The Best of the Bars: A Beginner’s Guide

Isabel Hulkower, Columnist

Like your advisor who you’ve never met and are desperately trying to seek out in the half hour before your registration time, protein can be as elusive as it is important. Protein is an undisputed necessity for energy and daily functioning and should be in absolutely every meal you eat. The constant need for protein can actually become a little oppressive, as the athletes among us may inform you. Becoming aware of this dietary requirement can transform it into a quest of sorts, forcing you to perpetually seek protein-rich foods in order to stay mentally and physically sharp.

On this campus, we are blessed with a charming little institution called DeCafé that provides numerous options for a protein fix if you’re feeling overexerted or cranky. But what’s the best choice? Meat, eggs and dairy products are the obvious front-runners, but unless you have the time, energy and resources to cook during the middle of the day, a protein bar is probably your best option. There are dozens of different bar-shaped snacks lined up for the taking, which begs the question — what should we look for in our protein bar experience?

The lowest standard to hold your bar against is whether it’s more nutritious than a legitimate chocolate bar. If your protein bar is truly comparable to candy, then you should probably kick it to the curb. You may be sacrificing taste for nutrition, but there’s always a price to pay for a healthy lifestyle.

Beyond that, there are several other key attributes that characterize quality protein bars. First and foremost is protein content. Though this seems like a given, it holds a surprising amount of variability. DeCafé carries KIND bars, which have six or fewer grams of protein, as well as CLIF Builder’s bars, which have 20, and many more that fall in between these two extremes. The bodybuilding community is pretty wedded to the idea that you should not eat any type of meal bar with less than 20 grams, but for the general public, 10 or so is plenty for a snack.

But protein content is only one piece of the nutritional puzzle. If your bar is loaded with sweetener, it’ll send your blood sugar soaring and set you up for an unpleasant crash. For comparison, a 1.56-ounce Snickers bar has 20 grams of sugar, which is less than some types of CLIF bars and CLIF Builder’s bars. Most of the other options hover around 15 grams (which is still not ideal), but LUNA, Fiber One, PowerBar Protein and KIND bars all have 13 or fewer grams of sugar.

The last thing to bear in mind is how weird the ingredients are. These bars can be a cesspool of artificial, unpronounceable stuff which is good to avoid when you can. Fewer chemicals and purer foods are great when you can find them, and with that in mind, you might want to steer clear of the Milk N’ Cereal bars. Those bad boys have all types of non-food ingredients, including tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), a preservative that is used in varnish, lacquers and resins to stabilize possibly explosive compounds. This one comes down to personal choice, but the rule of thumb about only eating things with ingredients you recognize is extremely applicable in the chaotic world of protein bars.

Given all of this, it seems like a standard PowerBar is the best available option. They hover around 20 grams of protein and 12 grams of sugar, and boast mostly discernable ingredients. Really, though, this article is devoted to my personal sadness regarding NuGo Slim bars, which DeCafé carried for several years but no longer stocks. Those little miracles had two to three grams of sugar and 15 to 17 grams of protein and tasted like artisanal truffles! Knowing what you want out of a snack is the first step toward successful munching, so go eat some protein, STAT.