Making good choices in the protein bar and shake aisle 

Toni Havala MS, RD a registered dietitian at Endeavor Health® Weight Management in Naperville shared in Edwards-Elmhurst Health’s Healthy Driven Blog that protein shakes and bars are growing in popularity as Americans try to squeeze healthy eating into their busy lives.

All dietitians would agree that whole, real foods are always the best choice. But on occasion, protein bars and shakes can be a decent option when pressed for time. Sticking a protein shake or bar in your purse, car or gym bag provides something convenient but healthier to eat rather than skipping a meal or resorting to fast food.

Shopping for the best options in the protein bar aisle can be overwhelming with the multitude of choices in tempting flavors, such as cookies and cream or birthday cake. Here’s how to sort through the marketing and hype to make good choices:

First: what type of protein is it?

The type of protein used to make the bar or shake is an important factor in deciding which product to select. Protein helps promote satiety, build muscle mass, improve blood sugar control, and reduce blood pressure.

The ability to keep us full and build muscle while we lose fat makes high-protein foods a great choice when we’re trying to lose weight. Protein bars and shakes typically contain whey, soy, pea protein, nuts, seeds, brown rice protein or a combination of these. 

  • Whey protein is milk-based but it does not contain the sugar lactose, found in milk, so it does not give people indigestion even if they are lactose intolerant. The advantage of whey protein is it is a complete protein that contains a high amount of the amino acid leucine, which has been shown to stimulate muscle growth. Plant proteins don’t contain much leucine. If people are not allergic to milk or are not vegan, whey protein is preferred, particularly after a workout.
  • Soy protein is a plant protein that contains all of the amino acids that are essential for humans (quinoa is another plant with complete protein). Other plants lack one or more of the essential amino acids, typically lysine.Some people avoid soy due to a concern about a possible link to cancer or for environmental reasons. Soy protein foods such as tofu and edamame have been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer, but the impact of soy protein isolate is unclear. A protein bar with soy protein isolate as the protein source is likely a good option on occasion, but like all bars and shakes, it is not recommended frequently.

    If you choose to go with a pea protein-based product rather than soy protein, keep in mind that you will also need to eat a variety of healthy foods in addition to the shakes or bars to provide the missing essential amino acid lysine. The recommended amount of protein in a meal replacement bar or shake is 12-30 grams.

Second: watch the sweeteners

The ingredients used to sweeten bars and shakes are also

Bars that are very low in carbohydrates (under 10 grams of carbohydrate per bar or shake) use sugar alcohols, stevia, monk fruit, or artificial sweeteners to provide the sweet taste of that dessert-like bar or shake without the carbohydrates.

  • Artificial sweeteners include saccharin, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, and sucralose. These artificial sweeteners have been linked to increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Ironically, these are the metabolic diseases they were initially thought to improve! The connection between artificial sweeteners and metabolic diseases is partially due to a negative impact on our gut bacteria, through a process called dysbiosis.
  • Stevia and monk fruit, which are plant-based, zero-calorie sweeteners, have not been linked to dysbiosis at this time and may be a better sweetener option.
  • Sugar alcohols that are used in many bars, such as sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, and maltitol, give some people bloating and flatulence, particularly if they have a sensitive GI tract. Avoiding sugar alcohols may be wise for patients with Celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, or those who have had surgery on their intestinal tract.

How much carbohydrate is OK? Don’t be concerned about a protein bar or shake containing some carbohydrates. Having carbohydrates with protein actually helps the protein gets used for muscle growth and repair.

Keeping the net carbohydrates (total carbohydrates minus dietary fiber) below 20 grams per serving is recommended.

Third: watch the fat

Another ingredient to consider is the type of fats used in making the bar. That candy-coated chocolate or lemon bars come with a price tag. The coating is typically made with saturated fat such as palm oil.  Shakes may also have saturated fat added to act as a thickener or preservative. Excess saturated fat has been linked to heart disease. Avoiding bars and shakes with over 3 grams of saturated fat is recommended.

Now you know why we’re spending 30 minutes staring at the protein shake and bar choices at the grocery store! Below are some recommended shakes and bars that are decent options. All of these are available in stores and online with the exception of Rise Bars, which are only available on their website and, of course, Amazon.


  • RXBAR® (egg white protein, sweetened by dates)
  • OATMEGA® (whey protein, sweetened by tapioca syrup, cane sugar, monk fruit)
  • Rise Bar® (both whey protein and pea protein options offered, sweetened with honey)
  • SimplyProtein® (both whey and soy protein options offered, sweetened with brown rice syrup)

Prepared shakes

  • Core Power® (milk protein; sweetened with monk fruit, honey, stevia, and fruit, if fruit flavored; lactose-free)
  • Organic Valley Breakfast Balance® (milk protein; sweetened with cane sugar and stevia; lactose-free)
  • Orgain® (both pea protein and whey protein offered; sweetened with cane sugar, and rice dextrins in the pea protein line; erythritol, stevia, and fruit-sweetened in the whey protein line)
  • EVOLVE® (pea protein; sweetened with cane sugar and stevia)

criteria for choosing which to buy. There are a variety of sweeteners used in bars and shakes. Sugars are often added in the form of fruits, cane sugar, honey, and rice syrup.

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