Looking for the tastiest energy bars for a quick snack, meal replacement, recovery, or on-the-go fuel? We can help! We researched over 100 different types of energy food, including energy chews, protein bars, and meal replacement bars and tested the most compelling favorites along with some hot new choices. Below we have detailed our favorites, a list that we are continually adding to as we continue to sample new products on all of our adventures. Whether you are vegan or gluten-free, prefer fast-acting sugar or the slow burn of low-glycemic fuels, need the ultimate backpacking snack, or just want to crush your hunger, we have an ideal choice for you.
The Best Energy Bars of 2019
100% Organic, non-GMO, Gluten-Free
Kate's Real Food is a meal replacement bar that is literally everything that we could ask for in an energy bar. This small, calorically dense bar has two servings per package that add up to around 260 calories, yet remains incredibly light and airy in your mouth. The texture is all fresh crunch, with no sticky gooiness to get stuck in your teeth, and not a hint of unnatural, powdery aftertaste. On that note, this is the only bar that we tested that has 100% organic ingredients, which would garnish it with a whole string of clapping hands and fist bump emojis if our designers would allow those here. We tested a variety pack full of different flavors, which turned out to be a problem because we never felt like we got enough of each kind, and don't even think about asking us which is our favorite — they all are!
Normally we like to contrast our effusive praise for top-notch products by also highlighting their weaknesses, but in this case, we can't even think of any. It's true that these bars aren't cheap, but what energy bar is? For 260 calories, we think they are still a great value. And we could mention the sugar (9g per serving, or 18g per bar), but a closer dive into the ingredients list reveals that organic honey is the only added sweetener, besides fruit and real chocolate. While this may bum out the vegans, more emojis would indicate our preference for organic honey than brown rice syrup, the most common sweetener used in the energy bars listed below. If great taste, interesting and natural texture, and healthy ingredients are your jam, you will not find a better bar than Kate's Real Food.
When we think of energy bars we most often conjure up an image of a rectangular cube of dense, chewy "food" that is not easily identifiable, and a taste that is anything but "natural." But it doesn't have to be that way! Enter the Honey Stinger Organic Waffle, our most loved quick snack. Modeled after the Dutch Stroopwafel, two thin wafers sandwiching caramel goodness in the middle, these waffles are satisfyingly chewy, but not gooey or sticky, and taste just like — you guessed it — honey waffles! Wafer-thin, they are very packable; it is no problem to stack two or three of them into a pocket. They are also one of the most calorically dense snacks we tested, ensuring that they not only pack a real punch when your energy starts to flag, but also offer great value for the money spent. That's not all — we have to give a shout out to its 100% organic ingredients, showing that it is possible to mass-produce affordable organic snacks.
The main downside to these tasty treats is that they are too tasty. Indeed, many of our testers reported a slight addiction and found that they had a hard time limiting their snacking to only when it is needed. They are also a bit crumbly, especially if they have been tossed around in a pack for a while — expect a mess upon opening, which makes them a much better outdoor snack. We love their texture while warm but have noticed on more than one day of backcountry skiing that these things turn brick-hard when the temperatures drop, so consider packing them inside your outer layer. If you want quick-hitting, sweet-tasting energy but don't enjoy bars as they are typically conceived, we highly recommend the Honey Stinger Organic Waffles.
The most unpleasant stereotype about protein bars usually proves to be true — that their texture is that of raw powder. We find this powdery texture to be mildly off-putting at best, and downright gag-inducing at worst, so were pleasantly surprised to discover that the KIND Protein Bar is actually a protein bar. There is not a hint of that powdery texture when chewing it, and most of our blind taste testers found its very crunchy, nutty composition aided by a dark chocolate coating on one side (we tested the Double Dark Chocolate Nut flavor) to be among the very best of all those we tested. This simply shouldn't be the case for a protein bar, but it is! The salty finish does a nice job appealing to more of our palate than just the sugar zone. With 250 calories per serving, it is also one of the most calorically dense bars you can buy and can be bought for almost the same price as a grocery store granola bar, offering fantastic value.
