Life tends to get in the way of our best intentions. You get swamped at the office and decide to skip the gym, or run out of steam after lunch and tear open a bar of chocolate.
Even snacks that look healthy at first aren’t always what they seem. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to tell what goes into a snack bar, or whether it’s packed with added sugars and artificial ingredients. To help get to the bottom of it, we asked registered dietician Nichola Ludlam-Raine to give us the lowdown on the do's and don’ts of healthy snacking. Here’s what she had to say about hidden ingredients, artificial sweeteners, and more.
The first thing you should look for on a snack bar? The amount of sugar. “I would avoid snack bars that have sugar or syrup as their first or second ingredient,” Ludlam-Raine said. Sweet snacks like protein and cereal bars often use some sugar for flavour, but Ludlam-Raine warned that some cereal bars contain more sugar than chocolate bars. "Too much added sugar can lead to poor dental health as well as weight gain," she said. "Sugar provides calories, but no vitamins or minerals."
Artificial sweeteners aren’t always the solution, either. Sports nutrition bars sometimes use sugar alcohols and other sweeteners to add flavour. Though these artificial sweeteners have few or no calories, they can have their own problems. Large quantities of sugar alcohols can even have a laxative effect, Ludlam-Raine said.
You'll also want to check out the ingredient list, keeping an eye out for any ingredients made from real food. “Make sure that the first ingredient as a minimum is a whole food,” Ludlam-Raine said. Think oats, nuts, or dried fruit. Artificial flavours and ingredients should be minimal. It’s OK if a bar includes some synthetic ingredients, but ideally, they’ll be outweighed by the real food ingredients.
Of course, even snacks made from ingredients you recognise can be unhealthy. For instance, dried fruits like dates are a source of natural sugar and are sometimes used as a main ingredient in snack bars. Though sugar from whole food ingredients is still better for you than added sugars, it is still sugar and should be limited. At the end of the day, it's still important to check the sugar content on any snack and keep the amount of sugar you consume each day in check. In general, adults should keep their total sugar intake under 90 grams per day, Ludlam-Raine said.
Last but not least, Ludlam-Raine recommends flipping the package over to find the nutrition facts. Look for two things: protein and fibre. Ideally, you want to find a snack bar that has two to five grams of protein and anything over three grams of fibre per serving. Both of these nutrients will help you top-up your daily nutrient intake, whether you’re gearing up for a fitness class or just feeling hungry after lunch.
Still, Ludlam-Raine said not to focus too much on getting all the protein and fibre you need in just one snack. A healthy diet should include protein from a variety of sources like meat, fish, dairy, and legumes, plus plenty of fibre from whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
It can be a lot to keep in mind while you’re food shopping, so it might be easier to find a brand you trust and stick with them. Graze Cocoa Vanilla Protein Bites have 45 percent less sugar than many other cereal bars, without adding any artificial sweeteners. Not only do these bites contain plenty of fibre, but the main ingredient is wholegrain oats, Ludlam-Raine said. Plus, they come in several tasty flavours. Check, check, and check!