Fall sports are back in action, and athletes — from pee-wee to professional — need their sustenance. Energy bars to the rescue! They’re portable, they fit easily in the pocket of your shorts, they keep well. And it’s not just athletes that they appeal to: Who among us hasn’t grabbed a bar for breakfast as we dash for the train, or turned to an energy bar when you didn’t have time for lunch? As a meal replacement, the energy bar game can be strong, especially if they are high in fiber and protein, which gives a feeling of fullness.
But here’s the thing: Not all energy bars are created equal. Every time I get to the bar aisle in a grocery store, I’m met with an exhaustive selection. Which ones deserve my attention? I’m not an athlete, but I am a food snob. I’m not going to waste calories on a bar that doesn’t taste good, and I don’t want my readers to, either. So, I decided to break it down for you.
Ideally, to do a taste test of 18 different energy bars, we would sample the same flavor across the board. Easier said than done in this category, as there was no consistent flavor between them, so we chose a popular flavor for each brand. The bars varied in grams of protein, sugar, calories, fat, and fiber, so we opted to rate them based on taste, mouthfeel, and general appearance. A word to the wise: Always make sure to check the ingredient list for added sugars and potential allergens.
Note: The energy bars for this taste test were all purchased at local grocery outlets including Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. I was joined for the tasting by two grad students from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management; their quotes are included.
The Clear Taste Winners:
LÄRABAR Peanut Butter & Jelly
(net wt. 48 g, 210 calories, 6 g protein, 20 g fat, 18 g sugar, 4 g fiber)
It “really tastes like a peanut butter sandwich — minus the bread, of course.” Very clean flavors and pleasant texture. One reason why LÄRABARs taste so good? No hidden ingredients. This bar is made with dates, peanuts, unsweetened cherries, and sea salt; no added sugars. All the sweetness is natural. Of course, all those nuts mean that nearly half the calories come from fat, and it’s not very high in protein. But delicious is a tradeoff, no?
OATMeGA Vanilla Almond
(net wt. 50 g, 200 calories, 14 g protein, 7 g fat, 5 g sugar, 7 g fiber)
This one was a real find. Lower in calories, fat, and sugar, and higher in protein than the other best-tasting bars, they’re also certified gluten-free. The name is a portmanteau of oats and Omega-3 fats, both of which are found in the bars. The first ingredient is grass-fed whey protein concentrate, and somewhere down the list is fish oil. But what you taste is almond and a waft of vanilla; there’s none of the graininess I usually find with added protein powder. Easy to see why this one is catching on, although I didn’t find it until the third grocery store.
KIND Protein From Real Food Crunchy Peanut Butter
(net wt. 50 g, 250 calories, 12 g protein, 18 g fat, 8 g sugar, 5 g fiber)
KIND is all about nutrient-dense foods, using whole nuts and grains and fruit, nothing artificial. Peanuts are the first ingredient on the list. That does not mean, however, that they are free of added sugar, and you’ll find honey, glucose syrup, and sugar a little farther down the list. Still, this had a great nutty crunch, good flavor, and a nice balance of salty/sweet.
GoodBelly Probiotics Cocoa Peanut Butter
(net wt. 42 g, 220 calories, 5 g protein, 13 g fat, 9 g sugar, 3 g fiber)
Anytime you can combine chocolate and peanut butter, I’m a happy camper. There were a bunch of different textures happening here: the underlying bar layer, which had a dense, cakey texture (and cocoa and chocolate chips!); the smooth peanut butter layer; and the chopped peanuts on top for crunch. Sweeteners include organic honey, maple sugar, and cane sugar, and this gluten-free bar uses puffed and whole-grain quinoa, and buckwheat flour and grits. Their trademark is the addition of probiotic cultures for a healthy gut.
CLIF Bar Peanut Butter & Honey with Sea Salt
(net wt. 68 g, 260 calories, 10 g protein, 8 g fat, 21 g sugar, 7 g fiber)
“These are my go-to bars, but I should probably branch out.” The sweet/salty balance is spot-on in this tasty bar, and we liked the texture, which was easy to chew and a good bar to consume while moving. But the ingredient list gives us some pause, since brown rice syrup (albeit organic) is the first ingredient, and organic honey is the second. Did I mention there’s also organic cane sugar farther down the list? Sigh. Taste comes at a price. Carbs make up 2/3s of this bar.
PHYTER Butternut Squash + Peanut Butter
(net wt. 50 g, 200 calories, 6 g protein, 9 g fat, 8 g sugar, 3 g fiber)
There were three bars in the taste test that weren’t shelf-stable; this by far was the best of the bunch. Don’t be put off by the sugar content above, as the butternut squash and raisins provide much of that sweetness (although there is some coconut palm sugar as well). Another gluten-free bar, this one has oats and rice flour, along with sunflower seeds, roasted peanuts, tapioca, and flax and pumpkin seeds. Other veggie-forward flavors include Sweet Potato + Coconut, Beets + Cocoa, and Kale + Apple.