The most noticeable downside to these bars is that they are half coated in chocolate, which means they are easily melted in the sun or in a pocket. Melted bars are not only a pain to eat, but the finished wrappers often leave a mess as well. They are also not organic, and the number one sweetener listed on the package is glucose syrup, a processed ingredient that is also very high on the glycemic index, despite packaging claims of "low glycemic index." Those who want the most protein possible may not be impressed with the "only" 12g per bar, compared to 20g in a Clif Builder's Bar. But if you like getting your protein mostly from nuts, and the texture of regular protein bars is off-putting, we think you will like the KIND Protein Bars.
95% Organic, Gluten-Free
Energy Chews have quickly become one of the most popular ways of ingesting easily digestible carbohydrates in the form of sugars during intense exercise. We tested four varieties of chews and found the Honey Stinger Energy Chews to be the best and most enjoyable. They taste great, and reminded more than one person of eating the fruit snacks they loved as a child; except honestly, these are better than fruit snacks! They lack the waxy, stick to your teeth texture we found ubiquitous in the less loved chews, making them very easy to pop in your mouth and either suck on or swallow without needing a lot of water to chase them down. Online commenters alerted us to the fact that these can be a great quick sugar hit for diabetics, although we didn't test them for these purposes. We once again love that virtually all the ingredients are sourced organically.
The downside to eating energy chews is that they are pretty much nothing but sugar, meaning you should not indulge your cravings and treat these like candy. Eat them only during the middle of long, strenuous workouts when normal food or bars may not seem very appetizing, and you need to keep your energy levels high. Since they are straight-up sugar, expect a crash, which many athletes will stave off by simply carrying on eating more gummies until they are finished. Athletes who prefer to fuel themselves with fats instead of carbs should avoid these and all gummies (0g fats, 39g sugar). The taste and texture of these chews are far preferable to the chemical taste and wax texture of GU Energy Chews or Clif Shot Bloks, but on warm days they can get a bit sticky (like honey), which can leave a residue on your fingers after eating. If you are in the market for chews, the Honey Stinger Energy Chews are the first ones we recommend checking out.
All-Natural, non-GMO, Gluten-Free
Mediterra bars are inspired by the Mediterranean diet and are remarkable because they have as many savory choices as sweet ones. While some of our testers are admittedly addicted to the savory crunch, we tested the Cherry and Pistachio flavored Yogurt and Oat Bar, which is decidedly sweet. It received high marks in the blind taste test for its very recognizable flavoring — we could easily pick out the distinct cherries and pistachios. What really sets it apart though is the smooth white yogurt coating on one side of the bar that adds a creamy, melt in your mouth sweetness that is the perfect complement to the crunchy oats and nuts. Why doesn't every bar come with this layer of goody frosting?
Probably because it melts. Don't leave these in the sun too long or you risk opening up a sticky, drippy mess that will require a thorough package-licking to end up satisfied. We also couldn't help but notice a mild powdery aftertaste that is a hallmark for added protein (the package lists soy protein nuggets and whey protein concentrate as ingredients; it has 7g). And while we love the fact this bar is "All Natural", non-GMO, and gluten-free, we wish it sourced a few more (or all?) of its ingredients organically. In the end, taste and palatability rule the day, so if you want a bar that tastes great and doesn't get old quick, the Mediterra bars should be on your list.
Gluten-Free, Non-GMO, Vegan
Taste testers raved about how delicious and natural tasting the Taos Mountain Energy Bars are. For this review, we tested the Almond Agave flavor, but over the past half-year have also become very enamored with the Toasted Coconut and Caramel Pecan flavors, which all have both wildly original flavors, and distinctly different textures. With one of the shortest ingredients lists we have seen, made with all-natural (and some organic) ingredients including oats, almonds, and raisins, we notice how "real" this bar tastes compared to the heavily processed imitators. And with 260+ calories per bar, it can firmly be placed into the meal replacement category, as it is hearty enough to keep us satisfied for a couple of hours.
Our testers had few complaints about these delicious treats, but one would be that they are very sweet. Some people like sweet, but 18g of sugar is a lot, even if the main sweetener is organic agave syrup. Others complained that they were too expensive, but we found deals on Amazon that make them pretty darn affordable for such a hearty snack. If you like bars made with natural ingredients that taste anything but run of the mill, check out any of the varieties of Taos Mountain Energy Bars.
