Some thirty-five years ago, the California-based PowerBar company launched the first-ever commercial energy bar designed with endurance athletes in mind.
The invention later spiraled into the modern-day protein bar, packing over 20g of the muscle-building nutrient in a wrapped, chocolatey, & easy-carry serving.
Just grab a bar from the pantry, toss it in your gym bag, and that’s it!
Today, the protein bar fitness trend is a multi-billion dollar industry. Check out these fascinating protein bar market size & growth statistics to put “sports nutrition” into a better perspective.
Table of Contents
- Protein Bar Industry Size & Market Growth
- High Protein Bars
- Protein Bar Demographics
- What to Look for in a Protein Bar
- Frequently Asked Questions
Protein Bar Industry Size & Market Growth
- Back in 2016, the global protein bar market topped $837 million.
- The protein and meal replacement supplement markets are still climbing, surpassing over $3 billion just a few short years ago in 2017.
- The plant-based arm of the protein market soared beyond $10 billion back in 2017.
- On the global scale, the protein bar market reached $4.66 billion in 2019; experts suggest the market could blossom an extra 150% by 2027 (up to $7.03 billion).
- Sports-based nutritional bars claimed 40.56% of the worldwide global protein bar market.
- Leading protein bar companies include Mondelez International, Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Glanbia.
- In a unique yet not entirely unexpected twist, plant-based protein bars lead the market.
The History of Protein Bars
When you’re committed to bulking, cutting, or body recomposition, you welcome protein bars with open arms. But how much do you know about these chocolatey, nutty snacks?
And, where did this near $7 billion industry get its start?
Here’s a brief timeline of the history of protein bars:
The first protein bar dates back to the 1960s when NASA and moon landings (yeah, they happened) became pop culture spectacles.
Astronaut food called “Space Food Sticks” started circulating across America, but they didn’t gain as much traction as Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the Moon’s surface in 1969.
By 1986, protein bars as we know them started making the rounds.
This time, they were designed with athletes in mind.
Canadian track & field Olympic-qualifier Brian Maxwell brainstormed a bar that’d aid endurance athletes in competition, with his girlfriend — a nutritionist — helping to design the recipe.
The goal: a bar high in carbs and low in fat.
Maxwell and his future wife, Jennifer Biddulph, spearheaded a business plan, raising funding themselves and sticking to local vendors.
PowerBar became a hit after sponsoring the American Tour de France team in 1987.
By the 1990s, PowerBar was raking in nearly $100 million a year. The company launched its first-ever true protein bar in 1998, calling it “PowerBar Protein Plus.”
Countless other companies came onto the scene in the 2000s, slowly edging PowerBar out of its own market. But we certainly have PowerBar to thank for the ongoing protein bar fitness trend.
What’s Leading to the Protein Bar Market Surge?
After seeing these startling statistics, the question we had is one you might have as well: why is the protein bar market absolutely surging in recent years?
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to explain why humans worldwide poured $837 million into these pre-wrapped bars in 2016 alone.
We can make a few guesses:
As much as we roll our eyes when wading through the dozens of protein bars on the shelves, there’s one thing we can’t deny.
There’s a protein bar for everyone (vegan, high-protein diets, keto, paleo, plant-based, etc.), which likely drives sales in the fitness market.
- Medical check-ups (um?)
- Spring cleaning
- Bill payment (again, um?)
We willingly put off a sink full of dishes and paying our landlords. Do you really think a home-cooked meal after an hour-long gym workout during the week is in the cards?
Protein bars are nutritious and protein-dense enough to fill the gap.
RXBar might look like its own brand from the offset, but did you know that Kellogg’s bought out the company for a cool $600 million back in 2017?
With a $22.58 billion company running the ship, including advertising and distribution, it’s no surprise that the protein bar aisle at the supermarket is expanding every year.
The Push For Plant-Based… Well… Everything
Whey and casein are — without a doubt — the protein industry leaders, the two dairy-based proteins that essentially rule the fitness supplement market.
