Energy bars are made for athletes, highly active people, and anyone who needs a quick, energy-dense, and tasty way to increase their calorie intake and their energy availability.
Whether you are on a backpacking trip, doing an ultramarathon, or a fifty-mile bike ride, a high quality energy bar can set you up for success. However, the right energy bar needs to fulfill a few key requirements.
It should have the right kind of energy for your chosen activity, it should be energy and nutrient-dense, and above all, it should taste good.
Need an energy boost in your next workout or on your next trip? We’ve ranked the most effective and best-tasting energy bars on the market.
RXBAR is an energy bar made only from whole food ingredients. With dates, almonds, cashews, and egg whites, RXBAR delivers a fantastic balance between carbs, protein, and fats.
Each bar has an impressive 12 grams of protein, and the sugar content is around 12 grams, though all of this is coming from dates, not added sugar.
High-intensity athletes like marathon runners might want to opt for something that’s more focused on delivering carbs, but for just about everyone else, RXBARs are the best kind of energy bar for balanced and natural all-day fueling.
2. Picky Bars
Picky Bars were developed by a team of professional runners who wanted the perfect post-workout snack. They use natural ingredients to deliver a balance between carbs, fat, and protein.
Since it’s geared towards high intensity athletes, the macronutrient distribution tilts towards carbs more so than other energy bars, and the sugar content is high but not overly so, at 15-17 grams per bar. Picky Bars are well-suited for both athletes and adventurers.
3. Redd Energy Bar
Redd Energy Bars are high-protein, gluten-free energy bars that work well as meal replacements or snacks while backpacking and traveling thanks to their inclusion of a broad range of protein sources, vitamins, and minerals.
With both pumpkin seed and pea protein, each bar has ten grams of protein along with a moderate 14 grams of sugar.
They’re fortified with several vitamins and minerals as well, and the fat content is fairly high, which provides good energy density.
Redd Energy Bars aren’t the best pick for high-intensity exercise, but for many other applications they’ll work pretty well.
4. ZonePerfect Nutrition Bar
ZonePerfect is something of a cross between an energy bar and a meal replacement bar, but for this reason, it’s a good choice for long outdoor trips.
It has fortified vitamins and minerals that other energy bars don’t have, so if you are travelling and not consistently getting a balanced diet, ZonePerfect can help combat any potential nutrient deficits.
Its high protein content, at 14 grams per bar, is great for sustained energy and recovery, too. The sugar content, at 15 grams per bar, is high but not overly so.
5. Kind Bars
Kind Bars use a natural blend of almonds, peanuts, and chicory root to get a balanced distribution of fats and carbohydrates.
Because there is no concentrated source of protein, they are pretty low in this nutrient: just six grams of protein per bar.
However, thanks to the sweetness added by chicory root, there’s only five grams of sugar per bar. It’s a solid choice if you want a balance of sustained energy between carbs and fats, and don’t need a major source of protein in your energy bar.
6. Greenbelly Meal 2 Go
Greenbelly Meal 2 Go was made for long-haul backpackers who plow through thousands of calories per day. Each serving (two bars) is an even split of one third carbs, one third fat, and one third protein.
It’s great for raw energy, but the sugar content is very high. At 35 grams per serving, it’s great if you are forging your way up a mountainside, but far too much if you just need some energy while you’re on the go.
While this energy bar has a very niche application, it does its job well, so if you need energy on your next backpacking trip, it’s a good call.
7. Health Warrior Chia Bars
Health Warrior Chia Bars derive most of their energy and nutrient content from chia seeds. While sugar is the second ingredient, the overall sugar content is actually quite low, at three grams per bar.
Health Warrior Bars are better suited for everyday people who need to refuel on the go, as its actual energy content is not particularly high: each bar only has 100 calories.
This makes it well-suited for the typical day, but poorly suited for backcountry excursions or high-intensity exercise.
8. Clif Bar
Clif Bars were one of the original top-selling energy bars, but they’ve fallen out of favor in health circles because the current formulation is pretty sugar-heavy. Each bar has 21 grams of sugar, and 45 grams of carbohydrates total.
That’s great if you are doing something with massive energy expenditure, like running a trail race or doing a cycling race, but for moderate intensity long efforts, like backpacking, hiking, or fueling up on the go, the low fat content and fairly modest protein content is not going to be the best pick.
Larabars are all-natural energy bars that are built around a base of dates and peanuts, as well as other natural ingredients that vary depending on the flavor.
They are small, bite-sized energy bars that deliver about a 50/50 split between carbs and fats. The protein content, at 6 grams per bar, isn’t particularly high because there’ no concentrated source of protein, but that won’t be a problem for everyone.
The high sugar content (19 grams) is ameliorated to some extent by the fact that the sugar is derived from the dates, and as such isn’t an added sugar.
PowerBar was one of the brands that was synonymous with energy bars as a whole. They’re still a heavy hitter, but their energy bar is less well-suited for broad audiences because of its formulation.
PowerBars use a sugar-heavy blend that’s almost devoid of fat, and has surprisingly low protein content of nine grams per bar.
The sugar content is very high, at 26 grams per bar, which is fine if you are doing long bouts of intense aerobic exercise, but could spell trouble if you are just hiking or travelling. While it has its applications, PowerBar is largely outclassed by the competition.
