You’ve been focusing on your protein intake lately, but either getting tired of processed protein bars or you’re just looking for a less expensive or better-for-you option.
So, what are the best alternatives to protein bars? There are many whole foods that are great sources of protein, as well as protein powders, other types of commercial high-protein foods, and ready-made protein shakes that are all less expensive and processed than protein bars. Also, you can opt to make a homemade protein bar, which can have several health benefits.
I’ll cover all of these options in this article, as well as reasons why you might consider an alternative to a processed protein bar.
Alternatives to Protein Bars
When you are eating one or more protein bars per day, the cost can really add up.
Plus, processed protein bars aren’t necessarily as nutrient dense as other options, and they can contain additives and artificial ingredients that leave you looking for alternatives that are better for you.
I’ll cover other, less expensive ways to get a similar protein intake to a protein bar from the following sources:
- Whole food options
- Protein powder
- Other commercial high-protein foods
- Ready-made protein drinks
- Homemade protein bars
Should you take whey protein? If so, when and how much?
1. Whole Food Options
There are many whole foods that are sources of protein.
Check out the table below for foods that are naturally high in protein, and compare the cost per serving to an average protein bar.
Note that prices vary from brand to brand and from retailer to retailer in different locations. Prices are representations based on the time of publication.
|Cost Per Serving|
|Protein bar, average||60g||237||18.1g||$2.40 per bar||$2.40|
|Black beans, canned||260g (1 cup)||220||14g||$0.72 for 432g||$0.43|
|Kidney beans, canned||260g (1 cup)||240||14g||$0.72 for 439g||$0.43|
|Chicken breasts||112g (4 oz)||140||25g||$1.99/lb (454g)||$0.50|
|Cottage cheese, 2%||170g (¾ cup)||135||18g||$2.38 for 680g||$0.60|
|Chicken thighs||112g (4 oz)||160||19g||$2.48/lb (454g)||$0.62|
|Greek yogurt, plain, nonfat||170g (¾ cup)||90||17g||$3.47 for 907g||$0.65|
|Canned salmon||85g (3 oz)||110||19g||$3.24 for 418g||$0.66|
|Eggs, large||3 eggs||210||18g||$4.27 for 18 eggs||$0.71|
|Canned tuna||113g (1 can, drained)||100||24g||$0.78 per can||$0.78|
|Egg whites||184g (¾ cup)||100||20g||$4.42 for 907g||$0.90|
|Ground pork||112 (4 oz)||260||19g||$3.64/lb (454g)||$0.91|
|Ground turkey||112g (4 oz)||170||21g||$4.42/lb (454g)||$1.11|
|Tilapia, frozen fillets||112g (4oz)||90||19g||$4.94/lb (454g)||$1.24|
|Pork chop||112g (4 oz)||170||24g||$5.04/ob (454g)||$1.26|
|Sardines, canned||124g (before draining)||147||19.5g||$1.48 per can||$1.48|
|Extra lean ground beef||112g (4 oz)||140||24g||$6.48/lb (454g)||$1.62|
|Shrimp, frozen, cooked||126g (4.5 oz)||105||18g||$6.57lb (454g)||$1.82|
|Deli ham||113g (4 oz)||140||20g||$6.44 for 397g||$1.83|
|Salmon, fresh||113g (4 oz)||240||23g||$8.48/lb (454g)||$2.12|
|Steak, Angus Sirloin||112g (4 oz)||240||22g||$9.94/lb (454g)||$2.49|
As you can see, there are many plant- and animal-based whole foods that provide roughly the same amount of protein as a 60g protein bar, but at a lower cost per serving.
Only steak was a more expensive choice, and only by a few cents. Most of the options are only a fraction of the cost.
Also, whole foods generally undergo much less processing to get them in a state that is ready to eat.
Consuming nutrients from whole foods, compared to supplementation, has positive impacts on health including improved immunity, meaning you get sick less often and less severely.
Consuming nutrients from whole foods is even shown to have a positive impact on maintaining muscle mass and muscle health for older adults. This means that you can continue to stay active and in good health.
There are many whole food sources of protein that also provide the benefits of additional naturally-occuring micronutrients, which makes them even better for you than protein bars.
Related Article: 30 Ways To Increase Protein Intake Without Protein Powder
2. Protein Powder
I considered many different protein types in my review, including both animal (whey and egg) sources as well as plant-based sources (soy, hemp, pea, brown rice, and plant protein blends).
On average, a 30g scoop of protein powder costs $1.29 based on buying a whole jar or package, although prices do vary from brand to brand and from retailer to retailer in different locations.
Each scoop provides 23g of protein on average, which is more than the 18g of protein in an average 60g protein bar.
This means that you can actually get more grams of protein from a scoop of protein powder than from a protein bar, but for roughly half the cost (46% less).
Even when you include the cost of mixing protein powder with milk or juice, it is still less than the cost of a protein bar. An 8-oz (240mL) serving of milk or juice is only ~$0.25-$0.50 when you buy a carton.
