Life gets busy. Whether you’re a student juggling work and school or a young professional balancing a 9 to 5 and bustling social life, there are only 24 hours in a day, and they often go by far too fast. The right meal replacement bar may be the perfect solution for saving some time in your day, or shoehorning that bucket list backpacking trip into a 3 day weekend. Read on to find the best meal replacement bar for you.
What is a meal replacement bar?
Meal replacement bars are a conveniently packaged bar, typically wrapped in a plastic or foil pouch for easy consumption. A meal replacement bar should pack at least 350 calories, although a complete meal replacement bar will provide a full meal’s worth of calories. That’s about 650 calories based on a 2000 calorie/day diet. The best meal replacement bars have a balanced nutritional profile of about 55% carbohydrates, 25% protein, and 20% fat.
What should you consider when looking for a meal replacement bar?
There are several different aspects to look at when you’re deciding what meal bars are right for your purposes. Fortunately, with so many excellent meal bars on the market, there are a plethora of quality meal replacement protein bars, meal replacement bars for weight gain, energy bars for hiking, and meal replacement survival bars. Let’s take a look at some of the most important qualities to look for when picking the best meal replacement bar for you.
Best Meal Replacement Bar Ingredients
Can you pronounce most of the ingredients in the bar? Or does it look more like a chemistry experiment? If you’re only going to eat meal replacement bars every so often as a quick-fix for a long day, maybe ingredients aren’t that big of a deal. However, if meal bars are going to become part of your regular routine, it’s best to think twice about the following.
Brown rice syrup
I recommend steering clear from bars made primarily with brown rice syrup, as there have been studies suggesting links to high arsenic levels. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element. In fact, arsenic is commonly found in drinking water. However, given that rice is a semiaquatic grain that grows in flooded fields, arsenic can become more highly concentrated in the final grain. Arsenic can become even more concentrated when that rice grain is converted to syrup. Long term exposure to arsenic has been linked to ailments such as skin disorders, increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and a variety of cancers.
Soy protein isolate (SPI)
Most high protein meal bars rely at least partially on a protein supplement to boost their protein content. One supplement to avoid as an ingredient is soy protein isolate. Although soy protein isolate (SPI) has been available since 1959, the FDA has still not granted it GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. Furthermore, the process for producing SPI typically requires soaking whole soybeans in hexane solvent, which is a derivative of crude oil. This separates the soy oil from the rest of the bean, allowing further processing. It’s worth noting that several other soy products, such as soy lecithin, are formulated in a similar manner.
Sucralose, more commonly known as Splenda, is a sweetener used in meal bars that are trying to keep their sugars in check, but still want to taste sweet. Sucralose is 600 times “sweeter” than sugar. As a result it is known to recalibrate your body’s perception of sweetness. Frequent consumption can make your body crave sweets.
Palm oil is currently the most highly consumed vegetable oil on the planet, and oil palm trees only grow in the tropics. Palm oil is used in a plethora of products in, and outside of the food industry. It’s used in ice creams, detergents, and yes, some meal replacement bars. Because palm oil use is so rampant, some of the most biodiverse tropical rainforests on earth are being cleared to make room for more plantations. For this reason, it is best to avoid products that use unsustainably sourced palm oil.
Caloric Content and Nutrition
Calories certainly aren’t the whole picture, but they’re a good place to start. Will this bar just be a hefty snack, or is it intended to be a complete meal replacement bar? If you’re looking for a full meal bar, you’ll be looking for meal replacement bars that are at least 600 calories. Additionally, those calories should be distributed across the various macronutrients. Ideally you’ll want a nutritional profile of about 55% carbohydrates, 25% protein, and 20% fat. It’s worth noting that certain activities will benefit from tweaking this distribution slightly. For example, endurance athletes can benefit from slightly higher fat content which will keep them properly fueled while exerting themselves for long periods of time. A bodybuilder may prefer a high protein meal replacement bar for muscle recovery over a relatively short but intense training session.
Meal bars tend to be a bit larger than their energy bar counterparts. Because of this, texture is even more important for how enjoyable a bar will be. Softer bars that are easier to chew won’t make your jaw fall off halfway through a bar. Another consideration is if there are rough ingredients like nuts, or dry grains that will have a tendency to tear up your mouth. This all comes down to personal preference, but I tend to prefer bars that are no fuss, and easy to “throw down the hatch.” One final consideration is how the texture changes with temperature. If you plan to consume these bars outside when it’s cold, do they remain edible, or do they freeze nearly solid? Some bars that we looked at are much better options for cold weather than others.
