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2 Oct 2021

The 'healthy' snacks packed full of sugar, fat and salt

Healthy snack brands may look innocent, but our research shows some are just as bad as 'unhealthy' alternatives on key nutrition measures
A selection of snack foods

Healthier-looking snacks have taken over the aisles in recent years, with reassuring claims about their high fibre and protein content, and lack of added sugar.

It's great that we now have more choice than just a packet of crisps or chocolate bar, and picking a healthier-looking snack might make you feel better, but are these snacks as good for us as they claim to be, or just telling us what we want to hear?

Video: healthy snacks exposed

Watch our video guide to the sugar and fat content of some popular health snacks versus standard snacks:

Some claims do have to be backed up - if a manufacturer says something is a 'source of fibre', the food must have at least 3g of fibre per 100g, and for any food labelled 'high protein', 20% of the calories must come from protein.

But while these declarations may catch your eye in the snack aisle, and extra fibre is always beneficial (protein is more debatable, more on this later), this doesn't mean the snacks are necessarily healthy. They can still be high in sugar, fat or salt.

In some cases, they aren't necessarily higher in protein or fibre than standard snacks, either - it's just that this is what the manufacturer has chosen to highlight to draw you in.

This isn't a problem in itself, but it can give you a perception that the product as a whole is healthy (known as a health 'halo'), and you might not realise how much else you're consuming.

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Snacks for children
Fruit-based snack for children

It's handy to have snacks to hand when you are out with kids, and it can be hard to know what's a good snack to give.

Fruit-based snacks look like a win-win, but in reality they're closer to confectionery than the fruit that adorns the pack front.

While many don't contain any added sugar and the sugar in them comes from the fruit, they're processed to the extent that Public Health England classes the sugar within as 'free' sugar - which is damaging to teeth.

It's not the same as the sugar that's built into the structure of a piece of fruit.

The sugar in fruit purees, smoothies, juices and honey is also classed as free sugar, and is easy to over-consume versus eating whole fruit.

For example, a 20g pack of raspberry and blueberry Bear Paws fruit shapes contains 7.6g of free sugars - almost two teaspoons of sugar.

According to the pack, 100g worth of this snack is made up from 380g of apples, 200g of pears, 35g of raspberries and 35g of blueberries, which works out as 130g of fruit (and all of the sugar in that) condensed into a small 20g snack portion.

A 20g snack can be easily consumed, whereas it's unlikely a child would sit and eat 130g of apples, pears, raspberries and blueberries in one sitting.

Fruit-based snacks don't contain the same amount of fibre or water as whole fruit either, so don't fill children up in the same way.

Yoghurt fruit flakes

The same applies to Fruit Bowl Strawberry Yoghurt Flakes. The flakes are made from concentrated apple and strawberry purees, but also contain added sugar in the forms of glucose syrup, fructose-glucose syrup and sugar.

The yoghurt coating also contains added sugar, so that each 21g bag contains 13g sugar, or more than three teaspoons.

'Healthy' crisps

Vegetable crisps and crisps made from lentils, chickpeas and wholegrains sound like a healthier alternative to potato crisps, but our research shows that this isn't necessarily the case.

Take Kettle's potato vs vegetable crisps:

  • Kettle Lightly Salted crisps 513kcals per 100g
  • Kettle Lightly Salted Vegetable Chips514kcal per 100g

They also contain similar amounts of fat, saturated fat and salt.

Lentil and chickpea crisps

Lentil crisps

Crisps made from lentils and chickpeas do have more protein in them compared to potato crisps, but they aren't necessarily better on other measures. For example:

  • Proper Chips Sea Salt Lentil Chips 0.7g fibre per 100g
  • Walkers Ready Salted crisps3.7g of fibre per 100g

Lentil crisps can also be higher in salt - Eat Real Sea Salt Lentil Chips have 2.4g salt per 100g, while Walkers have 1.3g.