For more ideas on mixing protein powder, check out: What Can You Mix With Protein Powder (13 Examples)
There are many protein powders that do not contain any added ingredients, meaning you can avoid sugar alcohols, artificial colors, sweeteners and preservatives.
Protein powders are less likely to contain added ingredients such as sugar alcohols and other sweeteners which can make them better for you than protein bars. Check the labels carefully and opt for unflavored versions.
3. Commercial High-Protein Foods
In addition to protein bars, there are other forms of commercially processed high-protein foods that actually cost less than protein bars, but provide a similar amount of protein per serving.
Example #1: Muscle Mac High Protein Mac & Cheese Original
Since I have a background in competitive swimming myself, I think it’s pretty cool that Muscle Mac was invented because one of the partners at Quality Pasta Company had a daughter who was a competitive swimmer who was struggling to get the protein she needed while keeping her energy up for training.
Muscle Mac is a better-for-you macaroni & cheese that tastes great and solves the need for more protein in a high-energy format.
Muscle Mac comes in a familiar-looking box and each box provides two servings. Boxes are sold in a case of 10, currently at a price of $36.50 for a case ($3.65 for a box).
In a ½ box (96g) serving of Muscle Mac Mac & Cheese Original Cheddar:
- Calories: 390
- Protein: 20g
- Carbs: 54g (7g sugar; 0g added sugar; 2g fiber)
- Fat: 9g
- Sodium: 620mg
Since each serving provides 20g of protein, this is comparable to a protein bar. At a price of $3.65 per box, this means $1.83 per serving which is 24% less than the average $2.40 cost of a protein bar.
Muscle Mac has a short list of recognizable ingredients, and it uses GMO-free pasta.
Example #2: Magic Spoon Cereal
Magic Spoon Cereal has made internet waves with its “childlike cereal for grown-ups.” The side of the box proclaims it “The High-Protein, Keto-Friendly, Gluten-Free, Grain-Free, Soy-Free, Wheat-Free, Naturally Flavored, Totally Delicious, Childlike Cereal for Grown-Ups.”
As someone who regularly checks out and reviews high-protein products, I definitely have to agree with them on “totally delicious.”
The most common way to buy Magic Spoon cereal is in a four-box case of cereal.
The price is usually $39.00 US for four boxes, so $9.75 per box. Each box is 7oz (196g), and a serving of cereal is 1oz (28g) – this is comparable to the stated serving size for many brands of cereal. This works out to $1.39 per 1oz serving.
In a 1oz (28g) serving of Magic Spoon:
- Calories: ~110 (varies slightly depending on the flavor)
- Protein: 13g
- Carbs: 4-5g (0g sugar; 2g fiber)
- Fat: 5-6g
- Sodium: 60mg
To get a comparable amount of protein to an average 60g protein bar, you would need to eat 1.5 oz (42g) of Magic Spoon cereal to get 19.5g of protein. This would mean a cost of $2.09, which is still 13% less than the average $2.40 cost of a protein bar.
Notice also that Magic Spoon is free of common allergens (gluten, soy and wheat) and its ingredients and macros mean that it can work for various dietary approaches (e.g. low-carb/keto, gluten-free, and grain-free).
Example #3: Quest Protein Tortilla Chips
Quest Nutrition is very well known for its protein bars, but the brand also branched out into other high-protein products including protein chips that are similar to potato chips and tortilla chips.
The bags of chips come in cases of 8 for a price of $18.99, which works out to $2.37 per bag.
In a 1.1oz (32g) bag of Quest Protein Chips:
- Calories: ~140 (varies slightly depending on the flavor)
- Protein: 19g
- Carbs: 5g (1g sugar; 1g fiber)
- Fat: 5-6g
- Sodium: 340mg
The price of $2.37 per bag is just slightly less than the average price of $2.40 for a protein bar.
Also, Quest chips have nearly 100 fewer calories than the average protein bar (237 calories), so that could be an important consideration for someone looking to manage their overall calorie intake, e.g. for weight loss.
If you’re interested in low-calorie chips, definitely check out my other article: 13 Lowest Calorie Chips (Top Picks for 2022).
Ready-Made Protein Drinks
On average, protein bars cost about 14% more than ready-made protein shakes ($2.40 for a 60g protein bar vs. $2.10 for an 11 fl oz shake), although prices do vary from brand to brand and from retailer to retailer.
This means that ready-made protein shakes are cheaper than protein bars.
Ready-made protein shakes also have MORE protein per serving (24g of protein, based on 11 fl oz) than the average 60g protein bar (18g of protein).
Protein shakes are more likely to contain added vitamins and minerals.
Protein shakes are also less likely to contain sugar alcohols, which can cause digestive distress such as diarrhea, bloating, gas, and stomach aches.
Protein shakes have more protein on average than protein bars, they are more likely to contain added vitamins and minerals, and they are less likely to contain sugar alcohols. These are all reasons why protein shakes can be better for you than protein bars.
- Protein Bars vs. Shakes: Pros, Cons & Which Is Best?
