The supermarket shelves are full of convenience snacks that you can pop in the kids’ lunchbox. They might tick the cool box but do they pass the nutrition test too? We bought 44 products to find out.
Eating healthy food helps children concentrate and learn, so a nutritious lunchbox is important. We were looking for snacks that weren’t too high in energy and were low in fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium.
Our survey doesn’t cover the whole market – we didn’t include muesli bars or yoghurts – but you can use our criteria to compare these products in the supermarket. (Muesli bars are often high in sugar and fat so aren’t for eating every day.)
We also didn’t include drinks because water is the best choice. If you do include a flavoured drink as an occasional treat, check the ingredients list. “Fruit drinks” aren’t “fruit juice”: they only have to contain a minimum 5 percent fruit content, so they’re often little more than sugar and water.
We bought 44 products that are in packaged single-serve portions ideal for popping in a lunchbox. We've used green, orange and red "traffic light" symbols to show the fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium in the products (see our Product comparison table below). If you see a red light, you know the food is high in something you may be trying to cut down on. Green means the food has low amounts of it; orange fits somewhere in between.
What we found
We were looking for lunchbox fillers with less than 600 kilojoules per serve. That’s about the equivalent of a banana – although a banana will fill your kids up a lot more than other products and give them extra fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Most of the products in our survey meet our energy criteria only because they’re small. So don’t be tempted to put 2 in every lunchbox.
Fat and saturated fat
Biscuits, chips and some crackers were too high in fat and saturated fat. Better options include rice crackers and popcorn (although the buttery variety of popcorn in our survey was too high in saturated fat).
The cheese products were also high in fat and saturated fat. But they provide calcium, so they can be eaten more regularly.
Sugar contains energy but very few nutrients. It also contributes to tooth decay. All the bars and most of the fruit products get a red light for sugar.
In some cases the sugar comes from real fruit (not fruit juice) – so they’ll have extra fibre, vitamins and minerals. We’ve noted in our comparison table which products have fruit as their first ingredient.
However, some fruit products are topped up with sugar and its many aliases (such as sucrose, glucose and honey). Bluebird Real Fruit Bars contain a 32 percent fruit mix that’s topped up with icing sugar and glucose. Home Brand’s Apple Oven Baked Fruit Bar’s apple filling contains sugar. So you still need to check the ingredients list.
Be sceptical about fruit products parading as healthier choices. Nice & Natural Fruit Crocs and licensed Iddy Biddy Fruity Bits all claim to be made with 65 percent fruit juice but they’re really just glorified lollies and aren’t a substitute for juice or a piece of fruit in your child’s lunchbox.
Chips, crackers and cheese products are generally higher in sodium.
We didn’t look at this because many manufacturers didn’t list it (they aren’t legally required to unless they’re making a claim about fibre). Foods such as wholegrain bread, fruit and vegetables have fibre, so make sure the lunchbox includes these.
Misleading “daily intake” labels
Many products in our survey had “%DI” front-of-pack labelling, where the information is expressed as a percentage of “recommended daily intakes”. We think this is misleading: the daily intakes are based on an average adult diet of 8700kJ but these products are intended for children. What’s more, you need a good knowledge of nutrition to work out how they might apply to kids.
Convenience cash cow
In some cases you’re paying for the convenience of single-serve portions. We paid $1.22 for a 120g pottle of Wattie’s Go Fruity Fruit ’n Juice. But if you put canned fruit in a leak-proof container you’ll only pay around $0.70. The same goes for crackers. It’s often cheaper to buy a large packet of crackers and put a few in a lunchbox rather than buying individual packets.