If you're looking for a healthy swap, popped and baked crisps do tend to be lower in saturated fat compared with traditional crisps.

Cereal bars and flapjacks

Cereal bars often have a healthy image they don't deserve. They're oftenhigh in sugar, fat and/or saturated fat, despite packaging that often seems to suggest they've just been gathered from a nearby field.

The same applies to flapjacks - the oats give them a healthy image and up the fibre content, but this doesn't stop them being packed with sugar and fats.

Don't be fooled by 'no added sugar' claims, either. This doesn't always mean the product contains no sugar - it's often included within natural-sounding ingredients as a workaround.

Cereal bar

One example is WK Kellogg Cocoa & Hazelnut Raw Fruits, Nuts & Oat bars. As well as raisins the ingredients include concentrated apple juice, which is essentially added sugar.

Other secretly sugary ingredients that don't count as 'adding sugar' include honey, molasses, agave nectar and brown rice syrup.

Another popular health claim on cereals bars and flapjacks is related to protein content.

Claims around higher protein project a health 'halo' on to products, but it's important to know that added protein isn't always necessary (most of us get enough in our diets as it is), and it doesn't stop something also being high in sugar and fat.

Rice cakes

Reaching for a rice cake over a biscuit might make you feel worthy, but if you're choosing a chocolate-covered one you may be surprised by the nutrition content.

Per 100g Kallo Belgian Milk Chocolate Rice Cake thins contain more sugar, fat - and saturated fat - than McVitie's Milk Chocolate Digestives.

Chocolate rice cakes

Savoury rice cakes are lower in sugar, fat and saturated fat, but tend to be high in salt.

Watch out for sugary smoothies

Smoothies and juices can be a good way to increase your nutrient intake, in moderation, but they don't have the same benefits as eating fruit and veg whole.

The juicing and blending process reduces the fibre content and releases the sugars, creating free sugars.

Similar to fruit-based snacks aimed at children, it's easy to over consume sugars from drinks in a way that it isn't with fruit.

This is why a 150ml serving of juice or smoothie only counts towards one of your five-a-day, even if you drink more.

Watch out for bigger bottles, too, such as the Innocent Protein example in our video. The small print shows it's actually meant to be two portions, but it's easy to drink in one go.

Find out more in our guide to juicing and blending nutrition.

The truth about health drinks - get the lowdown on the science behind trendy drinks such as kefir, kombucha and turmeric lattes

Salty snack packs

Macadamia nuts

Baked and flavoured corn, pea and bean products can be a healthier alternative to crisps as they contain vegetables, lentils and pulses, which are good sources of fibre and protein.

But the added flavourings can be high in salt.

Nuts will drive up the calorie and fat content of these packs, but this does tend to be healthy, unsaturated fat which is heart-healthy.

Unsalted nuts are a good alternative if you want to watch your salt intake, and tend to be cheaper than pre-portioned flavoured snack packs.

Understanding food labels

It's hard to know whether foods contain a lot of your 'daily allowance' of a nutrient or not.

Some of these snacks will carry traffic light labels, which tell you whether a product is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt.

Traffic lights are useful and allow you to see at a glance how 'healthy' something might be - the NHS advises we avoid too many red traffic lights, and choose foods that have mainly green and amber.

However, traffic lights don't tell you about protein and fibre. Here's a guideline of how much we should be aiming for each day:

Recommended daily 'free' sugar intakes

  • Children ages 4-6 Maximum 19g / 5 teaspoons
  • Children aged 7-10 Maximum 24g / 6 teaspoons
  • Adults Maximum 30g / 7 teaspoons

Recommended daily intakes for adults

  • Fat Maximum 70g (female) or 90g (male)
  • Saturated fat Maximum 20g (female) or 30g (male)
  • Salt Maximum 6g
  • Protein 45g (female) or 55g (male)
  • Fibre Minimum 30g

Best food and drink: best supermarket foods and when it's worth buying branded revealed in our taste tests