Power Crunch Protein Bars are thin wafer cookies in oblong bar shape surrounded by a cream or chocolate coating. Protein bars usually taste powdery to us, but a number of our testers said they thought these were the best tasting bars in the whole review. A good word to describe them is decadent, as they feel a bit heavy and rich with flavors like "red velvet" and "mint chocolate," as well as many others, which certainly appeal to those with more of a sweet tooth. This bar features whey protein, which some will prefer for its smooth texture, as well as the amino acids found within. With such a light composition but high amount of calories (220), we calculated that this is the single most effective bar when it comes to caloric density.
On the downside, this was the most heavily artificial bar that we tested, with heaps of heavily processed ingredients and seemingly no effort to be "natural" at all. We scored it low for Healthy Ingredients, and feel that when you are exercising or trying to build muscle, or recover, (and why not all the time), natural and organic ingredients are our first choice, as they are more effective than highly processed ones. Testers also noticed that the creamy coating melts in the sun, and more than one commented on how fragile these bars are — if you leave them in your pack too long you are bound to end up with protein powder instead of a protein bar. For those who like their treats sweet and flavored like their favorite deserts, or who want the most calories for the buck, we think you might enjoy the Power Crunch Protein Bar.
Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Vegetarian
Energy Chews are not like a traditional energy bar in that they are only designed to be eaten during the middle of intense exercise for immediate use as fuel by the body. Skratch Labs Energy Chews offer some nice advantages over the competition. Immediately noticeable is their white sugar coating, evoking memories of gobbling Sour Patch Kids at the movie theater. Besides appealing to the sweet tooth in all of us, the coating makes it so they can use less wax to get the right consistency, while also ensuring that they aren't sticky at all in your hands or the package. More than one tester said that these were their favorite energy chews, and would be using them from now on instead of Clif Shot Bloks or GU Energy Chews.
The downside is that they are made of pretty much just sugar. While sugar is the fastest and easiest carbohydrate for the body to digest and use during exercise, developing a habit of eating them is no different than a candy-eating habit. They also use pure white sugar, which isn't as preferable as a more natural sugar option, like honey, that is the main sweetener in Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews. Like their bars, Skratch Labs also doesn't source from organic ingredients, so there is room for improvement when it comes to quality. When it comes to taste and the ability to eat as many as are needed, though, these chews win out.
Non-GMO, Gluten-Free, Vegan, Kosher
Skratch Labs is a Boulder, CO, based company that makes food products specifically for athletes. We like their bars because of the great texture — they are both crunchy and nutty while perfectly broken up by chunks of real fruit, such as cherries. Not only does the bar taste exactly what the ingredients look like, but it also tastes like real food. We like the fact that these bars come in both sweet and savory flavor options because sweet bars can get old after a while, and especially toward the end of a long effort, all we really crave is salt.
That said, the savory options are a bit out there, and you may want to try only one before you go investing in an entire box. The Savory Miso flavor came in our variety pack, and while the taste was certainly interesting, we also found it to be way too intensely spiced to make it appealing when working out. We were also a bit bummed that the bar wasn't sourced from organic ingredients, coming from Boulder, and considering an effort was made to be vegan, non-GMO, and gluten-free. While these aren't our favorite energy bars, they aren't bad and are one we would recommend checking out if you need to add some variety to your trail snacking life.
Vegan, non-GMO, Gluten Free, Soy Free
More is not always better. When it comes to energy bars, we often find ourselves struggling to polish off the last few bites of a bar, which can be a challenge if we are craving the energy it provides, but aren't thrilled with the taste or texture. That's what's so great about the Health Warrior Chia Bars — they are so small that you can eat the entire thing in just a few bites, while still getting the boost of 100 calories of easily digestible energy. Because they are so small they are also super portable, they can fit into the tiniest little pockets that no other bar or packet of chews can. The number of times we carried these little treats in a pocket of our running shorts (when we didn't want to lug around a larger bar) cannot be counted. Our blind testers also thought the crunch of the chia seeds is nice, and that they are easy to chew up and swallow quickly.
The downside is simply the reverse side of the "small" coin. These bars are so small that you really can't expect them to fill you up, so they aren't really such a great snack from a hunger standpoint, only from an energy one. They also cost around the same as you would expect from a bar, but since they are so small, you may not feel like they are a great value. A final minor complaint is that they are made almost entirely of chia seeds, which just love to get stuck between your teeth, so maybe not the best snack for a first date out on the trails. If you need a slow-burning boost in energy on your outdoor adventures and don't want to lug around much larger, and harder to eat bars, the Health Warrior Chia Bars are a great bet.
