Are protein bars actually healthy?

Ever wondered if your favourite protein bar is really as healthy as it claims to be?

Unfortunately, ‘high protein’ doesn’t necessarily mean healthy, and some of these bars probably aren’t good for your long-term health.

So, what makes a healthy protein bar? Read on to find out what a protein bar is, what to avoid, and what to look for. In this article:

What is a protein bar?
What ingredients should you avoid in a protein bar?
What makes a healthy protein bar?
Choose the Vivo Life Plant Protein Bar

Looking for a plant-based, healthy protein bar? Try our Plant Protein Bar

What is a protein bar?

First things first – what even is a protein bar?

Unfortunately, there is no actual universal definition of what a ‘protein bar’ is. Many ‘bars’ have some amount of protein, even if they’re unhealthy. A Snickers bar has 7 grams of protein!

Generally, most bars that market themselves as 'protein bars' have 10-20 grams of protein.

The primary sources of protein in protein bars are:

  • Whey Protein: Derived from milk, whey protein is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids. The body quickly absorbs it, and it’s affordable.
  • Soy Protein: Soy protein is a complete plant-based protein. It's suitable for individuals who follow vegetarian or vegan diets or who want to avoid the digestive issues that can come with whey.
  • Pea Protein: Another plant-based option, pea protein, is often used in protein bars. It’s derived from yellow peas and provides a good source of protein.
  • Casein: This milk-derived protein is absorbed more slowly than whey, providing a sustained release of amino acids. It’s less common than whey in protein bars but can be found in some formulations.
  • Collagen: Supplement companies derive their collagen from animal connective tissues. It’s often not a complete protein.
  • Egg White Protein: Extracted from egg whites, this protein source has high levels of essential amino acids.

Other common ingredients found in protein bars include:

  • Sweeteners: Most protein bars these days avoid added sugar. They use sweeteners, such as sugar alcohols (e.g., erythritol, xylitol), stevia, and monk fruit to enhance flavour.
  • Fats: Healthy fats may be included for flavour and satiety. Sources of fats include nuts, seeds, coconut oil, or other plant-based oils.
  • Fibre: Some protein bars contain fibre from ingredients like oats, chicory root, or soluble fibre sources to support digestion and make you feel full.
  • Binders and Stabilisers: Ingredients like nut butter, natural or artificial thickeners, and emulsifiers help maintain the bar's texture and prevent it from falling apart.
  • Vitamins and Minerals: Some protein bars are fortified with vitamins and minerals to enhance their nutritional profile.
  • Preservatives: Depending on the formulation, protein bars may include preservatives to extend their shelf life.

What ingredients should you avoid in a protein bar?

Clearly, there are many different possible formulations for a ‘protein bar’.

That being said, the most popular products on the market have a similar nutritional profile. While they might contain high levels of protein, they can also contain some potentially harmful ingredients.

Here are 5 ingredients you should avoid when looking for a protein bar:

Artificial sweeteners

Some studies have suggested a potential link between artificial sweeteners and metabolic effects, gut microbiota changes, or increased cravings for sweet foods. (Suez et al.,Nature, 2014)

Common forms: Aspartame, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, Saccharin, Neotame, Advantame.

Excessive added sugars (including High Fructose Corn Syrup)

High sugar intake is associated with various health issues, including obesity and metabolic syndrome. (DiNicolantonio et al., 2017)

A common culprit found in protein bars is High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a commonly used sweetener in processed foods and beverages. HFCS has been associated with metabolic syndrome and obesity-related health issues. (Stanhope et al., 2009)

Common forms: Sucrose, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Corn Syrup, High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Agave Nectar, Honey, Maple Syrup.

Partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats)

Known for their adverse health effects, trans fats have been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease, according to a study conducted by Hu et al. in 1997. Taking proactive steps to limit the intake of trans fats is crucial for maintaining cardiovascular health and well-being.

Common forms: Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil.

Artificial Colours and Flavors

Artificial colours and flavours have been associated with hyperactivity and attention issues, as indicated by a study conducted by McCann et al. in 2007. Being mindful of and avoiding such additives can contribute to better cognitive well-being, particularly in sensitive individuals.

