Low Carb Protein Bars … Working (it) Out

When too much protein bar just isn’t enough … and it just isn’t.   Is it?   No!  So here we are again …

This is Part II of the protein bar experiments I’ve conducted over the past month or so.   Well, Part II is actually the continuation of Part I.  The recipe is not new, as such, but an improvement over the original.  Some weeks ago, I posted the ABC Energy Bars recipe on this blog.  I wasn’t prepared for the AMAAAZING response from everyone.  Seriously.  You could have bowled me over with a feather.  OK a big fat punch and a feather … 😀

I guess I’m not the only one who can’t stand commercially available protein bars (tasteless as cardboard? chemical cocktails?) or worse, can’t eat them because they usually contain dodgy sweeteners and ingredients that sound like sawdust and ash?  Ha.

So the recipe below has been modified from the original and I’ve experimented with flavours, other nut and seed bases and texture and stuff like that.  We have the technology.  We have rebuilt them.

New, improved protein bar AWESOMENESS.  If you love the original … FABULOUS.   I like the new improved one best.

I’ve had lots of questions about these so I will try to cover off on most of them here.  This is a long post but I hope I’ve covered off on most things.  If not, leave a comment, email me, send a tweet or something on the Facebook page and I’ll do it.

Nuts vs Seeds
What’s the best nut butter to use?  The right answer is whichever one you like best – if you don’t like it, you probably won’t eat it, right?  Allergies to peanuts or tree nuts are also a factor, so here are the top picks among a variety of options.  This list is based on getting the most protein with the lowest fat, where the fat is predominantly heart healthy mono-unsaturated.  It also accounts for the overall energy values per 100 grams.  Ultimately, they’re all good, but this list aims to pick the best of the best.

Most importantly, try to use raw, pure nut or seed butters, without added salt or sugar.

  • Legumes: peanuts
  • Tree Nuts: almonds, cashews, pistachios, ABC (almond, brazil, and cashew), walnuts
  • Seeds: Pepitas (pumpkin seed), sunflower seed, unhulled tahini (sesame)

I’ve added walnuts to the list because they are such a good source of omega-3 and good brain food.   All of these taste AWESOME.  OK, I can’t personally vouch for the peanut version due to a small issue with a peanut allergy but I’m guessing a lot of people would love these with peanut butter 😉

There is variation in the thickness and fluidity across all these nuts and seeds.  As an example, tahini is much more fluid than almond or pistachio butters.  There is also some variation across different brands.  Take that into account.  You may need less yoghurt in the recipe.  I include some guidelines below for this.

If you can’t get 100% nut or seed butter with no additives, make your own.  Just add the weight of raw nuts or seeds indicated in the recipe in a food processor and process until the oils release and you get a paste.  This is also a good way to control the crunchiness of the butter too.  Or use three-quarters nut (or seed) butter and add one-quarter of the amount as chopped nuts or seeds for crunch.  All brilliant ideas, yeah?

Protein Powders
The recipe calls for a total of 130 grams of protein powder and indicates a 10:3 ratio of whey:vegetable source (pea or rice).  That’s just my preference for sources.  However, it also has something to do with texture.  A pure whey isolate is actually quite drying and can be bitter so it’s probably not the best option to use 100% whey isolate as the only protein source.  The pea or rice protein is great for providing a softer texture that’s delicious.  That said, using casein can also be great, as can using a blend of isolate, casein and albumen, or other combination, if that is your thing.  If you cannot, or prefer not to use whey protein, just substitute pea, rice, or even hemp protein or another non-whey protein of choice.

If using whey as in the recipe, use whatever you like best.  I use whey protein isolate but have also used a mixture of WPI and WPC.  It’s all good.  The possibilities are endless.   The important thing is that they taste good, and you use what fits with your own goals.  Or you won’t eat them, even if they are drenched in chocolate.  Well … maybe …

Try to use pure, unflavoured protein with no fillers or sweeteners.  Sure you love to drink the other stuff but frankly, it kind of defeats the purpose of these bars if you add a bucket load of guar or xantham gums or the stuff we’re trying to avoid here.  Or just ignore me completely, but don’t tell me … please. 🙂

Food Intolerance
I’ve had a few people ask about lactose intolerance.  Yes, there is non-fat yoghurt used in this recipe.  I like to use it because it adds extra quality protein as well as other nutrients, especially calcium.  It’s also important for the texture and flavour.  You can substitute lactose-free yoghurt, soy yoghurt, or if you hate those, try adding some chia seed gel or coconut water.  You will need less so just add enough to get the right consistency.