Non-GMO, Gluten-Free, Organic, Vegan
Take one bite of a ProBar and you will likely have the immediate reaction that this is a bar that seems designed to be healthy. You will likely be overwhelmed with the mish-mash of natural ingredients, one moment tasting a sunflower seed, while the next getting a distinct hint of peanuts or cashews. The texture is both crunchy and gooey at the same time, offering something that you can both bite into with authority and that also dissolves in the mouth with little extra work. Check out the package you will notice that it is made with organic ingredients that are all-natural, vegan, and non-GMO, and you can feel good that you are treating yourself well. Take more than a couple of bites, and you will notice something else — that you are getting full! With 360+ calories per bar, stamping the word "Meal" on the package certainly isn't lying.
The only reason you might not want to eat these all the time is that they include a lot of added sugar (16-21g per bar), and indeed the first ingredient on the list is Brown Rice Syrup (sugar). Easily digestable sugars can be beneficial when you are seriously active, but eating these instead of a normal meal should be limited to those crusher days filled with adventures or training where sugar can and will be burned up quickly, and not made a habit of while sitting at a desk. If you like getting the best value out of your bars and want to finish one feeling full, the ProBar is one of the best and healthiest choices you can make.
Gluten-Free, Non-GMO, Vegan, Soy Free
Bobo's Oat Bars are a simple meal replacement bar that is made mostly of organic rolled oats and brown rice syrup to act as a sweet binder. Most of our testers were split on whether they preferred them over ProBar Meal bars, with some loving the cookie-like flavor and simple ingredient list, while others wished there was more in the way of fruit and nuts. A single bar is delineated into two servings, but we found its best to eat the whole thing at once, as they quickly get stale once the package is opened. One thing is for certain; you won't wolf down an entire one of these bars and still claim to be hungry! Packing an incredible 340 calories in a dense, little bar, these snacks are ideal for those who really need to make their stomach shut up right now!
Of course, they also have a few downsides. Some of our testers found them to be a bit too dry and chewy, needing a lot of water to wash them down. Others complained that they didn't have much flavor. Those who crave a balance of protein in their energy bars should choose something else, as this bar is largely slow-burning carbs with a hint of fat. While they aren't quite the slam dunk favorite that Kate's Real Food has proven to be, if you are looking for a quick answer to breakfast, or love you some oats, you should certainly check out a Bobo's Bar.
Non-GMO, Mostly Organic
Clif Sweet and Salty bars are a spin on regular Clif Bars that feature flavors contrasting, you guessed it, sweet and salty. We liked these flavors better than the regular Clif flavors, and appreciate the slight salty finish, although think that perhaps there could be even more of it. What sets these bars apart, however, is the number of calories you get (250) for its low price point. Clif bars have become nearly synonymous with the term "energy bar," and for good reason, as they still present one of the best values, and are made with almost entirely organic ingredients as well.
While we liked the salty finish and the textural variety of the drizzled caramel on top of the Caramel Toffee with Sea Salt variety that we tested, we have to point out that 23g of sugar is a really significant amount, and calls into question how "healthy" these energy bars actually are. A look at the ingredients list shows that three of the top five ingredients are a variety of sugar (Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Cane Syrup, Organic Cane Sugar), while one of the others is Soy Protein powder. Many of our testers also pointed out that the after-texture was a bit powdery, almost reminiscent of dough with too much flour. If you love Clif bars and are looking for more variety in flavors, we think you will like the Sweet and Salty series, and if you are looking for the Best Bang for your Buck, it's tough to beat the tried and true Clif Bar.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our expert tester leading this review is Andy Wellman, a senior review editor for OutdoorGearLab since 2013. When he looks back on his life in the outdoors, he can easily recall certain chapters based upon which bars he was obsessed with at the time. His first ever backpacking trips as a kid he remembers his mom bringing original Powerbars, which even when they were novel tasted gross! Snickers bars saw him through high school. There was that chapter of sport climbing in Rifle where he ate two Larabars a day — always lemon and key lime pie flavors — for years. When the ultrarunning bug hit, he found a store that would order him Clif Shot Bloks wholesale; who knows how many thousands of those he ate in the ensuing years. There was also the GU gels phase, especially the salty caramel flavor, which coincided with lots of trail racing. For the past few years, whether backcountry skiing, mountain biking, trail running, or sport climbing, his bar diet has consisted mostly of Honey Stinger Chews and Waffles, KIND bars, and Health Warrior Chia Bars, although he recently discovered Taos Mountain Bars, and now he can't stop eating those!
