Gluten-free Energy Bar Roundup
I get a lot of questions about healthy, convenient and portable snack options for the gluten-free set. Obviously, a well-designed energy bar could fit the bill quite nicely here; but alas, the vast majority of bars either contain wheat outright, contain oats or oat flour (which is most certainly contaminated with gluten), or are produced on the same machinery as gluten-containing bars–another sure-fire cross-contamination risk.
Since it’s been awhile since I visited the category–and certainly not since the explosion in new gluten-free packaged foods–I figured what better time to do a round-up of the currently-available gluten-free energy bar options, accompanied by some color commentary? Fear not: I will spare you the sanctimonious admonitions about how all energy bars are essentially glorified candy bars. Of course they are. But in this day and age, who among us has not been saved by a well-timed bar in a hungry pinch?
Gluten-free bars that Contain Soy
The most exciting development in the bar-osphere is that LUNA has developed a line called LUNA Protein, which is reportedly going to be entirely gluten-free as of this month. Like the regular LUNA bars, each one clocks in at less than 200 calories and is fortified with female-friendly nutrients like calcium, Vitamin D, folic acid and Iron. With at least 12g of sugar per bar (that’s 3 teaspoons, or half of the recommended amount of daily added sugars for a woman), I personally wouldn’t recommend these bars as part of one’s daily repertoire; however, for the occasional crazy day when you’re famished with no time for lunch in the near future… or perhaps when on the road… you could certainly do worse than these to tide you over until you next encounter real food. Note the protein source is both (organic) soy protein isolate and whey protein concentrate (WPC), the latter of which is very likely to contain lactose, so consider yourself warned if you’re the super-duper lactose intolerant type.
Soy Joy: This baked bar makes it a point to differentiate the fact that they use “whole soy” as a protein source rather than processed soy protein isolate, as most energy bars do. (For more on the significance of this difference, check out my previous blog post on soy protein here). Milk and egg also contribute to the 4g of protein in these bars, which is a lower protein content than most competitive bars (but still perfectly appropriate for a snack from my perspective). Each bar also contains 3-4g of fiber–both from whole foods like dried fruit and soybeans–as well as from added “functional” fibers like maltodextrin whose health benefits are less well-established. Calories are modest at 130-140 per bar, and each bar contains 11-12g of sugar (~ 3 tsp, comparable to the LUNA Protein bars), both from dried fruit as well as from added sugar.
Think Thin uses indigestible (and therefore calorie-free) sugar alcohols–not actual sugar– to sweeten their meal replacement bars–the entire line of which is gluten-free. With 10-12g sugar alcohols per bar, people with sensitive tummies (or conditions like fructose intolerance) may find that these bars cause GI distress, so proceed with caution if you fall into this camp. The protein source is a blend of casein, whey protein isolate and soy protein isolate, meaning that lactose content should be negligible, and total content ranges from a hefty 15-20g per bar. Each bar contains 200-230 calories.
KIND Plus Protein: The original KIND bars– which are near and dear to my heart– are nuts and fruit-based; the KIND Plus Protein adds in some soy protein isolate to the mix. Interestingly, this results in no more protein (7g) than their non-protein-fortified Nut Delight bar, but a little more than double the 3g in the fruit and nut combo bars. Leave it to the cutthroat energy bar market to cause the KIND people to take a lovely, minimally-processed nut-and-fruit bar and sully it with highly processed soy protein isolate. Personally, I think I’ll just stick to the original version.
Gluten free AND Soy-free Bars
If you’re like me and have intestines that recoil (no pun intended) at the mere mention of gluten AND soy, you still have a few energy bar options out there.
