Protein bars are a convenient and filling snack to carry around in class or after a workout when you’re short on time. However, many protein bar ingredients are highly processed, which makes them less healthy than they claim to be.

Protein bars typically consist of a protein source, sweetener, and fiber and/or fat for both texture and flavor. Here's an overview of what these ingredients are and what ingredients to look for to help you make a better decision the next time you're at the grocery store.

1. Protein Sources

Soy Protein Isolate

vegetable, rice, pepper, onion, salad
Sara Deeter

Soy Protein Isolate is one of the most common ingredients in protein bars, powders, shakes, and snacks that are fortified with protein. It is highly processed at high temperatures, which removes the nutrients and leaves toxic byproducts. Most soy grown in the United States is also GMO. If it’s not labeled as GMO free, then it most likely has GMO.

Whey Protein Isolate

cream, milk, coffee, chocolate, sweet, espresso, ice, cappuccino
Hana Brannigan

Often times, the majority of the protein in protein bars come from whey. Whey is a component of milk and is obtained as the by-product of the cheese-making process. It is digested and absorbed quickly.

Whey protein isolate differs from whey protein concentrate (the first generation whey protein powder) by having less fat, lactose, and carbohydrates. However, it can still can be allergenic and cause inflammation and bloating because it is a dairy product.

Hydrolyzed Protein

flour, bread, coffee, cereal
Malia Budd

When the ingredients say “hydrolyzed protein,” they could mean any type of protein that's been broken down.

Since these proteins are already broken down, they are more quickly digested and easily absorbed into the body.

Calcium Caseinate

Grace Ling

Protein bars often contain both whey and casein. Similarly to whey, casein is another derivative of milk. It differs from whey because it has more protein, carbohydrates, calcium, and phosphorus. Casein takes longer to digest, providing a longer feeling of fullness and preventing muscle breakdown.

2. Sweeteners

Sugar Alcohols

beer, tea
Emma Delaney

Protein bars contain sugar alcohols to make the product sweet without adding calories.

Examples of sugar alcohols are xylitol, sorbitol, lactitol, mannitol, maltitol syrup, and erythritol. They are mostly found in bars that are marketed as “low carb.” This is because they do not get absorbed in the digestive system, but add a sweet flavor.

However, since they do not get absorbed in the digestive system, they can cause extra gas, bloating, and even diarrhea. Try to look for labels that have less than 20 grams of sugar alcohols to avoid those issues.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

corn, pasture, straw, hazelnut, cereal, popcorn, vegetable, meat, sweet corn, maize
Allie Coneys

High Fructose Corn Syrup is mostly used in place of sucrose because it’s cheaper to produce and a derivative of corn syrup.

The increased consumption of high fructose corn syrup is linked to obesity because fructose is more readily converted to fat, compared to glucose in the body. Not only that, fructose decreases the feeling of satiety by causing a smaller rise in leptin and insulin, leaving you craving more food after.


cream, sweet
Aakanksha Joshi

Maltodextrin is a carbohydrate produced by corn or rice starch that is rapidly absorbed in the body similarly to glucose. Since maltodextrin is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, it is stored as fat if it is not readily used.

3. Other Additives

Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil

A photo posted by @baresoaps on

Palm oil comes from the species Elaeis guineensis, grown in Malaysia and Africa. The term “kernel” means that it is extracted from the seed. The oil contains high levels of saturated fat, making it solid at room temperature.

Diets with high levels of saturated fat are linked to heart disease and strokes with it’s ability to increase cholesterol, which can clog arteries.

Soy Lecithin

dairy product, cheese, milk, candy, tofu
Lauren Kaplan

Soy Lecithin are phospholipids derived from soy. It is used to prevent sticking, help mixing, increases shelf life, volume, and flavor. It is regarded as safe to consume by the FDA. However, soy has controversial health effects.


Inulin is a storage carbohydrate found in over 36,000 species of plants. In processed foods, it can be used to replace sugar, fat, and flour. It is also often used to increase the fiber content in foods, making it take longer to digest, which lowers blood sugar. 

Some of the health benefits of inulin when consumed moderately include that it helps increase calcium absorption and feeding the healthy bacteria in your colon. However, too much of it can lead to intestinal discomfort, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.

Better Alternatives for Protein

blueberry, cereal, muesli, yogurt, granola, banana, berry
Grace Ling

Look for protein that comes from whole natural sources such as brown rice, hemp, quinoa, seeds, or nuts.

Better Alternatives for Sweeteners

pineapple, banana, coconut
Grace Ling

Look for natural sweeteners such as fruit, brown rice or maple syrup, coconut or brown sugar.

#SpoonTip: Try to look for shorter ingredient list. Better yet, try out making your own protein bars or shakes. 

I hope you find a protein bar that you love that is also good for you! I also have some reviews over on my blog and food art Instagram.