- Are Ready-Made Protein Shakes Good For You? (Ask a Dietician)
- 10 Best Protein Bars Without Sugar Alcohols
Homemade Protein Bars
There are several benefits of making your own protein bars at home. You will have full control over the ingredients. You will know exactly what and how much goes into your bars, and how they were made.
(Note: If you’d like a recipe, then check out our low-sugar baked protein bars, which has 11g of protein and only 125 calories).
This offers the following benefits:
- More accurate macros: when you have selected, weighed and measured the ingredients yourself, you can be confident that you truly know the calorie count and macronutrient profile of the protein bars.
- More custom macros: when you are in charge of the ingredients, you can customize bars to suit your macronutrient needs, making each macronutrient as high or as low as you want per serving.
- More suitable for your personal dietary needs: when you are in control of the ingredients, you can make protein bars to suit your exact needs such as gluten-free or kosher or organic (or several requirements together).
- More suitable to your tastes: when you make your own protein bars, you can make the exact flavors that you want, and add whatever you want such as raisins, chocolate chips, nuts or seeds, etc.
- Less processing: when you prepare protein bars at home, there is less processing to reach the final product than in a commercial manufacturing facility.
- Less likely to contain allergens: when you control the ingredients and the preparation area, you can have confidence that there is no risk of cross-contamination compared to a large manufacturing facility that also processes products containing allergens.
Here are my favorite 3 recipes for homemade protein bars and balls.
Running To The Kitchen High Protein Cinnamon Cake Bars – Best Overall
I first discovered this recipe years ago, and it’s been on repeat in my arsenal since then. The soft fluffy texture is much more like a coffee cake than a thick, chewy protein bar. This is a great snack to have with tea or coffee.
Based on nine servings: Calories 120 (9P-18C-2F). This will vary slightly depending on the exact ingredients that you use.
Feeding My Addiction Protein Nanaimo Bars – Best Dessert Replacement
Every year during my Christmas holidays, I make these protein Nanaimo bars instead of the traditional high-calorie, high-sugar version. My family can’t even tell the difference anymore. As a bonus, they are no-bake bars.
Based on sixteen servings: Calories 230 (12P-20C-13F). This will vary slightly depending on the exact ingredients that you use.
Running with Spoons No Bake Brownie Bites – Best Vegan Option
These soft bites are actually shaped into balls, but you could press the dough into a bar shape as well.
The recipe is dairy- and gluten-free, and there is an option to make these vegan, based on the protein powder that you choose. My favourite vegan protein is Sunwarrior Classic Vegan Sprouted Brown Rice Protein Powder – Chocolate – I use it in this recipe and in many others.
Based on a dozen balls, two balls per serving: Calories 140 (8P-20C-4F). This will vary slightly depending on the exact ingredients that you use.
Reasons for Protein Bar Alternatives
The primary reasons for seeking alternatives to protein bars can be summarized as:
- Sweeteners/sugar content
- Digestive issues
- Degree of processing
I’ll cover each of these reasons in turn, next.
For each gram of protein that they provide, protein bars are one of the most expensive options in terms of sources of protein. I provided many alternatives that have a similar number of grams per serving, but at a much lower cost.
You can also make your own homemade protein bars. The cost of those will depend on the ingredients you choose.
As mentioned, processed protein bars often contain sugar alcohols, which can cause digestive distress for some people.
Other protein bars are very high in various forms of added sugar. For example, a Clif Builder’s
Bar has cane syrup, cane sugar, brown rice syrup and chicory fiber syrup – four different kinds of added sweeteners.
Picking from the list of alternatives (whole foods, protein powder, other commercial high-protein foods, or ready-made protein shakes) or making your own protein bars allows you to consume only the sweeteners that work for you, or none at all.
Both the presence of sugar alcohols and the relatively high fiber content of processed protein bars can cause digestive problems for some people. On average, protein bars have 5.7g of fiber per 60g serving, which makes them a high-fiber food.
Choosing lower-fiber alternatives and/or picking options without sugar alcohols can alleviate digestive distress.
- 10 Best Low-Fiber Protein Bars (As Rated By Dieticians)
- 10 Best Protein Bars Without Sugar Alcohols
Degree of Processing
Commercial protein bars are heavily processed in large manufacturing facilities to create a standardized product that has a long shelf life.
They often contain obscure-sounding ingredients like isomalto-oligosaccharides (roughly 60% as sweet as sugar, it is a lower-calorie sweetener added as a powder or a syrup). Government health organizations recommend limiting intake to a maximum of 30g per day.
Studies show that ultra-processed foods are linked to unhealthy dietary patterns, leading to obesity, and the advice is to minimize these highly processed products.
When you focus on whole food sources of protein or make your own protein bars from scratch, you get protein sources that have undergone much less processing.
Regardless of your reasons for seeking out protein bar alternatives, you can see that there are many options available that are cheaper and better for you.
- Are Protein Bars Good For Breakfast? (6 Things To Consider)
- Is Eating 3 Protein Bars A Day Bad? (A Dietician Answers)
- Is It Okay To Eat Protein Bars Every Day? (4 Things To Know)
- 12 Best Protein Bars Under 200 Calories
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.