What is the best energy bar for meal replacement or snacking while pursuing your favorite activities in all seasons? What energy bars are best suited for today's health-conscious athlete? OutdoorGearLab spent seven months testing 31 varieties in a rigorous process that had over 50 testers from twenties to seniors all over the USA giving us their opinions on best use, energy, taste, nutrition, caloric density, pros and cons. The goal was to find the tastiest product with the best nutrition for both meal replacement and snack use.
The Best Energy Bars for Snacks, Health, & Training
For best overall nutrition, organic ingredients and nutritional value, our Editors' Choice award goes to ProBar, weighing 3 oz (85 grams), with ~370-390 calories with an average of 45 grams of complex carbohydrates (15% RDA) with low glycemic index to sustain your blood sugar until dinner by headlamp, serious fiber (7 grams or 28% of RDA), ~20 Grams of fat (30% of RDA) with 0 trans fat, and 9-12 grams of protein. This is one awesome meal-on-the-go, with organic flax and hemp seed bringing the healthy oils to unprecedented levels compared to other competitors (834 mg Omega 3 oil and 3790 mg Omega 6 per bar). ProBars are made entirely with organic ingredients, many raw ingredients, vegan, non-GMO, and most are gluten free. The Editors' Choice award for the ProBar is based on its unique components of super high antioxidants and omega, organic ingredients, low glycemic carbs and high fiber. One tester (who ate an average of two per day for three months) reported, "ProBar was my go-to for everything from climbing Half Dome to biking from SF to LA." No other competitor comes close to matching the quality and healthiness of ProBars. There were zero tester complaints of any flavor, several nutritionist/athlete testers who switched from their previous favorites to ProBars after the review, and more than a few requests for more ProBars to sample.
Honey Stinger isn't truly a bar, but that didn't keep it from being a favorite in both taste tests and performance tests when mountain biking. It crams 150 calories in a very tight package. It's the only "bar" you can put in a pocket and forget is even there. There is only one gram of protein, so this bar is really about "in the activity" - it's not a post workout bar or a meal replacement. We use them on long bike rides and eat about one an hour. Incidentally, Honey Stinger does have a bar but we were disappointed in the taste and texture.
It's hard to tell many bars are real food as they often look like a compressed log. This bar bucks that trend as you can instantly tell its made from real food (mostly nuts). Available in six flavors, at 200 calories, this all-organic Canadian-made snack packs a walloping 50 percent fat calories from organic nuts and seeds. Taste of Nature had the second highest nutrient density of all the products we tested. They are a crunchy, somewhat sweet, gluten free, GMO free snack in an easy package and size. There is only good stuff in these guys. They earned great reviews by OutdoorGearLab testers for crunch and yum in all flavors.
Kate's Real Food bars go the extra mile to include all organic ingredients and staying big on nutrition without sacrificing flavor. Made in small batches out of Victor, Idaho, Kate's Real Food are a nine-ingredient, 100 percent organic meal replacement that works. They offer great taste and crunch, low glycemic index sweetener in a 3 ounces/85 grams serving with 9 grams of protein in 360 calories with several flavors available. Kate's Grizzly Bar PB Dark Chocolate Trail Mix was a hit with testers. Reviews of Tram Bars were on the sweeter side. Several testers' listed Kate's as their top choice for something sweet and chocolaty. These are an amazing option for high output activities in any season.
Tasty, battery-charging morsels, available in 19 flavors, at an average of 200 calories and 4 grams protein, made with 2-9 ingredients (Michael Pollan fans take note). This tasty morsel is one with the fewest ingredients of all we tested and with the largest variety of flavors. Pros: GF, DF, many of the 19 flavors vegan: cool flavor options such as pecan pie, key lime pie, ginger snap, cherry pie, PB & J and on and on. Cons: Not organic, very small size, falls into pieces readily. Best Use: Snack for long trips when food boredom reigns. Source: www.larabar.com 1.800.543.2147 Denver, Colorado.
MacroBars are 100 percent organic, vegan, macrobiotic meal replacement bar with 15 G protein, 290 calories, excellent nutrient density (4.4) with 39 g complex low glycemic index carbs. No reported downside to these bars: testers rated MacroBars as "healthy tasting, not sweet, good for you bar." MacroBars have 4.08 Calories/gram, which is Shows the Atkins protein fanatics that plant-based vegan bars can pack a wallop of goodness! The addition of omega-rich seeds would bump this up. We loved these bars for an awesome combination of flavors and ingredients. 100 percent organic gets MacroBars the highest rating of 10. Rock on Macro! They pack a wallop of nutrients and protein without any synthetic ingredients.
We're not sure why we like the taste of this bar so much more than a traditional Clif Bar. Maybe its the separation of a butter center from the outer part (as opposed to a Clif Bar, which is one lump). Or maybe it's just because we've had too many original Clif Bars and appreciate something different. EIther way, this has become a go-to snack at OGL headquarters (along with Honey Stinger). In addition to liking the taste, we're fans of the balance of fat, protein, and carbs. It's a well-balanced ratio that works well as either a hunger-reducing snack or a mid-workout boost.
