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Buying guide for best meal replacement bars

In a rush? No time to cook or even grab a premade sandwich or salad? If you’re reaching for a meal replacement bar, make sure you’re reaching for the right one. While some meal replacement bars pack all the nutrients you’d get in a regular sit-down meal, others are glorified bars of sugar and carbohydrates that could actually sabotage your health goals.

If you’re forgoing breakfast, lunch, or dinner for a simple bar, make sure it’s something that tastes good and meets your nutritional needs. Most meal replacement bars are packed with protein and fiber to help satisfy your hunger. Many are sweetened with ingredients like chocolate, honey, or fruit. Others use peanut butter as the primary flavoring. Whatever you choose, we think you’ll agree that it should benefit your health and your taste buds.

In this buying guide, we discuss the vast menu of meal replacement bars from which you can choose and offer a few of our favorites. To learn about nutritional content, taste, and other vital factors, read on.

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Some meal replacement bars contain flesh-based protein derived from meat like chicken or salmon, but most don’t. The majority contain protein derived from milk, eggs, or plants.

Key considerations

Nutritional content

The best meal replacement bars distinguish themselves from unhealthy candy bars by adhering to the following guidelines:

  • Fewer than 5 grams of fat

  • Fewer than 5 grams of sugar

  • Fewer than 10 grams of net carbs

  • Between 3 and 5 grams of fiber

  • Between 10 and 15 grams of protein

  • Between 200 and 300 calories per serving 

Are you wondering how these figures differ from the average candy bar? According to the USDA, a typical candy bar contains the following: 

  • 17 grams of fat

  • 33 grams of sugar

  • 35 grams of carbs

  • 1 gram of fiber

  • 3 grams of protein

  • 300 calories per serving

As you can see, the nutritional profile of a candy bar is strikingly different from that of a meal replacement bar!

Type of protein

One of the greatest variants in meal replacement bars is the type of protein found inside. People who are lactose intolerant or allergic to nuts or other ingredients should pay close attention to protein type. Vegetarians and vegans will also want to make sure the type of protein is appropriate.

Here’s a look at some common protein variants found in meal replacement bars.

Brown rice protein: This is a popular protein source with those who are lactose intolerant. Brown rice protein is rich in folate and fiber, but it’s not considered a complete protein because it lacks certain amino acids.

Calcium caseinate: This milk-derived protein is slow to digest, which helps create a feeling of fullness. It’s low in fat and carbs and excellent for muscle development.

Egg albumen: Otherwise known as egg white, this animal-derived protein is low in fat and cholesterol.

Pea protein: Derived from yellow peas, pea protein is an iron-rich protein that promotes heart health. As a complete protein, it contains all of the essential amino acids the human body can’t make on its own.

Soy protein: Soy is one of the more controversial proteins. In fact, some companies boast that their meal replacement bars contain no soy. The reason: soy may or may not be linked to certain health problems, including cancer. Nevertheless, soy protein is a complete protein found in many bars and supplements.

Spirulina: Also known as blue-green algae, spirulina is found in some meal replacement bars and is also sold in capsule and powder form as a health supplement. It’s not regulated by the FDA, but users sing its praises as a nutritionally dense substance full of protein, antioxidants, and vitamins

Nuts and seeds: Flax seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews, and almonds are just a few of the nuts and seeds you may find in a meal replacement bar. These ingredients provide varying degrees of protein and other nutrients, and they definitely have their own taste and texture. If you have an allergy to seeds or nuts, read the label carefully.

Whey protein: Derived from milk, whey protein is an easily digestible protein that is also found in brands of infant formula. It’s low in lactose and considered to be a complete protein.

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If you’re a vegan, pay close attention to the ingredients list on your meal replacement bar. In addition to avoiding milk-derived protein, watch for ingredients like glycerine, which may come from animal fat or a vegetable source.


Organic ingredients

Some companies tout ingredients that are organic. The production of organic food is not bolstered by pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), antibiotics, or growth hormones. With agricultural products, there are three levels of organic food: “100% organic,” “organic,” and “made with organic ingredients.” The latter two can be misleading if you don’t know their definitions. The USDA classifies an “organic” food as one that contains 95% to 99% organic ingredients. A product “made with organic ingredients” contains at least 70% organic ingredients. 

