Are you searching for the best energy bars, and need some fresh ideas to satisfy your stomach? Over the past 8 years, we've tested over 50 different bars, sharing our current 13 favorites of 2020 with you. We packed a variety of bars on all of our adventures, from wilderness hikes to trail runs, mountain ascents to backcountry ski laps, and even gnawed and nibbled while sitting at our work desks, in order to bring you the best advice. Check out our recommendations for the best and healthiest meal replacements, gummies and chews, bars made for specific diets like Keto or high protein, and more.
The Best Energy Bars of 2020
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, they're 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. 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.
Gluten-Free, Non-GMO, Orangutan Friendly Palm Oil, Kosher
Nuts have long been a staple component of outdoor nutrition, offering excellent amounts of fats and protein in a low-glycemic, slow-burning package that can sustain you all day. Justin's Nut Butters, which include almond, peanut, and cashew varieties seasoned with options such as honey, maple, vanilla, or plain, come in small, portable packages that can be taken anywhere with ultimate convenience. To consume, one simply kneads the package, rips off the top, and squirts — we like to think of them as healthier versions of energy gels, and commonly just squirt them straight into our mouths while out on long trail runs or backcountry ski missions. They also add fantastic portability for long adventures like backpacking, because you can bring just the amount of packets you need, rather than a whole large and heavy jar of peanut or almond butter. After significant amounts of kneading, the texture is creamy and smooth, and easily palatable, and seems to us easier to swallow than if we were eating peanut butter straight from the jar. Best of all, these little packets are relatively cheap and pack a whopping 182 cal/oz. (210 cal. in a 1.15oz. package) — far and away the most calorie-dense, and therefore most efficient, energy or snack bar we have ever tested!
There are a few downsides, most notably the fact that these packets have the potential to create a mess. A fair amount of the nut butter likes to stick inside the packaging without coming out, and depending on what you do when you are done with them, often makes a mess in our pockets. Like most gel packaging, once the top has been torn off, it is easy to drop or misplace and accidentally litter. The texture can also be a bit inconsistent due to separation of oil and nuts inside the package but is usually cured with a lot of pre-kneading. And while these little packets are perfect sized for a quick energy boost while working out, they are a bit small for making an actual sandwich or filling a tortilla, so bring extra if that's your plan, or just stick to the traditional jar. We admit to preferring the almond butter, especially honey and maple flavors, because they are smoother and tastier than peanut butter, but also sometimes cost a little more. For a simple, efficient, and calorically dense energy boost, nothing beats the Justin's Nut Butters.
Taste testers raved about how delicious and natural tasting the Taos Bakes bars are. These hefty bars come in a wide variety of flavors, including Almond Agave + Cinnamon, Toasted Coconut + Vanilla Bean, and Caramel Pecan + Cranberries flavors. All have distinctly different textures, which greatly adds to the joy of eating them, as well as prolongs our enjoyment before bar burnout sets in. These bars are the next generation of Taos Mountain Bars, with slightly smaller packages and mild tweaks to the recipes. We love how the ingredients lists on these bars are short in length, but long in organic ingredients such as oats, almonds, and raisins. Indeed, one of the first things you will notice when biting into one is how "real" this bar tastes compared to the heavily processed imitators.
Our testers had few complaints about these delicious treats, but one would be that they are sweet. Some people like sweet, but 12g of sugar is a fair amount. Others complained that they were too expensive, but we found deals on Amazon that make them pretty darn affordable for such a robust snack. While we love how hearty they are, they also take a fair bit of chewing, and therefore can't simply be wolfed down and chased with water mid-workout. They make a much better meal replacement 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 Bakes.
Gluten-Free, Non-GMO, Paleo, Vegan, Kosher, Allergen Friendly
Sometimes it can feel like energy bars are just too complex, with ingredients lists a mile long, and still tasting like something artificial. The antidote is a That's It bar, which is made only of fruit ("that's it"). These simple bars have names such as "1 Apple + 12 Strawberries," or "1 Apple + ¼ Pineapple," and the ingredient list matches the name, with literally nothing else added in. They taste a lot like a fruit leather, but are far softer, easier to chew, and not nearly as sticky in the teeth. These bars pack a quick hit of natural sugars that can liven up anyone's mood, and make a great choice for on-the-go athletes, or as a healthy addition to a packed lunch. Kids love them. While they are heavy on sugar, all of it comes naturally from the fruit, with no other artificial or added sweeteners.