While Andy isn't a nutritionist, he has spent his entire adult life studying how to be better at outdoor sports, and understanding diet has played a huge role in that quest. Besides combing the isles of natural food stores and outdoor gear shops for new and interesting bars, he also researched over 100 different varieties in order to select the bars we tested for this review. He then realized that one person should not be trusted alone when it comes to opinions about food, so he handed out bars left and right, asking friends what they thought. He also set up blind taste tests to get opinions on taste and flavor. Lastly, he put the bars to the ultimate test, eating them for two months while climbing in the Cascades of Washington and Smith Rock in Oregon, while backpacking in the Sawtooths of Idaho, and while running forested trails near Bend, OR.
Analysis and Test Results
If you're anything like us, you've probably eaten so many bars in your life that just thinking about it is enough to tie your intestines in a knot. For someone with this much experience, bar fatigue is very real, and while we all have our tried and true favorites that withstand the test of time, we always appreciate the injection of variety that comes with trying a new bar. We hope that our favorite bars and chews detailed above add some inspiration to your routine. Below we detail some of the nuances of bar selection, including what really matters, how we chose our products and tested them, and other options for those who like to mix things up.
To get the very best value possible, you will want the largest, most calorically dense energy bar you can find at the lowest possible price. That said, the most important aspect of value is that you enjoy eating the bar, so that you actually get the benefits of the food that you have already paid for. We chose not to assess for value because it is nearly impossible to pin down a firm price for each of these bars considering countless retailers are offering special deals nearly all the time. Buying bars in bulk online, in boxes of 12 or more, will net you the best prices. Check out the individual websites for your favorite bars, as many of them have deals even better than the major online retailers. One of the best deals you can find is to sign up for an automatic monthly subscription shipment of bars, which locks in the lowest prices and could be a great choice for families that go through a lot of bars and want great deals.
Anyone who has taken a stroll down the energy bar aisle in their local grocery store or outdoor retail shop knows that there are a ton of choices, and also that new ones pop up daily. While we all have our tried and true favorites, we've also all tried countless bars that evoked disgust, causing us to wish we had our money back or just bought our old standby instead. For that reason, we tried to select products that are relatively new and fresh, to add something new to your radar, rather than simply stick to the same old selection of popular brands that everyone has eaten a million times. We chose 13 products for this go-around of testing, which took place over the course of two summer months of hiking, climbing, and backpacking. Our favorites and a reason we loved them are described above, and we will continue adding and amending this list as we test more bars, so keep checking back.
There are so many types of "Energy Bars" these days that they even have their own categories. We felt compelled to be sure that our selection addressed all of these categories: Energy Bars and Snacks, Meal Replacements, Protein Bars, and Energy Chews/Blocks.Energy Bars and Snacks
This category of bars is the broadest and makes up over half of our selection. Think of these as ideally a much healthier, and more balanced, version of a candy bar. Packing between 100-200 calories per serving, they will take the edge off those mid-afternoon hunger pangs, or serve as the perfect pre-workout snack. One would hope that energy bars would be balanced with the ideal blend of carbs, protein, and fats, in a slow-burning, low glycemic concoction, but this isn't always the case. What you can usually expect is nuts, dried fruits, a fair amount of sugar in the form of sweeteners, and tons of different flavors and varieties. Taos Mountain Energy Bars and Honey Stinger Waffles were some of our favorites for this category, while a regular old Clif Bar is the popular choice that most people will recognize.
