The bar aisle is buzzing. Nut, nut butter, egg white, probiotic, protein, "smoothie," fruit, and even "fat" bars are competing with old standbys like granola and cereal bars.

Attention, shoppers: Fresh fruit, crunchy veggies, unsweetened yogurt, nuts, and other whole foods still beat bars any day. But if you want a bar that's more real food than candy, read on.

The information in this article was compiled by Kaamilah Mitchell.

A better bar

Our top picks are Better Bites, not Best Bites, because they're still processed snacks that squeeze hundreds of calories into four or five bites of food (though some "minis" hover around 100 calories). Here's how we chose them:

■ Real food. More than a trivial amount of whole food—nuts, fruit, and/or intact whole-grain kernels—and little or no refined-grain flour.

larabar protein
All of its sugar comes from fruit.
  • Sugar. No more than 7 grams (1½ teaspoons) of total sugar. We couldn't set a limit on added sugars because too few bars bear the new Nutrition Facts label, which discloses how much of the total sugar is added (for most bars, the rest comes largely from fruit).

We waived the sugar limit if most of the bar's sugar came from fruit (like an RXBAR or Larabar). But we know from early label adopters that most bars get no more than 2 grams of their total sugar from fruit.

  • Low-calorie sweeteners. No aspartame, sucralose, or acesulfame potassium. All three are rated "avoid." (See our website Some bars cut sugar by adding (safe) stevia leaf extract and erythritol, which is less likely to cause gastrointestinal distress than other sugar alcohols, like sorbitol or maltitol.
  • Saturated fat. No more than 2 grams. That knocks out nearly all bars that are coated or drizzled with chocolate- or caramel-flavored coatings. Both use sat-fat-rich palm and palm kernel oils to stay solid at room temperature.

Click here for full chart of our Better Bites and other bars.

Protein from real food?

Do you need a protein bar? Extra protein is unlikely to help you stay full, slim down, or build muscle. But if a bar is your mini-meal, you're better off with one that packs a good dose of protein.

The best protein bars are mostly real food, like nuts or fruit. Here's how they stack up:

RXBARs add dried egg whites to fruit & nuts.
  • RXBAR. This up-and-comer leads the pack with 16 Better Bites. That's because every RXBAR is largely nuts and dates, plus enough dried egg white powder to hit 12 grams of protein. Too bad the chewy texture wasn't a hit with some of our taste testers.
  • Larabar Protein. Think of it as a plants-only version of RX. Larabar Proteins start with the brand's blueprint—nuts blended with dried fruit—and toss in enough pea protein powder to roughly double the protein. (The calories and protein are similar to RX's.)
  • KIND Protein from Real Food. KIND'S protein bars have enough whole nuts to supply 7 or 8 of its 12 grams of protein. Nice! (The rest is from soy protein isolate and milk powder.)

But KIND may sell the only "real food" protein bars with a candy-like coating drizzled on top. There's enough palm kernel oil to reach 3½ or 4 grams of saturated fat, so no KIND Protein bars are Better Bites.

  • Perfect Bar. Their hefty size and heavy dose of honey and nut butter means around 300 calories, 4 to 5 teaspoons of total sugar, and no Better Bites.

The worst? Think of Quest and ONE bars as high-protein junk food. Yes, they're low in sugar because of sugar alcohols, sucralose, or stevia extract. But they have more processed protein and processed fiber than nuts or fruit. What's more, ONE's palm kernel oil coating tucks in a quarter of a day's sat fat.

Go nuts!

Bars that glom together whole nuts have a lot going for them. For starters, they taste great. But their nuts also supply healthy fats and nutrients like magnesium, zinc, vitamin E, etc.

kind maple Glazed Pecan Sea Salt
KIND makes the lowest-sugar, best-tasting nut bars.
  • KIND. KIND racked up eight nut-bar Better Bites, including some with just 2 or 3 grams of added sugar. To find the best, avoid those with chocolate or caramel coating (which didn't get a Better Bite).
clif bar ad
Most "nut butter filled" bars didn't wow us.
  • Nut butter filling? Nut bars' latest spin: nut butter filling, often encased in a soft-baked oat bar.

They all had too much saturated fat, sugar, or both for a Better Bite. (And, so you don't waste time trying them, none delivered the thick, creamy layer of nut butter promised by their ads or labels.)

Fat bars?

"Health research says to include lots of healthy fats in your diet and stay away from processed ingredients, sugar, and trans fats," declares Love Good Fats'website.

love Good Fats bar
Want good fats? Stick with whole-nut bars like KIND.

But Love Good Fats' "fats blend" is a mix of healthy nut or sunflower seed butter and unhealthy saturated fats like palm stearin.

The Mint Chocolate Chip, for example, is largely sunflower butter, palm stearin, coconut oil, and whey protein isolate, surrounded by a "chocolate flavored coating" of isomaltooligosaccharides, palm kernel and palm oil, milk protein isolate, etc.

Good? Unprocessed? Umm...

Probiotic pitch

"Probiotics from your breakfast bar? We've done it," says KIND Breakfast Probiotics.

kind probiotics
"Probiotics" are mostly about marketing.

KIND adds the same Bacillus coagulans GBI-30 6086 strain that's in ProBar Live and LOLA Probiotic bars. What does it do? KIND'S label doesn't say. Maybe that's because—despite what many people might expect—the evidence that the microbe leads to fewer GI symptoms or a healthier gut is unimpressive.

Fruit finds & frauds

"In an ideal world, we'd be able to carry around a box of fresh strawberries everywhere we go, but since that could get a little messy, we've created the next best thing," sayKIND Pressed Strawberry Apple Cherry Chia Bars.

larabar cherry Pie
No substitute for fresh fruit, but a good bet.

It's true that no bar beats fresh fruit. (And since when are apples messy?) But at least KIND Pressed bars are indeed dried fruit. Another find: Lärabars ("food made from food") are mostly dried fruit blended with nuts.

The frauds:

  • Clif Organic Fruit Smoothie Filled. Some fillings—nut butter, date paste, dried fruit—are decent. But juice concentrates and fruit powders in a smoothie? Afraid so.
  • Nutri-Grain. "Made with real fruit" means "made with more sugar and corn syrup than fruit puree concentrate."

Good grains

Want grains (typically intact oats)? Some 100% whole-grain picks:

kashi grains
Kashi: plenty of intact whole grains you can see.
  • KIND Healthy Grains. All but one variety are Better Bites. Not too shabby.
  • Kashi Chewy. Kashi's chewy granola bars are on a par with KIND's. And both sure beat MadeGood, which only stays below our sugar limit because its bars are tiny. Ignore MadeGood's "nutrients found in one serving of vegetables" claim. You want vegetables, not their "extracts."
  • KIND Breakfast. No "breakfast bars" are low enough in sugar for a Better Bite, partly because they're larger than most. But KIND's tasty Peanut Butter bar just missed.

Other grain bars missed by a mile:

  • Bobo's. The Nutrition Facts are for just half, so each (3 oz.) bar has 340 to 380 calories.
  • Clif. "Whether you're on a 150-mile bike ride or exploring a new trail, this energy bar is built to sustain your adventure," says Clif's website. Maybe. But if your adventure is a between-meal snack, other bars beat 4½ to 6 teaspoons of total sugar (brown rice syrup is the first ingredient).

Photos (top to bottom): nadianb/, Kaamilah Mitchell/CSPI, Chicago Bar Company LLC dba RXBAR, KIND, Clif Bar & Company, The Good Fat Co Ltd., KIND, LÄRABAR, Kashi Company.