be making more batches of these for me! I hope you like them!

  6. Shawn McAfee on October 11, 2012 at 7:54 am

    Awesome recipe! I’m going to try that out soon. Thanks!

    • Kelli, RD on October 11, 2012 at 10:00 am

      Thanks Shawn…I hope you like them!

  7. JD on October 11, 2012 at 6:54 am

    Wow. This is some of the best information on protein bars that I’ve ever seen all in one spot. I need to read through this one more time and I must also try the brownie bar recipe as well.

    • Kelli, RD on October 11, 2012 at 10:06 am

      Thanks JD! Keep choosing the whole foods (or whole food recipes/bars) for snacks! I hope you enjoy the protein brownies!


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Sugar Alternatives for Energy and Hydration

Question: I am using the homebrew sugar formulations (sometimes added to green tea).  I am also trying to wean myself off 1/2 dose adrenalean “lip tonic delivery system” (biorhythm brand- caffeine, hoodia g, synephrine, yohimbe) capsule for energy.

My question is other than juice, can you suggest modifications in lieu of table sugar for energy and hydration.


Both raw/organic honey or agave can work great in the homebrew (substitute in the same quantities for the sugar, or to taste), but you do have to shake well in order to make sure they don’t settle out.  Have you tried either of these?  Also, make sure to use at least the minimum amount of salt recommended in the homebrew as the temps rise, you need the sodium replacement if you’re sweating.

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Please send us your questions for our Expert Sports Nutritionist, Kelli Jennings to “Ask the Sports Nutritionist“. Kelli Jennings is a Registered Dietitian with a passion for healthy eating, wellness, & sports nutrition. For more information go to www.apexnutritionllc.com.

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