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Snack bars

Snack bars are convenient to put in kids’ lunchboxes or to keep on hand when you need a quick snack. But do they stack up to their healthy image? When we calculated the new “health star” ratings for 35 snack bars, we found only 9 that earned 3 stars or more.

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Earlier this year the government gave the go-ahead to the health star system for rating food. This voluntary front-of-pack (FOP) label is a similar concept to the energy-efficiency star ratings you find on appliances and it’s designed to give you “at-a-glance” information about the nutritional value of packaged food. The ratings range from half a star to 5 stars – the more stars the better.

The health star system is based on nutrient-profiling criteria developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. It takes into account the “positive” as well as the “negative” aspects of a food.

The negative aspects are the nutrients associated with increased risk of chronic diseases: the food’s energy content, saturated fat, total sugars and sodium. The positive aspects are the food’s dietary fibre and protein – and also how much fruit, vegetables, nuts or legumes (including seeds and coconut) it has.

The star rating is based on 100g or 100ml of the product. Different nutrient thresholds are used for beverages, dairy foods, oils and spreads, and cheese products.

How the stars were born

Research shows providing interpretive nutritional information on the front of packaged foods helps consumers understand the foods’ nutritional content. It also provides an incentive for manufacturers to reduce the saturated fat, sugar and sodium in packaged foods.

The introduction of “front of pack” (FOP) labelling was a key recommendation of the 2011 independent review of food-labelling law and policy in Australia and New Zealand. The review also recommended adopting multiple use traffic-light labelling – a system that gives a green (low), amber (medium), or red (high) symbol to indicate nutrient levels. But while ministers in Australia and New Zealand agreed to support FOP labelling, traffic-light symbols were given the thumbs down.

The health star rating was an alternative developed by a committee of Australian government, industry, health and consumer groups (including the Australian consumer organisation Choice).

In June this year, our government announced it would follow Australia’s lead and introduce the health star system here.

What we found

Many snack bars are high-energy snacks and shouldn’t be considered everyday eating.

Their high energy, saturated fat and sugar meant most of the bars in our survey rated less than 3 stars (see our product comparison table and “About our survey”).

Only 4 bars managed 4 stars or higher. Quaker Nut Bar Macadamia & Apricot got 4.5 stars. While it’s high in total fat, it gets a favourable score because it has less saturated fat, sugar and sodium than many other snack bars – plus it packs a reasonable fibre punch. Nuts and dried fruit make up 48 percent of its ingredients so it’s not full of sugary fillers (like other bars we looked at).

Tasti Milkies Choc Strawberry, Be Natural Trail Bars Nut & Fruit and Weight Watchers Apple Crumble got 4 stars. All have more than 10 percent fibre – and although the Weight Watchers product is high in sugar, it has low levels of fat and saturated fat.

At the bottom of our table – with just 1 star – is Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Bar Original. Its levels of saturated fat are high and more than a third of it is sugar. What’s more, it won’t contribute much to your daily fibre intake: its long list of ingredients doesn’t include any fruit, nuts or seeds.

Energy hit

If you’re buying snack bars, look for products with less than 600 kilojoules per bar. That’s about the equivalent of a banana – although a banana will fill you up a lot more than a snack bar. What’s more, it gives you extra fibre, vitamins and minerals.

17 bars in our survey packed more than 600 kilojoules per bar. Bumper Bar Apricot Chocolate had a whopping 1420 kilojoules, partly because of its large (75g) size.

Rating the ratings

We asked Cliona Ni Mhurchu, Professor of Population Nutrition at the University of Auckland and a member of the New Zealand Front of Pack Labelling Advisory Group, to comment on our ratings. She thought there was a good spread of stars across the category, so it should be easy for consumers to identify healthier choices.

“The positive aspects of a food can offset its negative aspects. So the food is being rated on its overall nutritional value,” Professor Ni Mhurchu said.

This can explain why the Quaker Nut Bar has a high rating: “Total fat, unlike saturated fat, isn’t strongly associated with the risk of chronic disease so it’s not considered when calculating the health star rating. Similarly, a high-sugar product may achieve a high rating if the majority of the sugar comes from fruit and it’s high in protein and fibre.”

We agree that having health stars prominently displayed on a food’s packaging will make it easier for consumers to identify healthier choices. But we have several concerns about how it will work.

Will it be used widely enough?