Rise Protein Bars are a rising star in the meal replacement scene. They are 100 percent organic with very few ingredients, come in two flavors, have 280 calories and 20 grams of protein, and are in the top end of healthy caloric density. Organic almonds and whey are the protein sources and organic brown rice syrup is the sweetener. Testers felt carob was the best flavor.
About one dollar buys you a 70 percent organic meal-on-the-go in 20 flavors with ~5 grams protein sweetened with dried cane syrup, sugar, and raisins. Many testers grew up on these and to their credit, ClifBar Original has reworked their line to include a higher percentage of organic ingredients. The crunch and flavor work after many years of trial; ClifBar has a great option, period. We took liberties in choosing Clifbar as Best Buy because 19 of the 20 flavors have 240 calories; only one met our cutoff point of 250 calories for the meal replacement category. Their best use is for meal replacement when a budget is the main consideration.
Analysis and Test Results
This review details components of energy bars examines the specifics of which are better for a snack vs. a meal replacement and picks those we recommend for your trip meal planning.
We reviewed 11 meal replacement and 21 snack bars. Knowing that new products emerge regularly, apologies to those we missed. Please send us your information and we will get you next time.
We tested 31 energy bars available online and/or at grocery stores nationwide (our favorite nine are listed above). Excluded, due to limited availability, are those sold only to healthcare professionals and marketed as "medical food" by nutritional companies like Metagenics. We included in our review the well-known industry standards as well as those brand new on the scene, gluten-free (GF), organic, raw food and vegan, and some that give back to a chosen cause with your purchase. We divided all of our testing group into two categories: over 250 calories for meal replacement, and under 250 calories for snack purposes.
Why Eat Energy Bars?
The obvious starting point when discussing energy bars is why eat them at all? Snickers pack a wallop of calories (280) and simple carbs (35g) for under a buck. If PCT and AT through-hikers have survived on Snickers and PB & J sandwiches for months on end, why bother with energy bars at all? The answer is that Snickers calories come from refined simple sugars (refined white sugar and corn syrup) that are high glycemic index sweeteners, meaning they give short bursts of energy followed by a hard crash in blood sugar levels. The fat in Snickers (14g) makes up 130 of the 280 calories. More important is the source of fat: peanuts and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. All that and only 4g protein…Meal Replacement
To replace a meal you ideally want protein and whole grain carbs with high fiber content to balance the low glycemic index sweetener used. This meal replacement should be rich in antioxidants found in organic fruits and veggies. Slow burn carbohydrate sources with low glycemic index are ideal for high output activities. The higher fiber content in meal replacement products slows the absorption of sugars. Sugars without fiber and complex carbs lead to huge blood sugar fluctuations, which is why Snickers or any sugary bite is a poor choice for long-haul pursuits.Glycemic Index
The glycemic index is a rating of how quickly food causes rise in blood sugar. Only carbohydrates — not fats and protein — cause blood sugar shifts, although fat and fiber in food slow blood sugar rises. Simple sugars like white or brown sugar, and simple carbs (foods made from white flour, white rice) that are a short step from simple sugar cause a spike, or fast rise in blood sugar, which makes your pancreas crank out a lot of insulin to get this sugar out of your bloodstream. These simple carbs are used up fast, leaving too much insulin in your bloodstream, and you have a blood sugar crash. Over time, eating simple sugars stresses your pancreas, leading to diseases like diabetes, metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance. (See Chart of glycemic index below). In summary, all refined sweeteners have a high glycemic index (70-100). Moderate glycemic index sweeteners (56-69) include high fructose corn syrup, plus white and brown sugar. Low glycemic index sweeteners (below 55) include evaporated cane juice, maple syrup, refined honey, raw honey, brown rice syrup, agave syrup, yacon syrup and stevia extract. The best options combine low glycemic index sweeteners with high fiber content to keep blood sugar levels stable over long time periods. For more info on glycemic index and glycemic load visit
Advice on Healthy Eating
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. We are glad to report that we found several products in our testing group that met this criteria: (MacroBar, Rise Bar and Larabar). 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.
Criteria for Evaluation
We rated each product on three factors: Caloric Density, Taste and Energy.
Caloric density is a division of the total calories by weight in grams. The highest nutrient dense calories in the meal replacement category are found in Kate's Real Food, ProBars, Rise Energy Bars, Clifbars, and MacroBars. For athletes pursuing the best nutrition for high output sports, the preceding options are certainly supreme fuel. The lowest caloric density was found in Bobo's Oat Bars, NGR Bars and Clif Builder's. For the snack category, our top ratings for caloric density are Taste of Nature and Kind bars, with many close followers. The snack products with low scores for caloric density were ProBar Fruition, PowerBar, Clif Mojo and Amazing Grass Whole Foods Bar.