The shelf life of meal replacement bars is usually about 9-12 months. Some companies offer longer shelf lives (up to 4 years), but this usually comes at the cost of more preservatives like calcium propionate. Vitamin E (also listed as tocopherols) is an antioxidant that is also used to extend shelf life. Although these ingredients have not been linked to health concerns, if you don’t NEED a long shelf life, you might consider selecting a product with simple whole ingredients instead.
All other things aside you’ll want a solid bang for your buck if a meal replacement bar is going to be a part of your routine. Price is closely tied to the quality of ingredients, so expect to pay more for products made from high quality, whole ingredients.
What are some top rated meal replacement bars to consider?
There are so many quality meal replacement bars on the market, targeted at so many different purposes. From ultralight backpacking food, to meal bars for weight lifting and bulking, or meal bars for an easy meal in the office. Here were the bars we looked at.
Range Meal Replacement Bars
Made in Vancouver, WA by a small team, each Range bar is 700 calories. Range bars are available in 40 speciality outdoors stores in the US, and online at the company’s website. Each Range bar costs $5.83 when purchased as a six pack, plus $5 shipping if the order is under $50. Range bars currently come in two flavors, both of which are gluten free, with one being vegan and the other being vegetarian. The texture of a Range bar is soft and easy on the jaw, and the bars stay soft enough to eat, even when the mercury drops below 32. Range bars use all natural ingredients, and don’t have brown rice syrup, soy, or palm oil. The shelf life of a Range bar is 9 months. Overall this is a good ultralight backpacking food, hunting food, and also good high calorie food for bulking in the gym. Someone looking for a low fat bar for the office probably wouldn’t like Range bars.
Big Sur Bar
Big Sur Bars are made in Morro Bay, CA and each bar packs 600 calories. These bars are distributed regionally in California, but are also available on the company’s website. Each Big Sur Bar costs about $8.85 plus shipping, which is a little on the expensive side. There are currently 3 flavors, and they have a texture similar to a blonde brownie with nuts on top. All of the ingredients in a Big Sur bar are easily recognizable, and there are no preservatives. The shelf life of a Big Sur bar is only 7 days, but you can put it in the freezer for up to a year. To me they seem a little more on the dessert side of things, but definitely something I’d look forward to during a backpacking trip.
MRE bars are made by REDCON1 in Boca Raton, FL and they are available in some gas stations, many grocery stores, GNC, and the company’s website. Each MRE bar packs 260 calories, and there are currently 13 flavors available, many of which are quite unique (ex. birthday cake). This is definitely one of the more processed bars we looked at, and it uses soy protein isolate, sucralose, palm oil, and more. The texture is a bit on the compressed/chalky side, but as far as a higher calorie energy bar with high protein content, MRE bar is one of the better options. If you’re looking for a high protein meal replacement bar, consider the MRE bar.
Each Millennium bar contains 400 calories, and the price is one of the best values on the list at $2.50. Millennium bars are available on Amazon and the company’s website. There are currently 5 flavors available. The texture of Millenium bars is very very dense, but crumbly, and the ingredients are inarguably bottom shelf, with the first two being sugar, and palm oil. With that said, Millennium bars may be the best food for an emergency kit because the shelf life is 4 years. I wouldn’t recommend Millenium bars for backpacking food, high protein, or as a good food for bulking.
Greenbelly Meal Bar
Made in Atlanta, GA, Greenbelly Meal Bars contain 660 calories and are available in some specialty outdoors stores, and the company’s website. Each bar costs about $7.40 and there are currently 5 flavors available, many of which are on the savory side, which is a differentiator from many meal replacement bars on the market. I’m not a huge fan of the the texture of the bars because it is very dry, and somewhat difficult to bite into. I’ve found the texture to tear up my mouth quite a bit. The packaging is the biggest on this list, but does feature a resealable ziplock so you can reseal the bag in between uses. I think these bars are best suited for backpacking and hunting.
One of the better known meal bar options, Probar is made in Salt Lake City, UT. Each bar packs 370 calories, and there are currently 12 flavors which are available in gas stations, REI, amazon, and some grocery stores. The texture is soft and chewy, and at $3 a bar, the value is compelling. However, we don’t like that brown rice syrup is the first ingredient. Probars have a shelf life of 12 months, and we think they are best suited for a hefty snack in the office, or for a moderate hike.