But alternative protein sources are gradually securing a spot at the top of the podium, nabbing a $10 billion market in 2017 alone.
Common protein alternatives include soy, rice, bean, pea, hemp, and more.
And, although those ditching the cow-based proteins are often vegans (trust me, they’ll tell you why), the push for plant-based protein products also benefits:
- The lactose intolerant community. Because the traditional whey and casein are “dairy,” they could trigger cramping and open the downstairs floodgates for unsuspecting lifters.
- Those susceptible to acne. 2013 research links the growth factors in cow’s milk to the development of acne. Over two months, rates were particularly worse in females and those with no family history of acne.
- Those with sensitive guts. Whey alternatives like pea protein are the trifecta: dairy-free, gluten-free, and vegan. It’s less likely to upset the GI tract than animal proteins, even for those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Crohn’s Disease (2021 research).
- Folks on a diet. Alternative protein sources may have less protein per bar (or scoop), but they naturally contain fewer calories as well. For example, 28 grams of soy isolate powder has just 95 calories, where whey protein is closer to 110 or higher.
- People following plant-based diets. Whether it’s for your love of animals or a desire for a healthier diet, plant-based protein products are excellent alternatives for vegans, vegetarians, or whichever label you claim.
It’s not that we’re suddenly uncovering reasons why whey and casein are “bad.”
There’s enough overlap between the three that the market is booming!
Most Popular Protein Bar Brands
If you’re tight on cash, you likely roam the fitness nutrition aisle at the supermarket (or the digital aisles on Amazon) and select whichever protein bars you have a coupon for or are on sale.
Yet, some brands have better reputations than others.
While the leading protein bar manufacturers include Mondelez International, Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Glanbia, the most popular brands on the consumer’s end include:
- Gatorade (PepsiCo)
- Quest Nutrition (Atkins)
- MET-Rx (Nature’s Bounty)
- CLIF BAR (still family-owned, surprisingly)
- Vega Sport
- Pure Protein
- PowerBar (yep, the OG protein bar brand is still around)
Now, we have to warn you.
Plenty of manufacturers are in the club of adding certain keywords to their online listings to put their products in front of more eyes.
That’s why you see so many options with “high protein,” “energy bar,” and “meal replacement” in their names. Don’t take their word for it; look at the grams of protein to discover the real answer.
(Not to be confused with meal replacement bars, energy bars, nutrition bars, keto bars, sports bars, or whatever the hell we’re calling them these days.)
Protein Bars vs. Meal Replacement Bars
As if fitness supplements aren’t confusing enough, it seems like retail stores and vitamin shops intentionally mix meal replacement bars in the protein bar section as if they’re one and the same.
But aside from the sweet interiors and chocolate coatings, they couldn’t be more different.
The Nutritional Differences
There are plenty of misconceptions about protein bars, meal replacement bars, and when you should eat each. From the outer packaging, they look uncomfortably similar.
Now, let’s take a look at the nutrition labels of one of each — PROBAR Oatmeal Chocolate Chip (meal replacement) and Quest Nutrition Chocolate Brownie — to highlight the differences.
|Nutrient||PROBAR Oatmeal Chocolate Chip (Full Bar) – Meal Replacement||Quest Nutrition Chocolate Brownie – Protein Bar|
|Calories||410 calories||180 calories|
No matter how you look at the numbers, they tell wildly different stories.
Meal replacement bars are calorie-dense, just like a standard meal. They also offer a more balanced macronutrient breakdown — protein, fats, and carbs — just with fewer calories.
Their high-energy recipes come in handy when you’re looking to cut calories at lunch, pop a snack while zig-zagging through the mountains, or keep your intake in check during a long day.
But while they can aid in weight loss, especially if you replace a 700-calorie meal with a 410-calorie bar, they fail miserably for those looking to add lean or chiseled mass.
Protein bars are relatively low in carbs and fats while delivering an adequate ‘punch’ of protein after a muscle-damaging training session. In short: these bars are more efficient for gains!
The Meal Replacement Industry is Growing Too!
