Cereal bars, muesli bars, oat slices, nut bars and raw bars. Generally speaking these snack bars have a healthy image. Appealing, earth-toned packaging, images of wholegrains, nuts and fruit and claims of "no artificial colours and flavours" are standard. Even the brand names contribute to the health halo (think All Natural Bakery, Be Natural, Go Natural, Nature Valley and Nice & Natural).
So it might come as a surprise to find that many of these bars are so loaded with saturated fat and sugar, they have more in common with products in the confectionery aisle than those in the health food aisle.
2019 taste test: We asked the public to try 11 popular muesli bars. Find out which muesli bars topped our taste test.
Snack bars are always going to be sweet, because the manufacturers rely on sugars of various kinds – but usually ordinary sugar (sucrose), glucose or glucose syrup – to hold them together. They'll also usually include some fat to make them tastier. This could be a small amount of polyunsaturated vegetable oil (such as canola). But it could equally be palm or increasingly coconut oil, which are both high in saturated fat.
Whatever their nutritional shortcomings, there's no lack of choice. We found more than 200 products in the supermarket, and assessed their nutritional value to find the best and worst products.
- Goodness Superfoods Better for U Cereal Bars Wild Berries & Yoghurt
- Uncle Tobys Farmer's Pick Roasted Macadamia & Almond
By their very nature, gluten-free (GF) bars tend to be grain-free. While they don't meet our wholegrains criteria, the following bars also have a 4.5-star rating and meet our energy criteria, so are worth considering if you need a gluten-free option (these were GF at time of publish):
- Food For Health Cinnamon, Hazelnut and Chia Bars
- Food For Health Coconut Cacao and Chia Bars
- Food For Health Vanilla Blueberry and Teff Bars
- Freedom Foods Crafted Blends with Superfoods Pepitas, Spinach & Chickpeas
- Well Naturally No Sugar Added Cereal Bar Almond Sesame Seed Linseed
- Well Naturally No Sugar Added Cereal Bar Currant Pepita Seed Sunflower
- Well Naturally No Sugar Added Cereal Bar Peanut Puffed Quinoa Almond
Nuts are a good source of protein, healthy (poly- and monounsaturated) fats, fibre, antioxidants and a range of vitamins and minerals. Although they're nutritious, the high fat content of nuts means they can contribute quite a bit to your kilojoule intake, so it's good to be mindful of portion sizes.
A number of bars in this category received HSRs of 4.5 or higher, but of these, only six products also met our criteria for energy per serve:
- Emma & Tom's Chia Bar Cacao
- Emma & Tom's Chia Bar Cinnamon
- Golden Days Seed Bar with Quinoa Original (GF at time of publish)
- Naturally Nood Wholefood Bar Apple Rumble
- Soma Bite Apple & Superseed (GF at time of publish)
- Soma Bite Goji & Chia (GF at time of publish)
Seven products managed an HSR of just 1. Of these, only the indulgent Coles Nut Bars Choc Coated Nut is labelled with its 1-star rating.
Fontelle Oven Baked Mini Meal Choc Chip (1 star) is true to its name; a 120g bar provides 2412kJ – as much as a meal, and more than a quarter of the recommended daily energy intake. Not to mention the 8.5 teaspoons of sugar it crams in too.
Coconut and butter feature high up in the ingredients list of Carman's Oat Slice Belgian Chocolate Brownie, Carman's Oat Slice Cranberry & Blueberry and Carman's Oat Slice Golden Oat and Coconut (all 1 star), which may make them tasty but also bring saturated fat to the party.
Carman's Oat Slice Cranberry & Blueberry tops the chart, with 21.1% saturated fat.
The oat slices in our review were higher in saturated fat and contained more kilojoules per serve on average than other bars, so it's a category best avoided if you're after a healthier choice.
Kellogg's LCM's Split Stix Yoghurty and Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Bars (both 1 star) are only small (23-24g), but they're both high in saturated fat, pack a sugar punch and are among the saltiest products reviewed.
A key benefit of the HSR system is it cuts through the marketing spin and allows you to make healthier choices at a glance.