While we think natural sugars pose little health risk for most people, the fact remains that the energy in a That's It bar is quick-acting and fast burning, meaning those prone to high and low mood swings (or simply trying to limit all sugar intake) might consider something a bit more balanced. There is only 100 calories per package, and 0g of slower-burning fats along with only 1g of protein, so this bar can't be substituted for a meal. Best to eat it in addition to a packed lunch, or use it mid-workout when your energy is starting to fade, and you need a quick pick me up, like you would an energy chew. You'd also better like apples, because every flavor choice includes some form of fruit combined with an apple. Our final minor complaint is that the fruit used is not organic, which is a shame considering this bar ticks every other box for quality of ingredients we like to see, why not go the extra mile? For those looking for a simple, fast-acting workout snack without the artificial flavors, we highly recommend a That's It bar.
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.
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 the Scratch Labs Bar 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 awhile, 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 was 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 and 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 the first ingredient on the list is Brown Rice Syrup (sugar). Easily digestible 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, Gluten Free, Grain Free, Peanut Free, Vegan, Kosher
The Keto diet is the most popular and trendy diet right now, and involves eating foods with a proportion of nearly 70% fats, 25% protein, and 5% or less of carbs. The theory goes that if you eat roughly this proportion of foods, your body becomes far more efficient at burning fat, helping you lose weight, and also possibly having positive benefits for chronic diseases such as diabetes. It has not been proven to offer tangible performance benefits for healthy, fit athletes. When it comes to eating Keto and also still wanting to be able to eat a bar that is not simply a stick of meat, we like the Good To Go Keto bars the best. They are made of almond flour combined with inulin fiber, and are tastily sweet thanks to the addition of erythritol, a sugar alcohol that your body doesn't absorb, so doesn't count against the carb total. The end result is a cake-like bar that dissolves easily in the mouth, offers good caloric density, and is far more palatable than the other Keto friendly bars that we compared it against.
By no means do we think this bar is perfect, however, we simply found it more edible than others in our search for a tasty, meatless Keto bar. It comes in a variety of different flavors such as Cinnamon Pecan, Vanilla Almond, and Raspberry Lemon (our favorite), but each of these flavors is very subdued and left us begging for more. We also aren't thrilled about the many artificial ingredients and derivatives, including inulin (a fiber extract that some people have a hard time digesting), and erythritol, a sugar alcohol added for sweetness. To top it off, these bars are pricey, among the most expensive in our test group, and certainly don't knock our socks off. There are many bars we find to be more enjoyable and satisfying to eat, but these unfortunately don't meet the Keto friendly designation. But if you are on a strict Keto diet and still love the convenience of a quick hitting energy bar, check out Good To Go.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our expert tester leading this review is Andy Wellman, a senior review editor for OutdoorGearLab since 2013. Andy can easily recall certain chapters of his life based upon which bars he was obsessed with at the time. He remembers his mom bringing original Powerbars on the earliest family backpacking trips, which even when they were novel still 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 since he started reviewing energy bars his favorite has been Kate's Real Food!
Andy isn't a nutritionist, but he has spent his entire adult life studying how to be better at outdoor sports, and understanding diet has played a considerable 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 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 set up blind taste tests to get opinions on taste and flavor. Lastly, he put all the bars to the ultimate test, eating them daily on outdoor adventures while climbing, skiing, and running in the Cascades and Canadian Rockies.
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. 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. 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. We try 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. While our 13 favorite products are highlighted above, our most recent round of testing involved six new selections, only some of which were worthy of making the list. Keep checking back for more fresh bar ideas, as we make an effort to update this review at least a couple times a year.
To come up with our favorites list, we have tested way more than the 13 products described. In fact, this list is the culling down of over 50 different bars tested and compared against each other. Some bars not on the list are still pretty decent. Others are pretty much inedible. Regardless, we simply want to highlight the very best, so haven't bothered to review all the bars that we wouldn't soon recommend.
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 Bakes and Honey Stinger Waffles are 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 digest-able 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, low carb — 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.
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, Power Crunch Protein Bars, and Taos Bakes 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, Clif's Builder's Bars, and Dang Keto 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, Skratch Labs Energy Chews, and Justin's Nut Butters, none of which fit the mold of a classic bar, but 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 and Dang Keto 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 range 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 the small packets of Justin's Nut Butters, which include 210 calories in a tiny 1.15oz serving, for a 182 cal/oz. efficiency rating. If you want the most energy in the smallest, easiest to carry package, these should be your target. We also like how they are mostly nuts and fatty oils that burn slowly rather than in one quick hit and crash. Power Crunch Protein Bars, with between 142-157 calories per ounce eaten, are a somewhat distant second. Closely matching them 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 a political statement; it means that there are no artificial pesticides, herbicides, and 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 fruit, or 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 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 Bakes, 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. 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 and electrolytes. 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