The global protein bar market may have towered over $830 million in 2016, but the meal replacement industry is even more astonishing.
In 2018, the meal replacement market surpassed a $16 billion value globally. Of course, this number includes everything from meal replacement ready drinks to powders to bars.
But these bars attract a far different audience than your run-of-the-mill protein bar. On top of cutting daily caloric intake, meal replacement bars can help with:
- They grab-and-go meals that require no kitchen preparation.
- They’re both calorie- and nutrient-dense, low in fillers and junk ingredients.
- You can stuff them in your bag or desk drawer for easy snacks.
- If you struggle with a low appetite, they’re a less painful 300+ calories.
- Many options infuse healthy ingredients, like soy, quinoa, and nuts.
- They can calm an unruly appetite, encouraging you to eat less.
However, no two meal replacement bars are the same. For example, if you need these bars to keep your weight up, a 180-calorie meal replacement bar from SlimFast wouldn’t help much.
A good meal replacement bar will replace a normal meal’s nutrients, not just serve as an appetite suppressant to aid in weight loss.
The Protein Bar Market vs. Powders
The protein bar vs. protein powder debate is one that we’ll never settle, as each side brings a solid case. But how do these two products compare in terms of their market size and share?
Well, powders certainly lead the pack.
That’s a little surprising, given grabbing a bar is easier than lugging around a tub of protein powder and a shaker bottle (and rinsing it out before it starts to smell rancid).
But is there something driving athletes to one over the other? Let’s compare a Pure Protein powder to a Pure Protein bar to see if the answer is in their nutrition labels.
|Nutrient||100% Whey Pure Protein – Chocolate (Powder)||Pure Protein Chocolate Peanut Butter (Bar)|
|Calories||160 calories||200 calories|
As you can see, the difference between the two is ever-so-slight. 100% whey protein powders are typically more protein-dense, with fewer carbs, fats, and calories.
However, this assumes that you’re mixing your protein powders with water, which typically lands you with an uncomfortably thin and warm mixture.
Sure, it’s doable (but … at what cost?).
When you add fat-free milk, a scoop or two of peanut butter, and even some spinach to get the flavor you crave, the nutritional profile gets a little dicier. In that case, bars snag the victory.
High Protein Bars
- Globally, high protein bars boasted a $468.72 million value in 2016.
- High protein bars carry more than half of the entire protein bar market share, driving 56% of the market in 2016.
What Are High Protein Bars?
There’s no official rule for what makes a regular-old protein bar a “high protein bar.” In fact, tacking “high” on the front seems to be more a buzzword than anything else.
For example, one search for “high protein bars” on Amazon brings bars with as high as 32g of protein (like MET-Rx) and some as low as 20g (like think!, Pure Protein, and Quest).
Most protein bars hover around the 20–30g sweet spot. But a few really pack a muscle-building punch; the following have over 30g of protein per bar:
- Universal Hi-Protein Bar (Chocolate Peanut Butter): 34g
- MET-Rx Big 100 Colossal Protein Bar (Super Cookie Crunch): 32g
- Detour Lean Muscle Whey Protein Bar (Cookie Dough Caramel Crisp): 32g
- MET-Rx Big 100 Colossal Protein Bar (Crispy Apple Pie): 31g
- MET-Rx Protein Plus Protein Bar (Chocolate Chocolate Crunch): 31g
Keep in mind that high protein bars won’t necessarily guarantee greater muscle growth and post-workout recovery than a bar with, say, 20g or even 15g.
Eating enough protein throughout the day (ideally 0.8g/pound of body weight) and consuming 20-ish grams of protein in any form within 1–2 hours of resistance training matter even more!
Benefits of High Protein Bars
The high protein bar market is — without a doubt — surging, carrying more than half the industry in 2016 and posting nearly $500 million in value that same year.
But what’s behind these skyrocketing figures?
We can fathom a few possible culprits:
They Make Hitting Daily Protein Goals Easier
If you’re hoping to bulk up, you likely kicked your protein intake into full throttle.
And, rightfully so!