An important takeaway here: if you want a meal replacement bar that is 100% organic, look for those precise words on the label.

Whole grains

Refined flour products get a bad rap, but whole grains are good for you, and lots of meal replacement bars advertise whole grains as a primary ingredient. Some whole grains you might see on the ingredients list of a meal replacement bar include amaranth, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, oats, and quinoa. Why are whole grains good for you? They’re rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. What’s more, they stick to your ribs and create a sense of satisfaction in the mouth and stomach.


Most meal replacement bars are sweet rather than savory. Many contain ingredients you’d also see on the dessert table at a buffet: chocolate chips, caramel, marshmallow, peanut butter. That said, the best bars contain fewer than 5 grams of sugar.

For optimum health, avoid bars that contain artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup. Instead, choose products sweetened with fruit or a small amount of real sugar. Here are a few mouth-watering flavors that are popular with consumers:

  • Peanut butter and chocolate

  • Chocolate chip cookie dough

  • Fudge graham

  • S’mores

  • Coconut and chocolate

  • Lemon 

  • Vanilla crunch

If you want something savory rather than sweet, you might want to look into keto bars. Some of these products also qualify as meal replacement bars, and a handful contain meat ingredients. Another savory choice for busy people on the go is the meat stick. These don’t qualify as meal replacement bars, but they can certainly give you a protein boost and quell your hunger.

"If you’re prone to impulsive food purchases, such as a burger and fries at the drive-through, stock your glove compartment or purse with a few meal replacement bars. Eat the bar instead, and you’ll save cash and calories! "

Meal replacement bar prices

Inexpensive: Inexpensive meal replacement bars cost a bit less than a dollar each, which is about as much as a candy bar. These bars may not contain organic ingredients or as much protein as pricier bars. If you want the best price, purchase a multipack at a bulk rate. 

Mid-range: Some meal replacement bars sit in the middle range, costing between $1 and $2.50 apiece. Quality and taste vary from brand to brand.

Expensive: At the top end, you’ll find meal replacement bars for $2.50 and up. These bars tend to contain more protein and ingredients touted as better for you — whole grains and 100% organic components, for example. They may or may not taste better than less costly alternatives.


  • Try meal replacement bars to help you lose weight. At 200 to 300 calories per serving, they tend to have fewer calories than a sit-down meal. However, it’s not recommended that you skip healthy meals often. Sitting down to a balanced meal with whole foods from the basic food groups is still far healthier than eating a meal replacement bar.

  • Look for bars that are keto-friendly if you’re on a keto diet. If you follow a keto diet, you may feel overwhelmed by the day-to-day task of finding keto-friendly foods to eat. Some meal replacement bars adhere to the 4:1 ketogenic ratio, which dictates that you should eat roughly 4 grams of fat for every 1 gram of protein. Carbs are minimized, though not completely eliminated, on the keto diet.

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A single meal replacement bar may cost you $3 or more in the checkout line, but a box of meal replacement bars almost always costs far less per bar.


Q. What is the difference between a meal replacement bar and a protein bar?
A. A meal replacement bar is designed to deliver a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to the body. A protein bar is designed to deliver protein, but the other components aren’t guaranteed. In other words, a meal replacement bar can take the place of an entire meal. A protein bar may or may not have enough carbs and fats to replace a meal.

Q. The label on my box of meal replacement bars talks about “macros.” What are they?
A. Short for “macronutrients,” the macros in your food can be divided into three categories: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Some diet plans focus not only on calories but also on macros. This stems from the philosophy that you need the right balance of calories from each of the three macro groups. 

You may have heard of the 40/30/30 diet, or Zone diet. This eating plan is based on the notion that your daily food intake should comprise 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% healthy fats. Some meal replacement bar recipes adhere to the 40/30/30 macro ratio.

Q. I don’t understand the difference between healthy fat and trans fat. Does it matter which type is in my meal replacement bar?
A. It definitely matters because all fats are not equal. In fact, artery-clogging trans fat is one of the worst types of fat you could eat. Some meal replacement bars advertise that they contain “no trans fats,” and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, trans fat is found in a lot of prepackaged foods.

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