Meal Replacement Bars
As the energy bar marketplace really took off, many people became so hooked by the convenience of simply opening a small package and popping a "healthy" bar into their mouths that they started eating bars for breakfast or lunch. Manufacturers took notice and started making Meal Replacement bars, which tend to have more calories (250-350 per serving), and ideally less sugars and more fiber, which is better for a normal meal, rather than as a quick boost before a workout. In practice, these bars often have very similar amounts of sugars to normal energy bars, which may make them a replacement that you don't want to make a habit of indulging in. That said, our Best Overall bar — Kate's Real Food — fits into this category with a fantastic blend of healthy ingredients, as do Bobo's Oat Bars and ProBars.Protein Bars
Protein Bars are a lot like normal energy bars but include a much higher percentage of protein, usually in the realm of 13-23g per serving. Protein is recommended for helping your muscles to recover and rebuild after a difficult workout, so it is most common to eat one of these bars after you finish your chosen activity. To include such high levels of protein using whole food ingredients is not common, and so typically a powder is added to the bar, which can often be discerned in its texture. Many different types of protein can be added, including Whey (dairy) and more commonly Soy (vegan) or other plant-based proteins. In general, the more protein included, the more it seems to negatively affect the taste and especially texture, so these aren't always the best snacks and are better for those with some willpower who firmly believe that extra protein is what they need. Our favorites are the KIND Protein Bar (12g of protein) and Power Crunch Protein Bar (13g of protein), which despite their names are a bit light on the protein compared to the Clif Builder's Bar (20g).Energy Chews, Gummies, and Blocks
The demands of the body change when in the middle of intense or long-duration aerobic exercise, where quick-hitting calories from sugars can help sustain energy and the subsequent sugar crash is not a concern (because you will just keep eating sugars until you are done). These energy demands are quite a bit different than the typical energy bar is designed for, and indeed, ask any triathlete or marathoner if they could stomach a bar mid-race or workout, and the answer is likely "no way!" To meet the demand of very quickly digestable sugars, athletes turn to sports drinks, Energy Gels, and Energy Chews or Gummies. Since Chews and Gummies are more fun to eat, relatively palatable, and quickly becoming perhaps the most popular of these choices, we have tested and reviewed four choices. Think of them as scientifically constructed Gummie Bears, packed with quick-hitting carbs in the form of sugar, and sometimes a collection of added electrolytes, minerals, and caffeine. They typically come with two servings per package, which is usually around 100 calories, and the recommendation is one serving every 30-45 minutes during exercise, chased with fluids. Two choices easily outshone the rest — Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews and Skratch Labs Sport Energy Chews, which testers loved for their sugar-coated texture.
Sports Nutrition, Dieting, and Real Food
Gluten-Free, Vegan, Keto, Paleo, no Nightshades — these are just some of the dieting trends currently gripping the sports world (and of course countless non-athletes as well). To attempt to explain the philosophy behind any one of these diets, and even further, how they are implemented into a plan for sports nutrition, could and has filled hundreds of books! Not only that, but the preponderance of different sports-related diets, many of which are completely opposed to each other philosophically as well as practically, has broadened the discussion of sports nutrition so wide that there is seemingly no advice that we can give that will not be vociferously argued against or statistically disproven. For that reason, we are going to mostly skip this discussion, and leave it up to you to seek out nutrition advice that suits your needs and desires.
This review was undertaken by a collection of outdoor enthusiasts who eat waaay too many bars on a daily basis while out recreating, but who are not nutritionists. We suspect that most of you are a lot like us — you love the portability and convenience of energy bars and chews ¬– and may have a solid grip on the science behind nutrition, digestion, and sports, but are not overly obsessed with these aspects when choosing a bar. For that reason, we focused our review and our assessments on the experience of eating a bar, heavily emphasizing taste and palatability (texture), which we find makes up about 95% of the discussion when we ask our friends what they think about any given product.
We would be remiss, however, to not give credence to health and nutrition at all, so we will stick to some things that we feel are simply not debatable. The healthiest choice we can make is to eat unprocessed FOOD rather than bars of any sort. And this is a point not to be overlooked in searching for quick meal replacement. Whenever possible, don't replace fresh whole food with any packaged food. Michael Pollan's Eaters Manifesto in "The Future of Food" states a goal of eating no processed food that contains more than five ingredients. Whole, unprocessed foods are irreplaceable, even by the best and healthiest quick options available today. So, use a meal replacement when you can't conjure a way to bring the real thing on your adventure.