Common forms: Colours: Red 40 (Allura Red AC), Yellow 6 (Sunset Yellow FCF), Blue 1 (Brilliant Blue FCF)

Flavours: Vanillin, Maltol, Ethylvanillin

Palm Oil

Palm oil is often found in protein bars to improve its texture. The environmental impact of palm oil production is a significant concern, and there are debates about its impact on health. Palm oil consumption has been linked to potential health concerns, including elevated levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol due to its high saturated fat content. (Fitzherbert et al., 2008)

Common forms: Palm Oil, Palm Kernel Oil, Fractionated Palm Oil, Palmitate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (may contain palm oil-derived ingredients).


Carrageenan is found in some protein bars for its gelling and stabilising properties. Some studies suggest that carrageenan may induce inflammation and digestive issues. (Tobacman, 2001).

Common forms: Carrageenan, Irish Moss.


What makes a healthy protein bar?

Protein bars can be unhealthy and harmful to your long-term health. Fortunately, there are healthy options on the market – you just have to know what you’re looking for.

Here’s what to look for when considering a protein bar:


No Artificial Colorings or Sweeteners:

Opt for protein bars that are free from artificial colourings and sweeteners. Natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit can be used to enhance flavour without the need for artificial additives.


No Binders or Fillers:

Choose protein bars that avoid the use of fillers and binders, as these additives may not contribute to the nutritional value of the bar. Look for bars with a concise ingredient list. Plant-Based Consider protein bars that utilise plant-based protein sources such as pea protein, hemp protein, or brown rice protein. Plant-based proteins can be easier to digest for some individuals.


Natural Ingredients with Vitamins, Minerals, and Healthy Fats:

Seek protein bars made with natural, whole-food ingredients. Ingredients like nuts, seeds, and fruits can provide essential vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats to enhance nutritional value.


A Filling Bar - Minimises Snacking:

A healthy protein bar should be satiating, helping curb hunger and preventing additional snacking. Look for bars with a good balance of macronutrients, including protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.



If you have allergies (or are gluten intolerant), it’s worth looking for gluten-free protein bars free from common allergens such as dairy, soy, and nuts.


Third-Party Tested for Contaminants:

Choose protein bars that undergo third-party testing for contaminants. Testing ensures that the product has been assessed for quality, purity, and the absence of harmful substances such as heavy metals or pesticides.


Try the Vivo Life protein bar

Finding this kind of protein bar on the market was difficult – so we decided to make our own. The Vivo Life Plant Protein Bar contains all of the above and packs 16 grams of plant-based protein, including vitamins, minerals, and other healthful ingredients.

Available on our subscribe and save service, each bar costs just £2.34 per serving and is delivered straight to your door.

Ready to try it? Get the Plant Protein Bar



Suez, J., Korem, T., Zeevi, D., Zilberman-Schapira, G., Thaiss, C. A., Maza, O., ... & Elinav, E. (2014). Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature.

Stanhope, K. L., Schwarz, J. M., Keim, N. L., Griffen, S. C., Bremer, A. A., Graham, J. L., ... & Havel, P. J. (2009). Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans. The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Hu, F. B., Stampfer, M. J., Manson, J. E., Rimm, E., Colditz, G. A., Rosner, B. A., ... & Willett, W. C. (1997). Intake of trans fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease among women. The Lancet.

DiNicolantonio, J. J., O'Keefe, J. H., & Wilson, W. (2017). Added sugars drive nutrient and energy deficit in obesity: a new paradigm. Open Heart. McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D., Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K., ... & Sonuga-Barke, E. (2007). Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet.

Fitzherbert, E. B., Struebig, M. J., Morel, A., Danielsen, F., Brühl, C. A., Donald, P. F., & Phalan, B. (2008). The environmental impacts of palm oil in context. Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Tobacman, J. K. (2001). Inflammation induced by the food additive carrageenan (CGN) is inhibited by the selective COX-2 inhibitor celecoxib. Journal of Pathology.