Not necessarily a meal replacement bar, but worthy of consideration nonetheless. Trail Butter is based out of Portland, OR, and sells a variety of nut-butter based products positioned as meal supplements. Trail Butter products are available on Amazon, the company’s website, and some grocery stores like New Seasons. Each packet contains 650 calories, and sells for $6.50. There are currently 4 flavors available, and they all use high quality ingredients. The texture is peanut butter, with trail mix crushed and blended in. It’s worth noting that the nutritional value of this product is somewhat unbalanced and is really lacking on the carbohydrate side of things. However, it’s not very hard to find other products to fill that gap (in fact, that’s the main nutrition that most energy bars seem to provide), so maybe not that big of a deal. The shelf life of Trail Butter is 12 months, but once opened, a packet should be consumed within 2-3 months.
Bobo’s are made in Boulder, CO, and each bar contains 340 calories. Bobo’s bars are available from Amazon, some grocery stores, and the company’s website. There are currently 14 flavors available, and most of the ingredients are solid, although brown rice syrup is the second ingredient, which we don’t like. The texture is soft and chewy which we like, but the flavors are a little bland, and the nutritional profile is heavily skewed towards the carbohydrate side. Bobo’s bars are probably best for a hefty snack in the office, or moderate hike.
What is the best meal replacement bar for me?
Like most things, meal replacement bars are NOT one size fits all. We recommend the following meal replacement bars for these specific uses.
Best "snack" meal bar: Probar
At just under 400 calories, Probar isn’t quite what we would consider a FULL meal replacement bar, but for a substantial snack while you’re out and about, or a shorter hike, we think it’s a great option.
What we like
The texture of the Probar is soft and easy on your jaw. Probars do freeze solid when cold, but that shouldn’t be an issue for most people using these as a snack. Probars are offered in an abundance of flavors, which aslo makes them well suited for frequent use as a snack. Overall the ingredients are fairly solid, and the nutrition profile is relatively balanced. The cost is also very reasonable and they are readily available.
What we don't like
Brown rice syrup is the second ingredient, and there aren’t any savory options for those looking for something other than sweet.
Best high protein meal replacement bar: MRE Bar
In general, meal replacement bars don’t cater to those looking for high protein. However, if you’re specifically looking for a high protein meal replacement bar, check out MRE bars.
What we like
MRE bars boast the highest protein concentration on the market, by far. We also like that they’re relatively affordable and easy to find.
What we don't like
MRE bars were one of the most processed bars we considered, and they achieve their high protein content at least in part by using soy protein isolate. Some other not so nice ingredients used are palm oil and sucralose. We also don’t like that the texture is fairly granular and compressed.
Best full meal replacement bar: Range Meal Bar
As you have hopefully gathered by now, this is OUR bar. However, we think it’s fair to say that it’s the hands down best option for the full replacement bar category. If you’re looking for a total meal replacement or high calorie food that hits all the macro nutrients and isn’t just carbs, look no further. This is the ideal solution for people out there getting after it. Range meal bars are an ideal backpacking food, or a good food for bulking in the gym.
What we like
Range meal bars are the most compact solution for a full meal replacement bar. We like the soft texture that’s easy to eat, and not nearly as dry as other options. Whole, all natural ingredients and interesting flavors also make Range bars one of the best meal replacement bars available.
What we don't like
Range bars may be higher in fat than is ideal for some activities. These meal bars also aren’t available in most stores, although $5 flat rate shipping is pretty affordable (or free shipping on orders over $50).
Best meal replacement bar for emergencies: Millenium Bar
Things change quickly, the last two years have made that more clear than ever. Having a small supply of emergency goods isn’t a bad idea, and meal replacement bars are a convenient way to check “food” off your list. If you’re looking for survival food, or an emergency meal replacement bar, consider Millennium Bars.
What we like
Millenium bars are probably the most compact way to pack this many calories. There also aren’t that many gnarly preservatives given the expected shelf life. Millenium bars are extremely inexpensive, and tout an impressive 4 year shelf life, which is key for an emergency meal replacement bar.
What we don't like
We really don’t like the pure sugar taste and hard homogenous texture. The ingredients used are absolutely bottom shelf, with sugar and palm oil as ingredient one and two. Millennium bars are not something we’d want to eat on a regular basis. The packaging is also not optimized for convenient consumption.
There are lots of considerations for selecting the right meal replacement bar for you, and an equally overwhelming number of products on the market. Whether you’re looking for the best high calorie food for the gym, survival meal replacement bar, or the perfect meal bar for backpacking food, we hope this overview answered your questions.
2 thoughts on “Best Meal Replacement Bars of 2022 – A Complete Guide”
Excited to try the Range Bar, recommended by my co-worker! I’m a 60 something avid hiking/backpacking grandma, and always looking for a nutrition dense high quality meal replacement bar for my overnights. Best wishes on your awesome business venture! I hope to meet you someday (we have mutual friends).
Awesome, thanks for the support Maureen! It’s a small world, I’m sure we’ll cross paths (or trails) soon.