Low glycemic index carbs, protein and fat sources of energy make up the energy rating. This is critical in replacing meals over long haul athletic pursuits. ProBar excelled in this category, followed by MacroBars, NGR and Kate's Real Food. For the snack side, top energy ratings were shared by Bonk Breaker, Taste of Nature and Amazing Grass. Nature Valley Granola Bar was the low scorer for energy in snack bars, followed by Kind and PowerBars.
This rating is a compilation of taste ratings (1-10) and commentary by our tasters. ProBars and Kate's won over the taste buds of testers for the meal replacement category, followed by Macro Protein Bars and Bobo's Oat Bars. In the snack category, and Lara Bars were top taste scorers. On the low end of the snack category for taste were Nature Valley, PowerBar, Vega Sport and NuGo Organic.
Alternatives to Energy Bars
Athletes of nearly all disciplines are likely to reach for an energy bar at some point. They are a super convenient snack or meal alternative when our passions for exercising and the outdoors keep us away from the kitchen. Not only are they a no-prep energy source, they also take up very little space in your pack, and do not require utensils to be consumed. Yet, it is important to remember that they are not your only option for nutrition on the go. Below, we have listed some alternatives, including some personal favorites from our reviewers.
Real Food Alternatives
Although quality bars provide adequate nutrition to keep you going, they are not magical, and will not necessarily give you a boost in performance over real foods. Many outdoor enthusiasts and athletes will forego the convenience of energy bars for real food for many reasons, including taste, variety, and overall satisfaction. Here, the possibilities are endless, although many options are more practical than others. We prefer real foods that pack easily, require no cooking and minimal preparation in the field, and can survive 24 hours without refrigeration. Amongst our reviewers, some favorites include bagels with salami and cheese, sandwiches, trail mix (nuts/dried fruits/chocolate), tortilla PB & Js, bananas, apples, dried fruit, avocados, real beef jerky, string cheese, and chocolate-covered espresso beans, to name a few. Some of these options are cheaper, and others more expensive (in comparison to bars). Also, most of these alternatives are bulkier and heavier, an important consideration depending on the length and nature of your endeavors.
Homemade Energy Bars
If you like the convenience of an energy bar, yet wish for more control over what you eat, you can always make your own. The internet is rife with a variety of recipes for the curious, which you can alter and tweak to fit your energy needs and taste buds. Depending on your recipe, going the homemade route will often work out to be cheaper than store-bought. You'll likely make your friends jealous over your handmade delicacy, too, as they unwrap their processed lunch from its packaging. However, the homemade version will likely spoil much faster than the packaged kind. Also, there is clearly a lot of preparation and time necessary for this alternative, making them the least convenient option here.
Energy gels are a popular choice for athletes operating around their aerobic thresholds for long amounts of time. These gooey gels are comprised of sugar carbohydrates, usually lacking fat, proteins, and fiber for quick digestion, and therefore provide a faster rise in blood sugar than the other energy alternatives listed above. Some gels have various ingredients added, including electrolytes, caffeine, and vitamins. Gels generally fall into the same price range as bars, and can often be found for sale in packs. Gels are typically targeted toward the long-distance running/cycling/swimming market, whose athletes will get the most benefit from the quick, no chewing convenience of an energy gel. There is a learning curve to using gels, as too much too often can easily upset your stomach to the point where you must stop exercising. Also, due to their lack of fats, fibers, and proteins, they should not be viewed as a meal alternative. Lastly, it is important to remember that these liquid gels do not provide hydration to your body. Drink them with water. Gu Original Sports Nutrition Energy Gel is currently the top-rated gel on Amazon.com and is a good place to start gelin'. This gel comes in 100-calorie packets and a variety of flavors. They contain a dose of carbohydrates (maltodextrin and fructose), electrolytes (sodium), and amino acids, with some flavors including caffeine as well.
Savory and Candy Bars
Of course, energy bars aren't the only food available to satisfy your hunger and taste buds at the same time. While savory flavors can lack the energy boost that the sugary flavors provide, depending on their ingredients, many do provide a decent amount of protein. And for the times when you overdose on the same thing over and over and /over/ again (see hiking trip lunch menu, day 4), these tasty treats will make your food break an experience you'll look forward to. A personal favorite from one of our reviewers is the Sundried Tomato and Basil flavor from Mediterra. As for the sweeter, candy options, they have long been found included in the packing list of outdoor recreationists. Their advantages are that they are cheap, widely available, and delightfully tasty. They also have plenty of simple carbs to provide an energy boost while exercising, although the sweetening agent usually scores very high on the glycemic index. Nutritionally, we like candy options that include dark chocolate and nuts. While we don't recommend them as a permanent replacement to the higher nutritional options that we tested here or even just real food when exercising, adding a few to your energy arsenal adds variety and pleasure to your snacks.
— Chris McNamara