While as little as 0.5g/pound is the bare minimum for the average lifter, you might send your protein intake into overdrive to guarantee gains by summer — up to 1g/pound.
In other words, if you weigh 175 pounds, you’re on the hook for 175g of protein every day.
That can be daunting, especially because a single chicken breast has about 54g of protein in total. There’s simply not enough money — or appetite — to eat four a day plus other food.
High-protein bars are the most logical substitutes. They take minutes to eat, require no preparation, and (at least in the scenario above) could fill almost 20% of your daily goal!
They *Almost* Double as Meal Replacements
Let’s get one thing out of the way: high-protein bars and meal replacement bars aren’t quite the same things, though they share more similarities than MR bars and regular ‘ol protein bars.
Take the Universal Hi Protein Bar, for example.
Each bar has 34g of protein, solidifying its honor as a top-ranked “high protein” bar. Yet, it also has a decent amount of calories (302), fat (6.5g), and carbohydrates (31g).
If you don’t have the appetite for a full-plate meal or are in the midst of a cutting phase, you could easily swap this bar in for your usual mid-day snack or lunch.
Cut your calories without risking nutritional intake.
(If you want them to double as meal replacement bars, shoot for one with 400+ calories.)
They’re Generally High in Other Nutrients
High protein bars are — well — remarkably high in protein content. But they aren’t just a nutty slab of pure whey protein (which we argue would taste disgusting).
It’s not unusual for these bars to also boast nutrients like:
- Folate (30%)
- Vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, K (25% apiece)
- Thiamin (25%)
- Riboflavin (25%)
- Niacin (25%)
- Biotin (25%)
- Iron (20%)
- Copper (15%)
These additional ingredients don’t only support an otherwise well-balanced diet, but they also come in handy during post-workout recovery!
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Protein Bar Demographics
- More than half in the 25-34 age group eat weekly protein bars, while some 20% add protein bars to their daily routines.
- The 55-64 age group is the most reluctant to hop onto the protein bar trend, with 66% refusing them entirely and just 10% eating protein bars weekly.
- Not surprisingly, more men are protein bar aficionados than women (33% vs. 14% chowing down on weekly bars).
- When choosing protein bars, women ranked their favorites by taste (66%), whereas men preferred convenience and protein content (52%).
- Almost 25% of women and 50% of those aged 55 and over never eat protein bars after training or exercising.
- Men consider protein bars far healthier than traditional chocolate (31% vs. 16% of women believing the same thing).
- In the 55+ community, just 8% consider protein bars healthier than chocolate; in those younger than 35, the number skyrockets to 48%.
Why Millennials Love Protein Bars
The 25–34 age group — better known as “Millennials” — are quite the protein bar connoisseurs. (Bet we won’t receive any sort of credit for keeping an industry alive, right?)
What is it about these nutritious bars that 50% of us can’t seem to get enough of?
Well, Millennials are a rare breed, and we do things a bit … differently. We can owe our reliance on protein bars to some facts like:
Millennials & Snacking
Millennials are relentless snackers, with 24% snacking 4+ times a day.
The <40 crew might not always be chasing muscle recovery, but protein bars often moonlight as grab-and-go snacks for long car rides or in the cubicle.
Millennials & Home-Cooked Meals (Sike)
Protein bars don’t require an oven, microwave, a zillion bowls, or any time.
About 50% of Millenials buy nutrition bars because they store easily in their bag, drawer, or glove compartment — a snack within arm’s reach.
Millennials vs. Boomers
Millennials are far healthier than Baby Boomers.
Millennials & Money
Millennials boast an average annual salary of $47,034, with monthly spending budgets remaining tight year-round.
If a protein bar costs $2 and can silence a growling stomach, that’s far more affordable than spending $10 on a healthy salad and fruit smoothie.
The Verdict: Why Do Millennials Love ‘Em?
Millennials are fitness freaks, and some 76% exercise at least once a week! In other words, it’s unlikely that the 20% who eat daily protein bars are only doing so after a tough chest/tris day.
We might just be using them interchangeably with snack or meal replacement bars (oops).
