12 Surprising Ingredients in Your Protein Bar

Should I Eat This Thing?

Protein Bar
Are Protein Bars Healthy or Not?. Russell Sadur/Getty Images

 Protein bars are popular and claim to help you lose fat, gain muscle and improve workouts. Everyone seems to feel good eating one but have you ever wondered about those weird ingredients?   Most articles will tell you how to choose the right protein bar but leave out the gory details lurking beneath the wrapper. 

We can appreciate ingredients like whey protein, peanut butter and even dark chocolate, but what about all the other stuff.  Those weird ingredients we don’t understand and can’t pronounce but buy the protein bar anyway.  Sometimes it feels like we need a chemistry degree just to purchase a food supplement.  It really shouldn’t be so difficult and leave us thinking "what the heck are we eating?"  You may have read how superior the bar was or received rave reviews from a friend, but what remains unclear are those ingredients.

A good philosophy to follow is if you don’t understand the ingredients, leave it on the shelf. The weird stuff listed is typically used to preserve or fortify the product anyway.  Certain protein and energy bar companies are getting smart and answering the call of simpler is best.  The less ingredients on the label means minimal preservatives.  However, anything in a wrapper is still processed food.  Protein and energy bars are only to supplement and not replace a healthy diet.   

The pros of eating protein bars are the convenience of tossing one in your bag for a ready to go snack.  In fact, I don’t leave home without something healthy stashed in my purse.  Before you make another purchase, take a look at just a few weird ingredients found in protein bars.  The food label will feel less intimidating and help you make a better selection in the future:


Malitol Comes with Negative Side Effects. Harald Walker / EyeEm/Getty Images

 Malitol is a sugar alcohol and artificial sweetener added to protein bars.  According to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (EJCN), malitol is a hydrogenated sugar substitute made from maltose and lactose (milk sugars).  This process creates a non-digestible and non-absorbable sugar alcohol.   The point of this fake sugar is to lower a glycemic (sugar) response in the body.  Well, that may sound good but left off product labels are the negative side effects of non-digestible sugar alcohol.  EJCN reported malitol causing stomach upset and diarrhea in 29 out of 34 study participants.  The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition also implied protein bars containing alcohol sugars like malitol may lessen a glycemic response but the trade-off is a higher concentration of saturated fat and cholesterol.  The takeaway: protein bars containing malitol may send you to the bathroom and increase your triglycerides (fat in your bloodstream).  

Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil

Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil
Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil Should be Avoided. xPACIFICA/Getty Images

 Fractionated palm kernel oil comes from the seed in the fruit of palm oil trees.  The trees originate from Malaysia which is the largest exporter of palm oil.  There is a difference between palm oil which comes from the fruit and fractionated palm kernel oil.  Fractionated palm kernel oil is made by crystallizing and extracting certain fatty acids from the seeds.  Fractionating the oil causes it to be higher in saturated fat and provides a longer shelf life for food products.  This process makes it the worst form of palm oil. The oil is thicker, resistant to melting and used to preserve chocolate food products including the coating of protein bars.  According to the American Heart Association, saturated fats raise blood cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease.  The takeaway: fractionated palm kernel oil is a preservative and saturated fat we really shouldn’t be eating.  


Alkali and Protein Bars
Alkali Strips Protein Bars of Nutrient Value. Hemme/Getty Images

 Alkali is a chemical compound used to process cocoa for food products and protein bars.   It neutralizes cocoa making it less bitter, more visually appealing and easier to use. However, the process reduces nutrient value.  According to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, cocoa flavonoids provide antioxidants with heart health benefits.  When cocoa is treated with alkali “flavanols are substantially reduced” removing essential nutrients.  Basically, alkalization strips cocoa of the good stuff we want when eating chocolate.   The takeaway: look for protein bars without alkalized cocoa and select natural cocoa instead.  

Soy Lecithin

Soy Lecithin and Protein Bars
Soy Lecithin Can Also Be Found in Pharmaceuticals. wagiwagi/Getty Images

 Soy lecithin is a common ingredient used to stabilize processed foods.  Its emulsifying properties make it a popular food additive for chocolate and coatings.   Lecithin is a mixture of phospholipids (fat) and oil from egg yolks or soy and rice beans.  Soy lecithin is chemically created and a by-product of soybean oil and rice-bran oil.  You will be surprised to know soy lecithin is not only a food additive, but also included in cosmetics, paints, and pharmaceuticals.  Studies are not conclusive on negative side effects of soy lecithin.  The takeaway:  soy lecithin is a preservative, used in paint and although listed as not harmful, I would pass on this one.

Zinc Oxide

Protein Bars Contain Zinc Oxide
Zinc Oxide is Used to Fortify Protein Bars. Daniel Sambraus / EyeEm/Getty Images

 Zinc oxide is usually part of a vitamin and mineral blend in protein bars.  Fortifying food with nutrients is big food company business and can help sell products.  According to the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences (JRMS) zinc deficiency is a worldwide problem.  Although we typically meet our daily zinc requirements through diet, many protein bars and other foods have been fortified with the chemical.  Zinc is an essential mineral which means you get it from the food you eat.  JRMS indicates fortifying food with zinc is a more cost effective and sustainable approach to overcome deficiency.   The takeaway:  protein bars fortified with zinc oxide may boost the trace mineral but really not a necessary ingredient.

Ascorbic Acid

Protein Bars and Ascorbic Acid
Ascorbic Acid is Vitamin C. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

 Ascorbic acid is another name for Vitamin C.  It’s typically part of a vitamin and mineral blend in protein bars.  Ascorbic acid is naturally occurring in citrus fruits, vegetables and also available in supplement form.  In addition to fortification, ascorbic acid is also shown to preserve food products and provide an antioxidant benefit.  Vitamin C protects against the oxidation process and keeps food texture and color stable.  The IOSR Journal of Applied Chemistry has indicated a decrease in ascorbic acid value in the preparation, processing and storage of food.  The takeaway:  ascorbic acid is Vitamin C and acts as a preservative in protein bars.  Enjoy an orange instead.

Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate

Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate
Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate is Vitamin E. Fred Froese/Getty Images

 Alpha tocopheryl acetate may look like a scary word but it’s actually Vitamin E.  It’s a popular vitamin and mineral blend ingredient found in protein bars.  Alpha tocopheryl acetate has an alcohol structure but is equivalent to the natural form, alpha-tocopherol.  Stored in the body, it has the highest biological activity protecting your cells against disease.   Alpha tocopheryl acetate is shown to act as a preservative when added to food products. According to the National Institutes of Health, fortified foods like protein bars may be a helpful way to improve deficient vitamins.  The takeaway:  As long as you are eating healthy, fortified foods aren’t really necessary but no need to fear this ingredient.  


Niacinamide is Vitamin B3. eyenigelen/Getty Images

 Niacinamide is a form of niacin and part of the vitamin and mineral makeup of protein bars.  Food products listing niacinamide as an ingredient means it contains Vitamin B3.  According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) our body doesn’t store niacin and it must be consumed daily.  Healthy niacin levels are directly related to the amount and quality of daily protein intake.  This vitamin is shown to vasodilate (expand) blood vessels and linked to increased energy.  The takeaway:  Get your niacinamide by eating lean chicken or turkey and skip the additive. 

Copper Gluconate

Get Your Copper from Seafood Like Oysters. FocalHelicopter/Getty Images

 According to the Federal Drug and Food Administration, copper is an essential trace element.  Copper deficiency and toxicity are rare and we typically get enough from our daily diet.  Copper gluconate is another mineral added to protein bars in an attempt to boost the nutrient profile.  Advances in Nutrition reports “copper gluconate is the only copper supplement listed by the United States Pharmacopeial Convention for oral use.” The takeaway:  copper gluconate is an unnecessary additive to protein bars. 

D-Calcium Pantothenate

D-Calcium Pantothenate
D-Calcium Pantothenate is Vitamin B5. Karim Hesham/Getty Images

 D-calcium pantothenate is the synthetic or lab created form of Vitamin B-5.  Vitamin B-5 is one of the B-complex vitamins essential for healthy central nervous system (CNS) function and energy production.  It’s typically part of a vitamin and mineral blend in protein bars. Peanut butter, almonds and wheat bran are rich sources of D-calcium pantothenate.  According to Alternative Medicine Review, D-calcium pantothenate deficiency is rare because Vitamin B-5 is found in a wide variety of foods.  The takeaway:  get your Vitamin B-5 eating a handful of almonds as a healthier alternative and skip the additive. 


Sucralose is Linked to Adverse Health Effects. Snap Decision/Getty Images

 Sucralose is a synthetic (fake) sweetener processed using the same chemical method as pesticides.  It’s a common ingredient in protein bars and food in general.  According to the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, sucralose is shown to alter metabolism, interfere with prescription drugs, upset bacterial GI balance, and with chronic use indicated as a toxic substance.  Many biological issues remain unresolved surrounding sucralose and warrant further research.  The takeaway is to stay away from this one!  

Cellulose Gel

Protein Bar
Cellulose Gel Gives a Creamy Texture to Processed Foods. Carolyn Woodcock/Getty Images

 Cellulose gel according to Nutrients Review is made from wood pulp or cotton chemically processed with acids or alkali.  It provides a creamy texture to commercial foods like protein bars.   Cellulose gel is an insoluble binding agent which is unable to be digested by the body.  It is linked to stomach upset and bloating.  The takeaway:  put back any protein bar with cellulose gel listed as an ingredient. 


Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Acute glycemic and blood lipid response to the ingestion of a candy bar-like protein supplement compared to its candy bar counterpart, Kristin Dugan et al., 9/15/10

American Council on Exercise, How to Choose the Right Protein Bar for You, Evolution Nutrition, 2/11/16

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Suppressive effect of partially hydrolyzed guar gum on transitory diarrhea induced by ingestion of maltitol and lactitol in healthy humans, S Nakamura et al., 1/07

European Journal of Lipid Science Technology, Research advancements in palm oil nutrition, Choo Yuen May et al., 10/6/14

Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Impact of alkalization on the antioxidant and flavanol content of commercial cocoa powders, Miller KB et al., 9/08

Academic Journals, African Journal of Food Science, Importance of lecithin for encapsulation processes, Adriana Rodrigues Machado et al., 3/14

Journal of Food Science and Technology, Hydrocolloids as thickening and gelling agents in food: a critical review, Dipjyoti Saha et al., 11/6/10

Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, Zinc and its importance for human health: An integrative review, Nazanin Roohani et al., 2/13

IOSR Journal of Applied Chemistry, Stability Studies on Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) From Different Sources, Oyetade, O.A. et al., 10/12

National Health Institutes, Vitamin E Fact Sheet for Health Professionals

Vitamin and Mineral Safety 3rd Edition (2013) Council for Responsible Nutrition,Niacin: Nicotinic Acid, Nicotinamide, and Inositol Hexanicotinate

Advances in Nutrition, Copper, James F. Collins, 2011

Pantothenic Acid - Alternative Medicine Review, Gregory S. Kelly, ND, 2011

Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, Critical Reviews, Sucralose, A Synthetic Organochlorine Sweetener: Overview of Biological Issues, Susan S. Schiffman et al., 11/12/13

 Nutrients Review, Cellulose Definition and Structure 

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