To help differentiate which products are the best, and most loved, we graded them based on four different criteria, described below:
The desire for great taste is pretty universal and fairly self-explanatory. Energy bars, despite their reputation for not tasting as good as real food, should still taste good. Simply put, the better it tastes, the more likely you will be to want to eat it out on a long adventure when you need to. We have also noticed that taste is the first thing people invariably comment upon when asked to describe an energy bar, and so taste was the most important criteria that we assessed for when testing bars.
What is great taste? That is up for debate, although what isn't is the fact that different people prefer different tastes. To be fair and broad-minded when assessing for taste, we set up blind taste tests, where we chopped up small pieces of each bar and had testers rate them on taste without knowing what they were. The sweet Honey Stinger Waffle is the unanimous winner when it comes to taste, but Kate's Real Food, Mediterra Bars, and Power Crunch Protein Bars were all close seconds. Among the energy chews, people liked the Skratch Labs Energy Chews pretty much the same as the Honey Stinger Energy Chews, and didn't like other brands nearly as much. No Cow Energy Bars and Clif's Builder's Bars were the testers least favorite when it came to taste.
Behind taste, texture is the second most likely feature of a bar to be talked about, and is also high on the list of things that can make or break the experience of eating a bar. Energy bars began on the wrong foot with the inception of Powerbars, which were most often described as paste-y, dry, cardboard, brick-hard, powdery, or something equally as bad. Who wants to eat anything described in that way? On the contrary, we find that bars that are crunchy, moist, soft, or smooth, tend to be far more enjoyable to eat, and so these are things we looked for when assessing for texture.
Once again, not wanting to assign value based on one person's opinion, we set up blind taste tests and asked people to comment and rate items based on texture, while not knowing what they were trying. The testers favorites were Honey Stinger Waffles and Skratch Labs Energy Chews, neither of which fit the mold of a classic bar, but both of which are very easy and pleasant to chew and swallow repeatedly. Among the bars, Kate's Real Food was a winner, perfectly blending moist crunchiness. No Cow Energy Bars sadly sat at the bottom of the pile, evoking bad Powerbar memories for most, while GU Energy Chews were the waxiest and most likely to get stuck in the teeth of all the chews we tried, not exactly endearing qualities.
No other word quite sums up the appeal of the energy bar as much as efficiency. Bars are small, easily portable, last a long time unopened, take no time at all to prepare and can be eaten anywhere. They are the most efficient food you can buy. But why not take this argument a little further and assess for what is the most efficient bar? Said another way, which bar packs the most calories into its tiny little frame, so that you can gain the most energy from your super-efficient food?
To assess, we did some math, using numbers on the package for calories and dividing that by how many ounces the bar is. Our final numbers represent calories/ounce and ranged widely. Of note is that a few selections have two servings per package, but in all cases, we did our math based on the entire package rather than a single serving because we find that we tend to just mow an entire package, regardless of how many servings we are told it is. We noticed that different flavors of the same bar will have different calorie figures, so these numbers vary a little, but in general stay within a close range.
Topping the charts are Power Crunch Protein Bars, with between 142-157 calories per ounce eaten. Closely matching those numbers are Honey Stinger Waffles (141 cal/oz) and KIND Protein Bars (142 cal/oz). The majority of those we tested fell in the range of 108-118 cal/oz, but oddly enough, all four energy chews that we tested fell at the bottom of the pile, ranging from 94 cal/oz for Clif Shot Bloks to 84 cal/oz for GU Energy Chews. If you are planning a long haul backpacking trip and want to get the most bang for your buck, take note of these figures.
While we already mentioned above that we don't intend (or simply aren't capable) of grading a product based on its nutritional value or the type of diet that it addresses best, attributes that increasingly few can agree on these days anyway, we still wanted to assess for the quality of the ingredients used to make the bars. To do this, we came up with a shortlist of Things That All the Best Energy Bars Have in Common:
– Whole, Unprocessed Ingredients — Eating natural foods is simply better for you, and so we prefer bars that feature these foods over processed alternatives.
– Organic Ingredients — The organic label isn't simply a political statement; it means that there are minimal pesticides or herbicides, or artificial fertilizers, being used to make the food that you eat. The lack of the label means that these chemicals may be in your food, and if you are trying to be healthy, why would you want to eat these things?
