- Cereal bars can be loaded with sugar and saturated fat. Find out from the results table which are the healthiest, and which the ones to avoid.
- Some brands contain ‘fruit’ that owes more to chemistry than agriculture. You only find out by checking the ingredients in the small print on the label.
- A piece of real fruit is a much healthier snack.
Please note: this information was current as of January 2006 but is still a useful guide to today's market.
Going behind bars
Cereal bars, muesli bars and breakfast bars may have a healthy image but most of them are more than 20% sugar, and some deliver more saturated fat than a packet of chips. What’s more, even the ‘fruit’ in them can be a sham — a laboratory creation of chemicals and sugar.
Whatever their nutritional shortcomings, there’s no lack of choice — we found more than 150 brands and flavours in the major supermarkets and assessed their nutritional value.
But there’s no getting away from it, cereal bars are sweet. The manufacturers depend on sugars of various kinds — usually ordinary sugar (sucrose), glucose or glucose syrup — to hold the bar together.
They’ll also usually include some fat to make the bar tastier. This is OK if it’s just a small amount of polyunsaturated vegetable oil (such as canola) but not if it’s palm or coconut oil (vegetable oils that are high in saturated fat) — and even worse when it’s a hydrogenated oil that contains artery-clogging trans fats.
What we assessed
To make choosing a relatively healthy bar easier, we used the information on the labels to assess the bars nutritionally. Here’s what we looked for:
Energy. A healthy snack should fill a hole without giving you too many extra fattening kilojoules. We set the limit that you should get from a cereal bar as less than 600kJ — that’s about 6% of the average daily energy intake for an adult or an 8–11-year-old (active teenagers, especially boys, need more). But that’s still a hefty snack — you’d get about as many kilojoules from a piece of fruit and a tub of yoghurt, only they’re likely to be healthier.
Whole grains. Whole grains are rich in protective antioxidants and minerals, as well as providing plenty of dietary fibre. There’s now good evidence that wholegrain cereals protect you against heart disease and some cancers. We looked for wholegrain cereals (usually rolled oats) as the first or second ingredient listed on the label.
Saturated fat. Experts recommend that saturated fat shouldn’t provide more than 10% of your energy intake. So we set a limit of 1.5g of saturated fat per bar (which translates into about 60kJ).
Sugars. Ideally you shouldn’t get more than 20% of your energy from sugars (which translates to about 6g of sugars per bar). But given that it’s sugar that sticks these bars together, we set a more realistic limit of 10g. (You just have to eat less sugar somewhere else in your diet.)
Dietary fibre. Adults should be getting at least 30g of fibre per day, and older kids about 20g. It works out that a cereal bar that gives you 6% of your energy should deliver at least 6% of your fibre as well — that’s 1.8g.
These five criteria — kilojoules, whole grains, saturated fat, sugar and fibre — were what we used to find the best and worst cereal bars. You’ll find them in the results table.
Not good for your teeth
Eating sugary snacks activates bacteria that attack your teeth and can cause decay. Cereal bars, especially the stickier ones, are bad news because the sugar sticks to your teeth. The Australian Dental Association recommends keeping sugary snacks to a minimum. Chewing on sugar-free gum afterwards can help — it stimulates saliva flow and protects teeth from decay.