Okay, Boomer: Why Our Parents’ Generation Dislikes Protein Bars
Without slinging too many stereotypes at the older generations, the discrepancy between Millennials and Boomers — and how they feel about protein bars — made us curious.
Why are the 55 and up crowd so anti-protein bars (66% aren’t fans)?
There are a few possible explanations.
Seventy-six percent of Boomers are self-proclaimed “good cooks,” where only 64.7% of Millennials can say the same. Now, the older crowd might just enjoy home-cooked meals more.
Or, the fact that protein bars look just like an ultra-sweet and gooey Snickers bar makes them seem like nothing more than glorified candy bars.
That, of course, trickles into the diabetes issue. One in four Baby Boomers will develop diabetes within their lifetime, with the candy bar appearance turning them off protein bars for good.
Men, Women, & Protein Bar Preferences
It’s not every day that men and women agree on something (and, today is no different). Nothing drives a wedge between the two in the gym atmosphere quite like the protein bar debate.
Men seem to love ‘em (33%), while women can take ‘em or leave ‘em (14%).
These stereotypes ultimately boil down to long-held resistance training myths, particularly those involving women. You’ve likely heard the ladies in your life spout their concerns about it:
- Becoming too bulky or muscular
- Looking manly
- The term “she-Hulk” gets thrown around a bit
- Gaining weight
That might explain why just 17.5% of women meet the CDC’s weekly strength training and aerobic training suggestions.
And, because men resort to protein bars to repair muscle post-workout, the connection becomes muddied at best: if I eat protein, Lou Ferrigno will be out of a job (or something like that).
This budding reputation leaves many women shunning protein to preserve a slim physique.
What Makes Men & Women Tick
When women lug a protein bar in their gym bag, the thought behind it is vastly different from what men consider. Again, part of it traces back to the “why.”
If it’s a serious male athlete hoping to get ripped, he’s likely already on a protein-rich nutritional plan (0.8g/pound).
Fueling with 30+ grams of protein post-workout makes those 150+ grams a day sound more reasonable. And, grabbing a bar is more convenient than cooking a three-course meal.
As far as women go, the obsession with taste is actually science-backed.
In the 1990s, Yale Medical School researchers discovered that women have more taste buds than men, and some 35% of women classify as ‘supertasters’ (only 15% of men can say the same).
Be Honest: Are Protein Bars Just Glorified Candy Bars?
Nearly 92% of seniors question the health merits of traditional protein bars, ranking the likes of Hershey’s and Toblerone above supplement industry leaders, such as Quest and Pure Protein.
And about half of Millenials feel the same (at least we agree on something).
But who’s right here? Are protein bars just glorified candy bars with some muscle-building know-how?
The good news: No, protein bars aren’t just candy bars in a sweet, chocolatey disguise. To prove it, let’s compare the labels of a classic Three Musketeers Bar to a Gatorade Whey Protein Bar:
|Nutrient||Three Musketeers||Gatorade Whey Protein Bar|
|Calories||240 calories||220 calories|
Both bars are quite similar in their calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
But unlike the undeniable nougaty goodness of Three Musketeers Bars, these Gatorade Whey Protein Bars deliver noticeable nutritional value: high protein and low sugar.
Candy bars pose no benefit whatsoever (except for the feel-good dopamine surge).
(Grenade Carb Killa has a “High Protein and Low Sugar Candy Bar,” which totally defeats the point we’re trying to make here. But still.)
Protein Bar Alternatives
Women and the older generations aren’t exactly protein bar fanatics. And, if these firm, sometimes tasteless bars don’t rope you in, there are two logical alternatives:
Most whey and casein powders deliver about 20-40g of protein per scoop. But unlike the classic protein bar, protein powders are a bit more palatable to those with stubborn taste buds.
You can blend them with ice, frozen blueberries, spinach, and peanut butter for a nutrient-rich recovery shake. Or, fluff them into every lifter’s favorite breakfast: protein pancakes.
