Are these "healthy" snacks as good as they seem?

Fruit and nut trail mix

The shops are full of ‘healthy’ snacks like protein bars, fruit and nut bars, popcorn and rice cakes. But how healthy are they really? Our Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor explains how to choose the right snack for you.

Three square meals a day is the traditional eating pattern, and one which fits well with a healthy diet. But many of us snack in between. Chocolate, cakes, biscuits and crisps are not the best everyday choices, whereas fruit and veg are a good way to fill the gap. But there are growing numbers of manufactured products claiming to be a healthy option. Here's our guide.

1. Protein bars

Protein bar cross section

There is a trend for products with added protein, but most of us already get more protein than we need.

Foods rich in protein can be more filling to eat than foods high in carbohydrate or fat, which might be helpful if you are trying to lose weight, but ‘high protein’ does not necessarily mean it is healthier.

If you do want to increase the amount of protein in your diet, healthy sources of protein include unsalted nuts, low-fat yoghurt and hard-boiled eggs.

2. Cereal bars

Cereal bars dipped in yoghurt

The ingredients of cereal bars and granola bars can vary widely – but it’s worth remembering that however wholesome their packaging may look, they are not necessarily a healthy choice.

Avoid chocolate-dipped or yoghurt-coated varieties (yoghurt coatings usually contain added ingredients like palm oil and sugar, which aren’t in actual yoghurt) or ones containing salted caramel, marshmallows, chocolate chips or coconut. Some bars have more calories than a Mars bar.

If you are choosing a cereal bar, look for ingredients like nuts and oats, which will be a more filling choice and have more fibre than ones based on puffed rice or other refined cereals. Use the nutritional information to identify the options with the least sugar per 100g and compare the calorie content per portion. Aim for less than 150kcal per portion (this is a good rule for other snacks too).

3. Rice cakes and crispbreads

Peanut butter and bananas on top of three rice cakes

Crackers are often seen as a healthier option than bread, but that’s not always the case. Check nutrition labels and ingredients, and the salt and fat per 100g. Avoid anything with palm oil, butter or cheese, as these contain saturated fat.

Many crispbreads are made without added fat, but still check the salt content. Seeded crispbreads may be higher in fat because of natural oils in the seeds, which isn’t a problem if there isn’t fat added.

Rice cakes are a low-calorie option, but make sure to choose plain, unsalted versions. What goes on top is equally important – enjoy them plain or try low-fat cream cheese, banana, avocado, sliced tomatoes or unsalted peanut (or almond) butter.

4. Fruit and nut bars or balls

Four fruit and nut granola bars

These are often based on dates with other dried fruit and nut additions and, in some cases, flavourings. The fruit is pureed so it can be formed into a bar, which means the fruit sugars they contain will count as free sugars, even if there is no added sugar. Free sugars are the kind we should all be cutting down on.

A small bar typically contains around 150kcals – that’s less than a Mars bar (228kcal) but more than a banana (89kcal). Because these bars are made from dried fruit and nuts they are more nutritious than biscuits, chocolate or sweets. They are also high in fibre and the fats are usually from nuts, which contain healthier unsaturated fats, unlike the saturated fats found in chocolate, cakes and biscuits.

They are quite filling so can be good if you are hungry and it’s a long time until your next meal, or if you’re doing something active.

5. Popcorn

Popcorn spilt over a pink background

Popcorn is a wholegrain snack and can be a low-calorie choice. The popping of the corn adds air, so you feel like you are getting a lot for not too many calories. But take care with ready-prepared versions. Flavoured varieties are often high in salt or sugar – check the nutritional information to find which is lowest in salt and sugar per 100g.

It’s easy to make your own popcorn at home and you can add healthy flavourings such as dried herbs, cinnamon or chilli rather than salt or sugar.

6. Nuts, seeds and trail mix

Fruit and nut trail mix

Nuts and dried fruit can be a nutritious choice in small portions. They can be high in calories, so aim for a small handful as a portion.

Trail mix is usually made of dried fruit and nuts, and often coconut. Dried coconut is high in saturated fat, so it isn’t the most heart-healthy choice.

Many trail mixes may also contain banana chips (rather than dried banana), which are fried, often in coconut oil which is high in saturated fat, and may have added sugar too. Check the labels and avoid mixes where sugar and oil have been added to the ingredients.

Whether you’re going for nuts, dried fruit or seeds, stick to the plain, unsalted varieties. Even healthy-sounding coatings such as yoghurt and wasabi often come with added sugar, salt or fat.

 

Can you believe the claims?

While information on the front of packets has to be true, it doesn’t have to be the whole truth. Manufacturers are keen to tell us about the positives of their product, but may skirt around the negatives. Individual ingredients, whether they are ‘superfoods’ or not, won’t make a product healthy if it is high in salt, saturated fat or sugars.

Cereal bars topped with honey and raisins

Meaningless phrases to watch out for include ‘real food’, ‘natural’ and ‘honest’. These, combined with clever packaging, might make you think a product is healthy, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Plenty of ingredients high in salt, sugar and saturated fat can be described as ‘real’ or ‘natural’ – such as honey, which is nutritionally very similar to sugar.

The phrase ‘superfood’ can also be misleading. Individual ingredients, whether they are ‘superfoods’ or not, won’t make a product healthy if it is high in salt, saturated fat or sugars. And labels such as ‘gluten free’ don’t mean a product is healthy – fat, sugar and salt are all gluten free

What makes a good snack?

Look for snacks that are lower in calories and will add nutrients. Fruit and vegetables, low-fat yoghurt, and homemade plain popcorn are all good options. If you are more active than usual, then you might find you are hungrier. Try to plan your snacks in advance to help you stick to your healthy eating plans.

Do we need to snack?

If you are underweight and struggle to eat main meals because of poor appetite or symptoms such as breathlessness, then snacks can be a useful addition to your diet. However, most adults in the UK are overweight and so need to think more carefully about the amount and type of snacks they are eating.

Snacks are generally small, but if you are a serial snacker then they can all add up over a day to the equivalent energy of an extra meal or more, even if you are making nutritious choices. It’s also easy to forget foods that we’ve eaten as snacks rather than meals, so if you are struggling to lose weight, look at what you are having between meals first – it might add up to more than you think.

More useful information