Energy bar benefits and recommended intake
Energy bars are prepackaged foods that are energy dense, easy to eat, and contain the nutrients you need to keep moving.
Whether you are traveling, backpacking, riding your bike all day, or competing in an ultramarathon, sometimes you need a quick, easy, and energy dense snack.
That’s where energy bars come in. Nutrition science has a lot to say when it comes to what you should look for in an energy bar and what kind of benefits you might get.
An energy bar can provide you with the carbs you need to exercise at a high level. When you are exercising intensely, whether this is a prolonged uphill hike, running a marathon, or paddling on an intense river kayaking trip, your body is relying on carbohydrates for the bulk of your energy.
The exercise physiology literature is crystal clear when it comes to fueling during intense exercise: If the session is at least two hours long, there is a major benefit to refueling along the way with carbohydrates.
This is the conclusion of a review article published by Asker Jeukendrup in the scientific journal Nutrition (1). Jeukendrup, a researcher with dozens of studies on carbohydrate metabolism and fueling during exercise, recommends carbohydrate intakes of 50-60 grams per hour during intense exercise.
During extremely long and energy intensive sessions, like running an ultramarathon, some (but not all) people seem able to tolerate carbohydrate intakes of up to 90 grams per hour, but most people should stick to the recommended range.
Sugar is not necessarily bad if you are using your energy bar for intense exercise. Though sugar is often blamed (correctly) for being the source of many health problems, it’s a desirable source of energy if you are doing high intensity exercise.
That’s because sugar’s two constituents, glucose and fructose, can be absorbed in parallel during exercise (2). The rapid spike in blood sugar that results after consuming sugar makes it great fuel for an energy bar used specifically for intense exercise, but a poor choice otherwise.
If you are not exercising, this blood sugar spike is not healthy for your body, and stimulates the accumulation of body fat.
Carbohydrate intake is especially important at altitude. If you are a backpacker, mountaineer, or climber, chances are you’ll find yourself at high altitudes on a regular basis.
One of the physiological adaptations to high altitude is a shift to greater carbohydrate metabolism, and as a result, high carbohydrate intake is especially important for peak performance in the mountains. A scientific paper published in the Journal of Applied Physiology demonstrated this effect in in a group of subjects who traveled to 14,000 feet elevation (3).
The subjects showed a marked shift away from fat metabolism, particularly in the leg muscles. If you are having lower body fatigue at elevation, low carb intake might be the cause—you should look for an energy bar that’s high in carbs.
Protein in an energy bar can help you recover quicker. Most energy bars have some amount of protein, but the energy bars with the highest protein content work best in situations where you need to recover well after a tough session of activity.
This might be in the form of a post-workout snack after lifting weights, as a recovery meal between legs of a relay race, or as a regular meal on a backpacking trip.
According to a scientific review published in 2004 by Edward Coyle at the University of Texas at Austin, mounting research has found that protein consumed after exercise, especially in combination with carbohydrates, boosts your body’s ability to recover and get ready for another session of exercise (4).
Protein seems to stimulate both muscle repair and increase the uptake of carbohydrates into your muscle fibers, getting them ready for another workout session more quickly.
Protein is not so important during exercise, but it’s critically important for recovery between sessions. Another reason to look for protein in an energy bar is if you plan on using as a meal replacement, but don’t want to opt for a dedicated protein bar.
Fat content in an energy bar is the most energy dense fuel for sustained low and moderate intensity exercise. Not everyone who uses protein bars is an elite athlete who needs to operate at a super-high power output. In fact, one of the biggest groups of people who use energy bars are backpackers and hikers, who need steady and sustained energy all day long.
If you are travelling by foot, you might not need a burst of rapid energy from sugar and simple carbs, but you do need dense sources of energy that last all day long. This is where fat comes in.
According to a scientific article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Jeffrey Horowitz and Samuel Klein at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, fatty acids are energy dense but slowly absorbed, which makes them ill-suited for intense exercise but a more attractive option for low-intensity activities that last all day, like walking and hiking (5).
Horowitz and Klein do suggest that MCT oil, in small to moderate amounts, might be a good ingredient to look for, as it can be absorbed more rapidly than longer chain fatty acids.
Pound for pound, fat of any type contains twice as many calories as protein or carbohydrates, which makes it an excellent source of fuel for backpackers and travellers who have to carry their own food. That’s why you’ll see energy bars geared towards these groups that have a much higher fat content.
The “dosage,” or macronutrient content, of an energy bar is usually dictated by its intended application.
The bars we’ve ranked range all the way from 100 calories each (designed for a snack on the go for fairly healthy people with a normal life) to over 600 calories each (designed for all-day backpackers).
Plan out your calorie needs first, then take a look at your macronutrients to figure out the right energy bar and how often you’ll need to take one.
Something lower intensity but lasting all day will call for a different caloric and macronutrient balance than an intense three-hour bike ride.
Energy bars are a great way to fuel up, whether that’s while travelling, on a cross-country cycling trip, or a hiking excursion.
Carbohydrates are essential for high intensity exercise, and don’t overlook sugar if you are doing something like running a marathon or climbing a mountain.
For repeated bouts, like multi-day hiking trips, you’ll need more protein, and for all-day energy in a dense package, you want an energy bar that’s higher in fat.
By considering the caloric and energetic demands of your chosen activity or lifestyle, you can find the right energy bar that will keep you firing on all cylinders.
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Author: John Davis