But the system is currently voluntary, and not all manufacturers are using it. Of the 224 products in our review more than half (55%) didn't display an HSR. And some companies are only putting HSRs on their healthier offerings. Products that achieved a higher star rating (3 or above) were about five times more likely to show an HSR than products that rated 2.5 or less.
Our findings reflect those from an Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) review of HSR use on snack bars published earlier this year.
Jane Martin, OPC executive manager says, "Leading brands such as Kellogg's and Weight Watchers have not put health star ratings on any of their snack bars, while Carman's appears to be using the system as a promotional tool by only displaying the stars on its healthiest products. Unless all brands put the stars on all products, it's very difficult for shoppers to compare at a glance and make an informed choice.
"At a time when 63% of Australian adults and 27% of children are overweight or obese, it's disappointing that so many food companies are not supporting consumers with the information they need to make healthier choices for themselves and their families," Martin adds.
Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend we limit our intake of foods containing added sugars. And last year the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued new sugar guidelines recommending that we reduce our daily intake of free sugars – sugars such as glucose and sucrose that are added to foods as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates – to less than 10% of our total energy intake in order to reduce the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay. Based on an average energy intake of 8700kJ, that's a limit of about 52g (13 teaspoons) of free sugars a day. Recently, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that one in two Australians usually exceeds the WHO recommendation.
Most of the bars in this review are pretty high in sugars, containing 25% on average, and some as much as 50%. It's sugar, after all, that helps the bars stick together. But how much of it is the type of sugar you need to limit? Right now it's almost impossible to tell.
- Go Natural Macadamia Dream bars (1.5 stars) contain about 40% sugars, and they're essentially all added (free) sugars.
- Woolworths Homebrand Oven Baked Fruit Bars Apple & Blueberry (2.5 stars) are 40% sugars as well, but only a portion of the sugars come from their minimal (18%) fruit content, the rest is added by the manufacturer.
- Emma & Tom's Life Bar Cacao & Orange (4 stars) is also 40% sugars – but that's all sugar from fruit (and therefore has associated beneficial nutrients such as fibre).
But just based on the sugars total on the nutrition information panel, these products look the same. You can try looking at the ingredients list to get a feel for how much added sugar is in there (ingredients are listed in descending order by weight), but as there are so many different names for added sugar, this might not help. Only the Woolworths bar has its HSR labelled.
- Weight Watchers Coconut Delight Indulgent Bar (1.5 stars) is 37% sugars, mostly added sugar (sugar, invert sugar, dextrose and honey according to the ingredients list).
- Naturally Nood Wholefood Bar Cocoa Lamington (3 stars) is also 37% sugars, but the sugars are from whole fruit ingredients.
Not surprisingly the Weight Watchers bar isn't labelled with its HSR.
CHOICE is currently calling on the Forum on Food Regulation Ministers to itemise added sugars in the nutrition information panel as well as identifying them in the ingredients list.
Some products contain 'fruit' that owes more to chemistry than agriculture, despite what pictures of freshly cut strawberries, plump raspberries or sliced apples on the packaging might have you believe. This is only revealed if you pay close attention to the ingredients list.
- The "strawberry flavoured fruit pieces" in Hillcrest (Aldi) Chewy Muesli Bars Strawberry & Yoghurt are made from "fruit [strawberry puree, fruit puree concentrates (apple, pear, plum)], humectant (422), wheat, gelling agent (440), natural strawberry flavour, acidity regulator (296), natural colour from fruit concentrate (anthocyanin from elderberry)"
- The "raspberry and apple fillings" in Kellogg's K-Time Twists Raspberry & Apple are made from "sugar, fruit [raspberry juice concentrate (4%), apple (2%), apple powder], fructose, thickeners (1442, 1404, corn starch, 460, 466), humectant (422), brown sugar, food acids (330, 296), natural colour (163), flavours, preservative (221), stabiliser (470)"
- The "apple strawberry pieces" in Woolworths Select Muesli Bar Yoghurt Strawberry consist of "concentrated apple puree, concentrated apple juice, strawberry puree (23%), citrus fibre, concentrated Aronia juice, gelling agent (pectin) and natural flavour".
We compared 224 cereal, muesli, nut, seed and raw bars. We've listed them below in order of health star rating (highest to lowest).
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.