These bars are wheat and gluten free.  They are also egg free (unless you use egg albumen protein in your mix).  Generally speaking, they are also OK for anyone on a low FODMAP diet as they are low fructose and fructan free (don’t use pistachios if fructans are a problem).

They don’t contain artificial sweeteners and specifically no sorbitol or other sugar polyols that can cause gut problems.

This is a matter of personal preference, however, the general idea is to steer clear of artificial flavours and additives as much as possible while also keeping a watch on the level of carbs in the bars.   These bars are not fruity because once you start adding fruit, you start adding carbs, even if it’s berries.  But, if that doesn’t phase you, add some dried fruit or a little fruit juice.

Vanilla is great to include as part of the base recipe.  While it is not sweet, per se, it’s so good with the nuts, I’ve added it as a default.

Cinnamon and roasted wattleseed are included as good all-purpose flavourings.  They taste great with pretty much every nut or seed base you can use for these bars.  Wattleseed has a nutty, coffee, slightly chocolatey flavour.  Wow.  That said, the following are also awesome and are make negligible contributions to the fat, protein and carbohydrate profile of the bars:

  • Coffee – with almonds, walnuts, cashews, and ABC.  Use instead of wattleseed.  I use finely ground fresh coffee beans, but you can brew a strong espresso and use a little of that.  Coffee has to be my favourite.  With the almond or walnut, it is OUT. OF. THIS. WORLD.
  • Orange blossom water or rosewater – great for a middle-eastern flavour.  Great with the pistachio, almond, and tahini in particular.  I love orange blossom water with anything.
  • Orange, lemon, or lime zest and essential oils – wonderful with the seeds as well as most of the nuts too.  A great way to get a fresh, fruity flavour without added carbohydrates.
  • Spices – cardamom is good with pistachio but I’d suggest it’s an acquired taste.  Other spices you like would be great too.
  • Natural flavourings and extracts – if you want banana, mango, strawberry, mint, or other flavourings, try to source all natural flavourings and extracts, not the imitation artificial kind.  You can add a bit of extra oomph if you want it, without the carbs.  It isn’t hard to find stockists,  both bricks and mortar, as well as online.

The recipe also includes the optional addition of raw cacao nibs.  A  little bit of raw cacao nibs is really cool.  If you do add them, remember that these will contribute to the nutritional profile, as well as a yummy cacao crunch.

There is no added sweetener in this recipe.  Frankly I don’t think it’s required.  The nut versions already have that lovely nutty flavour that means you don’t need added sugars.  Certainly, the seed versions are more of an acquired taste.  I prefer them without added sweetener, including the tahini version.  However, if you want to add something, I would suggest a little pure stevia, to taste.  Avoid the stevia mixes as they often include nasty fillers and avoid artificial sweeteners – that’s the point of the exercise, right?  If you don’t like stevia, add a little puréed date but be aware that this will increase the carb content.  It’s up to you.  What I think is great about these bars is that they taste good without the addition of sweeteners.  It helps to wean us off our dependency on sweet tastes and sugar.  That has to be a good thing.

If, like me, you don’t need the sugar (there’s a bit in the chocolate), then proceed without fear or favour …

Right, so here’s the basic recipe.  It differs from the original mainly in the proportions of ingredients.  I’ve increased the protein content.  Another good thing!  Plus, the flavour and texture is better.  Well, I think so.  So does my trainer and my family.  Sure, that’s a statistically insignificant sample of five people, but I swear it’s true.  So do they.

Train hard and enjoy!

Chocolate Protein Nut Bars

If you want to lower the fat per bar to around 12 grams or so (as a rough guide), just pour off the excess oil at the top of the nut butter.  I’ve found this equates to about two tablespoons or so, around 40 grams, although it can vary, depending on the nuts used.  I do this, but it all depends on what you prefer or are trying to achieve.

Makes 12 bars

Right, now I’m saying they make about 12 bars.  That’s 12 Vivi-sized bars, OK?  A Vivi-sized bar is about 8cm x 3cm as a guide.  Mini bars for us vertically challenged, petite types.   I would not recommend making large bars as they become rather more challenging to enrobe in the chocolate.  This is about as big as I can manage to coat properly in the mad rush to make these every week.  Just eat two as a serve … or three, four, whatever … if you’re a big muscly dude who can handle it.  Honestly, I can handle about half a bar at a time.  I’m a total wuss.  It’s all relative 😀

250 grams 100% pure nut or peanut butter
100 grams 100% whey protein powder
30 grams 100% pea protein powder
110 grams fat-free plain yoghurt*
1 tablespoon pure vanilla bean paste or extract
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2  teaspoons roasted wattleseed

Optional Extras:
20 grams (4 teaspoons) raw cacao nibs

100 grams dark chocolate (min. 85% cacao solids or use 100% if you’re like me)

*If using peanuts, cut the amount of yoghurt to 90 grams if the peanut butter is not as thick or stiff as other nut butters.  Peanut butter can vary between brands.  Start with 80-90 grams yoghurt and add more, as required.