Amazing Grass has a line of so-called ‘Green Superfood’ (*cringe*) bars that are both gluten and soy free. If the ingredient list, which includes wheatgrass and barley grass, throws you off, worry not: as I’ve written previously on wheatgrass, since gluten is a storage protein, it is only found in the seeds of wheat/barley grass… not in the blades of grass themselves. I have actually sampled the Chocolate Peanut Butter flavor and must confess that I found it to be pretty funky; it tasted sort of like a health food store smells, if that makes any sense. (Maybe it’s because these bars appear to contain a veritable kitchen sink of health food store ingredients?) The bars contain anywhere from 230-270 calories a piece and have about 5-12g of protein each. They are pretty loaded with sugar, though: bars range from 19g-26g of sugar each (~5-6 tsps). And even though it all comes from natural sources (dried fruit) rather than “added” sugar, unfortunately, your body can’t really tell the difference.
I’ve blogged about Hammer Bars previously; they’re a specialty organic energy bar designed for athletes. The protein– about 5-10g per bar– derives from brown rice, nuts and quinoa as far as I can tell. And while they’re relatively high in sugar, if you’re actually training for or competing in an endurance athletic event, that’s a desirable thing. And at $2.50 per bar, I’d personally save these for precisely such an occasion.
Jay Bars: I don’t know who this Jay Robb guy is, but I came across his gluten-free protein bars last summer when I was having a hard time meeting the elevated protein requirements of my twin pregnancy. Marketed as a “no junk” protein bar, each bar has 220-240 calories and contains no artificial sweeteners. The 14-15g of protein per bar derives both from whole food sources (nuts) as well as added protein from primarily low-lactose whey protein isolate, and at 9g of sugar per bar, they’re among the lower sugar options available. Jay Bars do contain a relatively modest amount of xylitol, an indigestible sugar alcohol, but this is much lower than other reduced-carb bars and should be pretty well-tolerated by all but the most irritible of bowels. I actually thought these bars tasted pretty decent, but at $2.99 a pop, they were a pretty expensive way to get my protein fix. ($0.20 per gram!); I opted to start eating more eggs, peanut butter, cottage cheese and Greek Yogurt instead.
NuGo Free: I’ve seen these bars at Whole Foods recently; they use rice protein as the source for the 9g of protein each bar contains. I’ll confess I have not tasted them yet– the packaging sort of reminded me of an ‘As Seen on TV’ product–but I suppose I should know better than to judge a bar by its cover. If anyone beats me to the taste, drop a comment and let me know what you think. Like the other bars reviewed, they’ve got their fair share of sugar–13g each–but this seems to go with the bar territory these days.
Lastly, there is a group of nut-seed-fruit-based bars that, while generally lower in protein than protein-fortified bars, are nonetheless good GF snack options. They also tend to be less processed than their protein-rich bar counterparts, which makes me partial to these bars as the wholesomest choices available.
- Lara Bars: These are always a favorite of mine, and I marvel at how they manage to capture so many different flavor profiles so convincingly with a repertoire of so few ingredients: dates, cashews, other dried fruit and some spices. These bars generally have about 200 calories each, but of course my favorite flavors (Coconut Cream Pie and Chocolate Cookie Dough) are among the most caloric of the bunch. A nice thing about these bars is that all the fiber they contain is from whole foods like nuts and coconut and dried fruit–rather than processed, functional fibers–and is therefore the kind known to have all the health benefits we’re after when we think about fiber.
- KIND Bars: The only thing I’ll add to the commentary above on KIND Protein bars is that these bars are sold at Starbucks nationwide, making them among the most convenient GF bar options currently available.
- Oskiri Organics has a few protein bars (9g protein total) that feature rice protein and sunflower seeds as their protein source; their Sesame Quinoa bar also has a respectable 6g. Their wider assortment of snack bars–featuring coconut, dried fruit and either honey or rice syrup– are much sugarier and have negligible protein owing to their lack of nuts.
- Bumble Bars: these cheerily-packaged sesame seed based bars have about 230 calories each and are among the highest fiber and lowest sugar (9g) of the bar bunch. They also have a pretty high iron and zinc content for a bar that’s not even fortified (15% of the daily value), and are a decent source of essential omega-3 fats from flax seeds. This makes them an especially great snack option for vegetarians, who may have a hard time getting these nutrients.