PROBAR Meal Superfood Slam
(net wt. 85 g, 370 calories, 10 g protein, 18 g fat, 23 g sugar, 6 g fiber)
Yes, this is seemingly high in fat and sugar, but check out the size of this bar, nearly twice as large as the GoodBelly bar. This had a pleasant chewiness with a crunch; the flavor had a grassy back note, but didn’t taste straight-up meadow, which I suspected given the green sheen to the bar. All the trendy health ingredients are here: açai; flax, sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds; almonds, cashews, and peanuts; wheat, alfalfa, and barley grass. “This one makes me feel virtuous!” and “Sneaks up on you … surprisingly tasty!” were the comments.
TahiniBAR Superseed Energy Bar Pistachio
(net wt. 18 g, 100 calories, 2 g protein, 6 g fat, 5 g sugar, 1 g fiber)
These are a brand-new product from Absolutely Gluten-Free. Here’s the thing: Despite the name, these are essentially halvah bars. But they are delicious, and come in three flavors: cocoa nib, pistachio, and vanilla. They’re made with ground roasted sesame seeds (aka tahini), sugar, and some emulsifiers. They’re also a third smaller (or more) than the other bars. If, like me, you’re a sucker for halvah/tahini, these are the bars for you. If you’re looking for a protein punch, look elsewhere — or eat five of them.
ONE Almond Bliss
(net wt. 60 g, 230 calories, 20 g protein, 9 g fat, 1 g sugar, 8 g fiber)
These are low-carb, low-fat, high-protein bars, and with flavors like Birthday Cake, Blueberry Cobbler, Peanut Butter Pie, and Chocolate Brownie, you can see which direction they’re headed. But the sweetness comes from malitol, a sugar alcohol with half the calories of sugar, and about half as sweet. This flavor looked like a wonky Almond Joy Bar, and will thrill the coconut-loving (and diabetic) among us.
gomacro MACROBAR Prolonged Power Banana + Almond Butter
(net wt. 65 g, 270 calories, 10 g protein, 12 g fat, 13 g sugar, 3 g fiber)
These certified organic bars look a little like a LÄRABAR and are “toothsome” in texture, but organic brown rice syrup is the first ingredient, so not optimal. But still tastier than expected.
PERFECT Bar Almond Butter
(net wt. 65 g, 320 calories, 13 g protein, 18 g fat, 18 g sugar, 4 g fiber)
This bar was found in the refrigerated section. It was powdery and unpleasant, and decidedly imperfect.
thinkThin High Protein Bar Chunky Peanut Butter, Chocolate Dipped
(net wt. 60 g, 240 calories, 20 g protein, 9 g fat, 0 g sugar, 1 g fiber)
Another malitol-sweetened bar, which gives it a slightly bitter aftertaste, this could be an option for diabetic athletes looking for protein, but that doesn’t mean it tastes good. It just might be one of their only options.
CORE Bar Banana Dream
(net wt. 57 g, 250 calories, 7 g protein, 16 g fat, 7 g sugar, 5 g fiber)
Another bar refrigerated for longevity, although this one could sit at room temp for one week. All natural ingredients (oats, cashews, walnuts, banana, water, raisins, flaxseed, coconut, and cinnamon), but the effect was flavored wallpaper paste with a bitter aftertaste.
VeGa SPORT Crunchy Peanut Butter
(net wt. 70 g, 300 calories, 20 g protein, 11 g fat, 14 g sugar, 3 g fiber)
Tasted very protein powdery, and the chocolate coating tasted waxy and that made us angry. Talk about a bait and switch.
SQUARE Organics Chocolate-Coated Almond Spice
(net wt. 48 g, 220 calories, 12 g protein, 10 g fat, 13 g sugar, 2 g fiber)
Musty tasting spices and the chocolate coating had bloomed. No bueno.
BOBO’s Stuff’d Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Oat Bar
(net wt. 70.8 g, 330 calories, 7 g protein, 17 g fat, 16 g sugar, 6 g fiber)
Cute packaging (or cloying, depending on your tolerance level) but chalky, weird texture. A glorified bar cookie with none of the happiness. “This one just makes me sad.”
(net wt. 52 g, 210 calories, 12 g protein, 7 g fat, 15 g sugar, 4 g fiber)
Thanks for listing the straightforward ingredients right on the front. That didn’t make me like this when I tasted it. We had to wedge a knife through it; the toll it would take on your teeth is unpleasant to contemplate. “Tastes like thick, fake fruit leather.”
Garden of Life High-Protein Weight Loss Bar Peanut Butter Chocolate
(net wt. 55 g, 200 calories, 14 g protein, 8 g fat, 1 g sugar, 13 g fiber)
“This tastes like it would do in an airport in a pinch, but I’d pass it by at a grocery store with a good selection.”
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Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.