From left: Tahini Protein Bar, Almond Butter Protein Bar

Place all the ingredients, excluding the chocolate, into the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse until combined.  If the mixture is a little too dry, add a little more yoghurt to achieve a consistency that can easily be rolled and patted into bars.  You can also mix this by hand or in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer.  I’ve done all three … the result is the same.

Form twelve small bars and place on a tray lined with silicon paper or foil.  Place in the refrigerator to firm up for about 30 – 60 minutes.

Melt 70 grams of the chocolate in the microwave or in a bowl over gently simmering water.  When melted and smooth, take off the heat and stir in the remaining 30 grams of chocolate until melted, smooth and cooled slightly.  Ideally, you want to keep the chocolate at around 32-33℃.  But don’t get too hung up about it.  If I want to make these to impress, I take extra care to temper the chocolate properly.  When making them for myself and my trainer, we’re more interested in eating them and their goodness, not photographing them, so …

This is the hardest part for most people.  These bars are soft.  This is why I don’t advocate making large ones.  They are harder to coat properly and more likely to fall apart.  You could make them stiffer but frankly the nutty centre will not be as delicious.  I tried it.  Major fail …it’s worth taking a little care and practice with coating them instead.

Dip the bars carefully into the chocolate and turn over to coat, working quickly but carefully.   I use two offset spatulas or flat bladed knives to do this so excess chocolate can drain off the bars more easily.   Forks are also good but take care the tines don’t sink into the bars.   Place each bar on to the lined tray and allow the chocolate to set at room temperature.

If you get really freaked enrobing them in chocolate, just drizzle chocolate over the top of them and let it drip off.

Once set, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.  These bars keep very well for at over a week, about 10 days.  I’ve never had them last any longer than that because they usually all get eaten by the end of a week.


Almond Protein Bar

Variation: Chocolate Protein Seed Bars

You can halva your protein bars and eat them too … OK that was lame ;-P

But, this is a great variation for anyone with tree nut or peanut allergies.  I really like the tahini version.

Simply omit the nut butter and replace it with

250 grams unhulled tahini or
250 grams sunflower or pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Tahini is definitely more fluid than nut butters so you will need less yoghurt.  Start with about 80 grams and add more if you need it.  Again, you can pour off any excess oil at the top of the jar before adding the tahini.  This will lower the fat content of the bars as well as make the tahini less fluid.

Make as per the instructions given above.  Voilà …. mmmmm.

Tahini Protein Bar

Nutritional Profiles

Here are the nutritional profiles worked out for the basic recipe, depending on the nuts or seeds you use.  Most of the extra flavourings suggested above, add negligible values.  However, if you add cacao, cacao nibs or sweeteners, you should remember this will increase the overall fats, carbs and protein content, albeit by only small amounts per bar. 

Note also that if you pour off a couple of tablespoons of oil from the nut butters or tahini, this will reduce the fat content, typically by 2 – 3 grams per bar, depending on the nut/seed used and the actual amount.  In most cases, you might want to reserve the oil for another purpose as they are generally good fats you can use in baking other treats or dress salads.  

I have used average values for all ingredients as much as possible, as well as the Nuts for Life site for a lot of the nut information.  Just as nut and seed butters, yoghurt, and protein powders all vary slightly in thickness and texture, the nutritional profiles vary somewhat by brand.  I have not included a nutritional profile for the sunflower seed version as I have found a lot of inconsistency in reporting nutritional data across sites for sunflower seeds as well as prepared seed butters.  However, they are all within the same ballpark as the seeds below so it’s safe to assume these are a reasonable guide.

These values are therefore indicative only, as all nutritional profiles really are, although I have made a concerted effort to get what seems to be the most accurate information available.

Almond Protein Bar Nutritional Profile
Peanut Protein Bar Nutritional Profile
Pistachio Protein Bar Nutritional Profile
Cashew Protein Bar Nutritional Profile
ABC Protein Bar Nutritional Profile
Walnut Protein Bar Nutritional Profile
Tahini / Sesame Seed Protein Bar Nutritional Profile
Pepitas Protein Bar Nutritional Profile