What's really in your cereal bar (and how to choose a healthy one)
This week the team at Expertrain HQ have been enjoying some healthy wholefood snack bars and home-made energy bites, and it got us thinking, are cereal bars really all that healthy? Whilst you know exactly what you're putting into home-made snacks, do you know what added ingredients are in your morning snack bar? How do you choose one that's good for you (and not laden with sugar, fat and artificial ingredients?) We decided to do what we do best – investigate the world of cereal bars and come up with some do's and don'ts when it comes to making healthy snacking choices. We still recommend making your own as the healthiest option, and if you're looking for some inspiration, you'll find healthy flapjack and energy bites recipes on our blog.
The healthy myth
In 2012, the consumer group 'Which?' carried out research which suggested cereal bars don't deserve their 'healthy image'. The group examined the ingredients and nutritional content of 30 different 'best-selling' cereal bars, focusing on those which sounded healthiest – i.e. fruit and nut varieties rather than those containing yoghurt or chocolate. Researchers analysed each bar's nutrition, looking at calories, sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat content, with rather shocking results (1).
In fact, 29 of the 30 bars were 'high in sugar' – this means they contained over 15% sugar (15g of sugar per 100g), with 16 of the bars containing over 30% sugar. Whilst some of the sugar was naturally occurring, from fruit, 29 of the bars contained added sugar. The types of sugar found in many of the bars included:
- Glucose syrup
- Golden syrup
- Raw cane syrup
- Glucose-fructose syrup
- Barley malt syrup
Most of the bars contained more than one type of sugar, and when different types of sugar are used, each is listed separately, and may appear lower on the ingredients list, which could give the impression the bar contains less sugar than it actually does.
I'd rather have a biscuit...
The research also revealed that 11 of the 30 bars contained the same amount of calories as several digestive biscuits, with 10 bars containing over 5% saturated fat (more than 5g per 100g). Which's report revealed that the 'healthiest' bar in their study was Alpen Light Apple and Sultana, with 63 calories, 8.3g sugar and 0.7g fat (0.3g saturated fat). Other bars in the study which were classed as healthy included Nakd Apple Pie, Alpen Fruit and Nut and Nature Valley Chewy Trail Mix Fruit and Nut. Shockingly, the least healthy bar was the Wholebake 9Bar with 277 calories, 13g sugar, 20g fat.
The Sunday Telegraph carried out more recent analysis of our favourite cereal bars in spring 2014 (2) with similarly shocking results. Almost 50% of bars analysed contained three teaspoons or more of sugar. Eat Natural Bars contain between 4.5 to 5 teaspoons of sugar – that's more than double the amount found in a two-finger Kit Kat (2.5 teaspoons).
Naturally occurring sugars from fruit are a far healthier alternative to processed, added sugars, but the group Action on Sugar recommends the healthiest option is to buy natural nuts and fruit for snacking, rather than relying on pre-packaged bars.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend that no more than 10% of our daily calories come from 'free' sugar – that's 12 level teaspoons of sugar or around 48 grams. 'Free' sugar refers to processed sugars added to products as well as sugar naturally found in fruit juices, syrups and honey – naturally occurring sugar and fruit not included. The WHO's guidelines also recommend that reducing our sugar intake to 6 tablespoons or less a day is the 'ideal' limit.
How much sugar do we need?
The guideline daily allowance (GDA) of sugar for an average person is 90g (22 teaspoons) this includes processed and naturally occurring sugar. Many cereal bars are lower in sugar than other confectionery – a spokesman for Kellogg's pointed out that the special K Dark Chocolate Chewy Delight Bar provides just 5% GDA of sugar whilst a standard chocolate bar is around 30% GDA.
It's important to differentiate between natural and 'added' (processed) sugar. Generally speaking, cereal bars with fewer ingredients will contain less added sugar – we looked at two leading brands to find out.
Leading wholefood strawberry energy bar ingredients:
Dates (43%), soya crunchies (17%), cashews (17%), raisins (17%), strawberries (2%), apple juice concentrate (2%) and a hint of natural flavouring.
Other cereal bar ingredients:
Toasted rice cereal (24% - rice, sugar, milk chocolate – (6% sugar, cocoa mass, whole milk powder, cocoa butter, skimmed milk powder), cocoa powder, glucose syrup, salt, malt extract (from Barley)), sugar puffs (17% - wheat, glucose-fructose syrup, sugar, honey, glucose syrup, molasses, niacin, iron, riboflavin, thiamine), chocolate flavoured drizzle (15% - sugar, vegetable fat, reduced cocoa powder, whey powder, skimmed milk powder, emulsifier (soya lecithin), natural vanilla), milk chocolate chips (12.8% - sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, whole milk powder, whey powder, emulsfier, (soya lecithin)), marshmallow (6.4% - glucose-fructose syrup, sugar, gelatine, maize starch, flavouring)), glucose syrup, vegetable oil, invert sugar syrup, humectant (glycerol), sugar, sweetened condensed milk, fructose, cocoa powder).
Seriously – that's quite a list of ingredients, and we don't know about you, but just reading them makes us want to reach for a piece of fruit!
Choosing a healthy bar – the do's and don'ts
Nobody is saying to stay away from cereal bars altogether – they're portable and convenient for when you're on the go, plus there's no prep needed, as with some other snacks. But look for bars which contain natural sugars from dates, raisins, apple juice, strawberries and other ingredients. The processed and reformed sugars found in many bars have been linked to health problems including diabetes and obesity. Not to mention processed sugar will give you an initial energy boost, followed by a slump, making it harder for you to stay motivated.
A natural cereal bar will provide you with sustained energy from the carbs, natural sugars and fibre. So how do you choose from the huge range of 'healthy' bars at the supermarket? Here are our top tips:
- Don't choose something just because it says 'healthy' or 'low-fat' on the packaging. In our experience bars which say this are anything but! The only way to assess how healthy a bar is, is to check out the nutritional content and ingredients on the back.
- Avoid the supermarket and head for your local health food store or market, where you're more likely to find bars without added sugar (make sure you still check the ingredients list though). You may even find home-made snack bars and energy balls!
- Don't just look at the calorie content. Check the sugar, salt and fat levels but most importantly examine the ingredients list. If there are more than a few ingredients (or any you don't recognise), put the bar back on the shelf.
- Make your own; it's the easiest way to control ingredients. Add a spoonful of coconut oil to the mix for a healthy fat boost, or nut butter to add protein. We like to use dates or raisins for natural sweetness, cacao powder for an antioxidant boost and oats to leave you feeling satisfied. For recipes, we recommend Deliciously Ella, our own recipes page or this one – easy and delicious!
- When it comes to store bought bars, our two favourites are the Alpen Light Apple and Sultana bars and the Nakd range – the Cocoa Orange bar is just like having a bar of chocolate, and contains just five ingredients; dates, cashews, raisins, cocoa and a hint of natural chocolate orange flavouring. One bar also counts as one of your five-a-day – how neat is that?
READ THIS NEXT: What's really in your vitamin water?