When you're feeling snacky, apart from nuts, fruit and hummus with veggies (or, ahem, doughnuts and chocolate), snack bars are a popular, convenient choice.
We automatically think muesli bars, protein bars, or fruit and nut bars are a healthy choice, but unfortunately, most snack bars are not. In fact, some are just as sugary as chocolate bars, and can be as energy dense as lunch.
So, which snacks bars are actually healthy? And how do we know what's good and what's not?
"I think it can be quite challenging," Chloe McLeod, accredited practising dietitian and sports dietitian, told The Huffington Post Australia.
"A lot of the time they design the package to look really healthy, and it's only once you start to have an inspection of the ingredients and the nutrition information panel that you can see they're not so healthy after all."
Some of the key things to look out for when shopping for snack bars are the sugar content, the fat content and the overall calorie content.
"If we're looking at it from calories, we're aiming for somewhere between 100 and 200 at the maximum. From 100 to 150 calories is the ideal snack," McLeod said.
"Be careful of portion size and the overall energy amount. It might look really healthy, the packet might say it's nutritious, but it ends up being more calories than your lunch in one little bar.
"Then you also have to think about whether you're having anything else with it. If you are pairing it with your morning coffee, your snack might need to be less than that."
How do I choose a healthy snack bar?
Look for the following guidelines in the nutrition information panel:
- Calories -- 100-150 calories per bar
- Sugar -- 5-10 grams per bar, or less than 10 grams per 100 grams
- Fibre -- more than three grams per serve
- Sodium/salt -- less than 120mg per 100 grams
- Protein --10 grams per 100 grams
- Saturated fat -- less than two grams per 100 grams
High fibre content is also crucial, as fibre helps keep us feel full for longer and our digestive system healthy.
"We're looking at fibre content in particular. To choose high fibre, look for more than three grams per serve," McLeod said.
"For sugar, you want as low in sugar as possible.
"If we're looking at per serve, I'd be aiming for no more than around 5-10 grams per bar, just because that's equalling about 1-2 teaspoons of sugar. If it can be less than that, amazing."
The sodium content in muesli bars can also creep up, so make sure you look for low salt options. And if you want your snack bar to be extra filling, opt for one with lots of protein.
"Low salt is also important. Less than 120mg per 100 grams is great," McLeod said.
"If possible, aim for an appropriate amount of protein which is around 10 grams depending on what the ingredients are, but it's not essential."
When it comes to fat content, don't be automatically put off by snack bars that are higher in fat. They may be good fats that help keep us full and satisfied for longer.
"For fat content, aim for the saturated fat to be less than two grams per 100 grams," McLeod told HuffPost Australia.
"Also look at the type of fat in the bar. We're looking for a mix of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. If it's a good quality bar they usually break the fats down into these different types. Try to choose one where the fat is coming from least processed ingredients as possible, so preferably in whole nuts and seeds rather than as an oil in the bar.
"The overall fat content will again be dependent on whether it's made with nuts and seeds, or if it's more of an oat-based bar. I tend to say take it on a case-by-case basis. It just depends on where that fat is coming from."
McLeod recommends staying away from snack bars with artificial sweeteners. Look out for polydextrose (E1200), maltitol (E965) and sucralose (E955).
"I would be looking out for any artificial sweeteners. Often they're used in processed protein bars to keep the carbohydrate content low but make it sweet," McLeod said.
"Artificial sweeteners can stimulate your appetite more later on, so just be a bit careful of those."
Here are the best supermarket snack bars.
"Some of the ones I recommend are the Uncle Tobys Farmer's Pick, which have a good range there," McLeod said.
"Carman's have some good ones and some less healthy ones. The bars I usually recommend from them are their Fruit Free bars, or the protein bar with pistachio and honey which looks pretty good, as well.
"Goodness Superfoods do a cranberry one which is good. And Be Natural do a sultana and date one which has always been pretty good, as well."
As for those protein bars and popular raw fruit and nut bars or balls?
"If you look at them overall, watch out for high fat, sugar, calories and artificial sweeteners," McLeod said.
"Nut and fruit bars tend to be better as they're less processed and have less preservatives, but the overall calories and sugar can be really high. I was looking at one recently and it has more than 30 grams of sugar per 100 grams.
"Admittedly, it was a small bar of around 30 grams, but just because it's made from healthy dates, honey and nuts doesn't mean it's going to satisfy you. It's such a small amount and it didn't have much fibre in it.
"It had quite a lot of natural sugar in there, which is better than eating refined sugar, but it's still sugar. Just be really careful."
Regardless of the product, McLeod said to use your common sense, check the product label and make your decision from there.
"If the reason why you're having the bar is because you need a snack that will keep you really satisfied, nuts and oats are going to make you feel more satisfied than the fruit and nut type ones," McLeod said.
"However, if you're having it specifically before working out or you've got high energy requirements and need something to top up your training session, then the fruit and nut or the oat based bars are the ones I would be going for."
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