Are lunchbox snacks healthy?
We looked at the energy, saturated fat, sugar and sodium in 63 lunchbox snacks marketed for children. Find out the snacks you should avoid and what to consider when buying them.
For convenience, a packaged snack can be a time-saver to pop in the kids’ lunchbox. But do they get good marks for nutrition? We looked at 63 to find out.
Eating healthy food helps children concentrate and learn, so a nutritious lunch is important. But our survey found many products marketed as ideal lunchbox fillers are high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium.
Find out how 63 common lunchbox snacks rated for saturated fat, sugar and sodium in our survey results.
High sodium snacks to avoid
Processed Cheese Slices
Both Pams and Chesdale edam cheese slices have a whopping 1190mg of sodium per 100g. They are also high in saturated fat (17.2%).
Processed meats products like this Verkerks Protein Snack Pack are high in sodium. This snack pack contains 1350mg per 100g.
Despite being low in saturated fat and sugar, these Healtheries Kidscare Potato Stix Salt & Vinegar pack a sodium punch with 1300mg per 100g.
Shultz Mini Pretzels Snack Sack also tips the sodium scales with 1072mg per 100g.
5 things to consider when choosing lunchbox snacks
1. Sugar sources aren’t all equal: “real” fruit products often bear little resemblance to whole fruit
Most bars, biscuits, and packaged fruit products we looked at got a red light for sugar. Added sugar (not occurring naturally in fruit or plain milk) provides energy but no nutrients. It also contributes to tooth decay, especially the sticky fruit bars that can get stuck in teeth.
In some products, the sugar is from “real fruit”. But the fruit is in the form of a paste or fruit puree, which bears little resemblance to the whole fruit it’s derived from.
Don’t be tricked into thinking all “fruit” products are equal. Mother Earth Fruit Sticks Blueberry contain fruit purees, but other ingredients include glucose syrup, sugar, golden syrup and brown sugar.
Nice & Natural Fruit Strings claim to be made with 65% fruit juice but with their added glucose syrup and sugar, they are a poor substitute for a piece of fruit.
Bliss balls and dried fruit don’t have added sugar – though you don’t want to stack your child’s lunchbox with dried fruit because it’s high in sugar and sticks to teeth.
2. Check for sodium: snacks can contain double the amount of similar products
A 4- to 8-year-old should have no more than 1400mg of sodium per day. But the sodium hit in a lunchbox can quickly add up. If you pop in a Verkerks Protein Snack Pack (203mg), Chesdale Processed Edam Cheese Slice (250mg) and packet of Shultz Mini Pretzels (300mg), that’s more than 50% of the recommended upper daily limit in just three snacks.
Check the nutrition information panel even if you’re buying a similar product. Pams Edam Flavoured Processed Cheese Slices have nearly double the sodium than Bega Stringers Original.
3. Saturated fat: choose rice crackers and popcorn over chips, crackers, and biscuits
Pams Edam Flavoured Processed Cheese Slices and Chesdale Edam Processed Cheese Slices were the highest in saturated fat – 17.2g per 100g. All the biscuits we looked at, and some crackers and chips, were also high in saturated fat. Better options include, rice crackers and popcorn (although steer clear of buttery varieties, which will be higher in saturated fat).
Cheese products are high in saturated fat, although at least they provide calcium so have some merit. A yoghurt “suckie” or pouch will also provide calcium without the high levels of saturated fat. But check the ingredients list of yoghurts. Added sugar can make these products super sweet.
Processed meats are also high in saturated fat.
4. Convenience costs: bulk buy and repackage to save money
You’re often paying for the convenience of single-serve portions. For example, you’ll pay 55¢ for a 20g packet in a multi-pack of Peckish rice crackers. A 100g packet costs $2.50, which works out as 50¢ for a 20g portion. These small savings can add up over time – especially if you’re packing a few lunchboxes every day.
Fruit, popcorn and crackers can also be repackaged into leak-proof containers or other reusable packaging. This saves you money and you won’t be buying lots of unnecessary packaging.
5. Don’t forget a drink: kids need plenty of fluids to keep them well hydrated
Water is the best choice, but 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% fruit content, so they’re often little more than sugar and water.
Lunchbox snacks compared
About our survey
We analysed the labels of 63 products packaged in single-serve portions and marketed as ideal for popping in a lunchbox. Our survey doesn’t cover the whole market – but you can use our criteria to compare other products.
We’ve used green, orange and red traffic light criteria to show the saturated fat, sugar and sodium in the products.
For our sugar figures, we've distinguished between products primarily made with added sugar (like biscuits) versus those high in naturally occurring sugar (such as dried fruit).
When you see an "A" next to sugar figures on the table, this means the product primarily contains sugar from fruit (not fruit juice) or vegetables, and sugar isn't listed as one of the first three ingredients.
Saturated fat (g/100g):
≤1.5 1.6-5.0 >5
≤5 5.1-22.5 >22.5
≤120 121-600 >600
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