– Quality of Sugars — Some may argue that the best bars should have no sugar at all, but in the end fruits (a staple ingredient for nearly every energy bar) have sugars, so this isn't a completely reasonable request. That said, virtually all bars also have added sugars that aren't naturally found in the whole food ingredients the bar is made of, which is indeed frustrating for many. We won't comment on this trend, except to say that we do care what kind of sugar is added. We prefer natural sugars like honey (sorry vegans), and low glycemic sugars, over refined white sugar or high-glycemic syrups.
– Non-GMO — Genetically modified organisms, or GMO, present a huge list of concerns that we aren't going to get involved in here; we suggest you Google it if you don't have an opinion yet. Many people and countries as well believe that GMOs present threats to not only nutrition, but the natural world as well, which is why they are banned in many countries, and many people in the US prefer not to eat them. While it isn't the single biggest preference for us when it comes to healthy ingredients, it certainly makes the list.
We took a peek at the ingredients list of all the bars we tested and rated them for the above qualities. Those with whole, natural and organic ingredients, have little to no added sugars and are non-GMO scored the highest. Kate's Real Food met every one of these criteria, deserving our applause. Another top scorer is Taos Mountain Energy Bars, and surprisingly Honey Stinger Waffles, which do have a lot of sugar but are natural, organic, and non-GMO. Power Crunch Protein Bars were the most heavily processed and non-natural of all the bars that we tested, while products made by Skratch Labs were also sadly non-organic nor very natural.
Energy Bar Alternatives
While energy bars are easily one of the most efficient and convenient food sources available to most people in today's world, it is important to remember that there are many other choices available for quick, energy-rich, healthy food on the go. Here are some suggestions:Whole Foods
While they might not be nearly as convenient, require some prep time, and don't tend to keep nearly as long before spoiling, whole foods should still be considered the gold standards for reasons such as better taste, easier digestion, and greater satisfaction. Some of our testers favorites include: a good old PB&J sandwich, peanut butter or almond butter tortilla with banana and honey, hard-boiled eggs, fruits such as apples or oranges, avocados with a little salt, trail mix, dates, dried fruits, last nights leftovers in a Tupperware container, Bocadillo (Spanish style sandwich made of cheese, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and shaved meat or avocado on a baguette), salami and cheese with crackers, beef jerky, string cheese, and countless others.Homemade Bars
For those who like to tinker in the kitchen, making your own bars can not only be fun but also allows you to customize exactly what flavors you like in your own bars. In fact, more than a few of the bars reviewed here include a story on their packaging about how they started in a home kitchen on a rainy day. If you need inspiration, there are tons of ideas to be found by scouring the internet, or check out The Feed Zone Portables, a cookbook full of nothing but portable athletic food ideas from chefs that used to cook for Tour de France cycling teams and eventually started Skratch Labs. One of our testers favorite "homemade" bars are the Organic Chunks of Energy that can be purchased at Natural Grocers food stores, which they make in house, are especially affordable, have tons of different flavors, and do an astounding job of boosting energy. All that's missing is the fancy marketing and packaging, and the higher price.Energy Gels and Drinks
For long-distance athletes such as triathletes, marathoners, or ultra-marathoners, it is generally recommended to ingest between 100-250 calories per hour of easily digest-able carbohydrates (sugars), to be able to sustain high levels of output for very long periods of time. How you choose to do this depends on your own body, GI tract, and training, and many people seem to take to one method much better than others. Energy Chews seem to be the most popular among non-professional athletes these days, which is why we reviewed them here, but the other common products are gels and carbohydrate drinks. Gels come in very small, highly portable packets that quickly deliver around 100 calories of carbs and sugars to be chased down with water, and are one of the most convenient things to eat while on a bike or running without stopping. GU is the original gel maker, and seemingly still the most popular. Carbohydrate drinks are made by mixing a specially formulated powder into your water and drinking a certain amount per hour, which delivers both the necessary carbs and sugars, as well as fluids. Athletes with fragile stomachs often find this method the easiest, although most of the drinks taste powdery, sweet, and artificial. There are tons of choices available, although Tailwind is what is most commonly found at trail running races.
The energy bar world is a tricky realm to navigate. With countless options available on the market, and a slew of homemade options available, you're left wondering where to start. We hope that you have found our recommendations for the best energy bars and chews helpful and can use it as a guide to decipher the world of snacking on the go (and during adventures). Be sure to check back often for more suggestions and fresh updates.
— Andy Wellman & Chris McNamara