Of course, the best way to get protein in your diet is — well — through your diet. Avoid the junk additives, fillers, and sugars from low-quality protein bars by eating these lean foods instead:
- Chicken breast (27g per 3-ounce serving)
- Black beans (15g per cup)
- Salmon (25g per 3.5-ounce serving)
- Low-fat yogurt (11g per cup)
- Eggs (6g per egg)
- Peanuts (7g per ounce)
If you’re in a time pinch or need a quick pick-me-up, that protein bar or whey protein scoop can easily fill in that dietary gap!
What to Look for in a Protein Bar
If you have a one-track mind and — let’s face it — many of us do, your choice in protein bars comes down to one of two things: flavor or brand.
But if you’re chasing gains on a generally clean and junk-free diet, look for a protein bar with:
- 20+ grams of protein
- <20 grams of carbohydrates
- As little fat as possible and, preferably, no trans or saturated fats (<3 is ideal)
- <5 grams of sugar (sugar alcohols are better and sweeter alternatives)
- 3+ grams of fiber (to help you feel full)
- 250-ish calories (if you’re bulking up, you can’t afford to shed calories)
- Natural ingredients, no preservatives, and absolutely no fillers
The amount of protein per bar might be the only thought that crosses your mind. However, take a moment to read over the ingredients in the recipe.
If you can’t pronounce the first few ingredients, or they sound oddly like chemicals, you probably shouldn’t be putting them in your body.
Of course, no protein bar worth a damn is 100% perfect.
If you want an authentic-tasting cinnamon bun-flavored bar, expect a high sugar content. If the protein is all that matters, you might wind up with a bland, jaw-breaking bar.
Reviews Over Everything
We’ve all had disappointing food experiences, where we order a delicious-looking item off a menu that winds up tasting like a re-heated Stouffer’s entree.
Protein bars can be the same way, but just with the flavor name (chocolate chip cookie dough, apple pie, even birthday cake).
They can taste wildly disappointing.
Don’t overlook the online reviews to learn whether the taste is authentic and worth a try. There’s no sense spending extra on a mint chocolate chip bar that tastes like straight-up trash, right?
Read some five-stars, some one-stars, and — perhaps the most honest group — the middle.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Protein Bars Good for You?
Protein bars are good for you in one sense: the 20-30g of protein after training is the “gold standard” for muscle protein synthesis (post-workout recovery). Yet, some manufacturers load their bars with sugars, fats, and unhealthy sweeteners — like high fructose corn syrup — to enhance the taste.
What Protein Bars Are the Healthiest?
The healthiest protein bars boast “clean,” preservative-free, high-quality, and all-natural ingredients. KIND, RXBar, Aloha, Rise, and Quest are among the healthiest brands for fitness buffs craving convenient post-workout recovery without sacrificing sound nutrition.
When Should You Eat Protein Bars?
The best time to eat a protein bar is right after a workout. However, research suggests that consuming protein before training could be equally as effective. One 2017 study found no significant differences in lean mass, muscle thickness, or maximal strength between the pre and post-workout groups.
Can Protein Bars Make You Lose Weight?
Protein bars can help you lose weight if you’re using them as occasional meal replacements (i.e., replacing a 600-calorie meal with a 200-calorie bar). Some bars also feature 7–10g of fiber, which can help you feel fuller longer. Protein can also lower ghrelin levels (a hunger hormone), lessening appetite.
Which Protein Bars Have the Most Protein?
The protein bars with the most protein include:
- Universal Hi-Protein (34 grams)
- MET-Rx (32 grams)
- Supreme Protein (30 grams)
- Detour (30 grams)
- Robert Irvine’s Fit Crunch (30 grams)
A brand’s true protein content varies by flavor. For example, don’t assume that all MET-Rx bars have 32 grams per serving.
The protein bar fitness trend continues to boom, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. That said, it’s time to hop on the trend in one way or another (bars, powders, shakes).
Stock up on bars to eat when your Shaker Bottle is dirty or don’t have time to cook a home-cooked meal in the kitchen. Grab ‘em, get on with your life, and rack up those gains.
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