The health star system is voluntary. Manufacturers can choose whether to use the health star system on all their products, on selected products (those with a “better” rating), or not to use it at all.

The two main supermarket chains here have announced they’ll adopt the ratings for their home-brand products. Sanitarium, Nestle and Griffins have also announced they’ll use the health star system. But there’ve been no such announcements from other Kiwi food manufacturers – so it’s possible you won’t be able to compare all the options on a shop’s shelves.

The Australian government has said that if there isn’t widespread uptake of the health star system in five years, it’ll consider making the system mandatory. Our government hasn’t indicated whether it intends to do the same.

Are the stars effective?

Some consumer behaviour experts were surprised when the health star system was given the go ahead without any robust comparative research. Dr Ninya Maubach, from the Department of Marketing at the University of Otago, says this is totally inadequate. She is particularly concerned that no study here or in Australia has tested the final labelling format announced in June.

Dr Maubach recently published a study that compared different ways of identifying nutritional profiles, including a type of health stars label and “traffic lights”. The findings showed most people could recognise healthy products through either the stars or the traffic lights. But the traffic lights were much more likely to help people recognise less healthy choices.

The National Institute for Health Innovation at the University of Auckland is recruiting people to take part in its Starlight study. Starlight will use a smartphone app to find out what effect different types of FOP labelling, including the health star rating, have on food choices.

Will the system be monitored?

To be useful to consumers, any food rating system must be monitored and evaluated. Professor Ni Mhurchu said monitoring should look at whether the system was being taken up for enough products, whether the foods using the star system became healthier over time, and what effect the system had on consumer choice.

The Ministry for Primary Industries said this was on the cards. Although details of the monitoring and evaluation programme were still being developed, it would include an evaluation of consumer recognition, use and understanding of the system as well as how widely adopted by food manufacturers.

The nearest comparison to the health stars is the “guiding stars” shelf label used in supermarkets in the US and Canada. Products get points from positive nutrients and lose them for negative ones, and are rated from 0 to 3 stars. Research recently published in Public Health Nutrition found that sales of less nutritious foods declined after the shelf labels’ introduction; but there was no significant difference in the sale of more nutritious foods.

Will products be easy to compare?

The system isn’t only about health star ratings. Product labels can show other information – and manufacturers are being encouraged to show all of this:

  • a health star rating
  • an energy icon
  • three nutrient icons (one for saturated fat; one for sugars, one for sodium)
  • a fourth nutrient icon (this is a “positive” nutrient chosen by the manufacturer).

However, manufacturers can “pick and mix” what they show.

For example, on small packs (such as some confectionery) manufacturers can use just the energy icon – they don’t have to display the health star rating.

Manufacturers can also vary how a nutrient icon displays its information. On most foods it is to be shown per 100g or 100ml, but if the product’s intended to be consumed as one serving or is sold as a multi-pack it may be shown per pack. A “low” and “high” claim may also be made if the product meets the criteria for nutrient-content claims set out in the Food Standards Code.

We say

  • The health star system must provide useful information to consumers. We’ll be closely monitoring the programme’s implementation.
  • If manufacturers don’t take up the health star system, the government should make it mandatory.

About our survey

We bought 43 snack bars from supermarkets. We calculated the health star rating using the calculator provided by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

We found it’s not always possible to calculate the health star rating from the product’s nutrition information panel and ingredients list. For example, information on the amount of dietary fibre and the percentage of fruit and nuts isn’t required (unless a nutrient claim’s being made for the product or fruit or nuts are the characterising ingredient).

Where information was missing, we contacted the manufacturer to fill in the gaps. This wasn’t always successful. The makers of Bumper Bar, Cadbury, and Mother Earth products declined to provide us with the information we needed. Progressive Enterprises was unable to help us on some of its products because the information wasn’t available from its third-party suppliers.

As well as calculating the number of health stars for a product, we used "traffic light" symbols to show its fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium. 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.

Our “traffic light” criteria are:

Total fat (g/100g): Green ≤3 Orange 3.1-17.5 Red >17.5

Saturated fat (g/100g): Green ≤1.5 Orange 1.6-5.0 Red >5

Sodium (mg/100g): Green ≤120 Orange 121-600 Red >600

Our criteria have been developed by UK health agencies.

Snack bars compared

GUIDE TO THE TABLE PRODUCTS are grouped according to health star ratings (and from lowest to highest energy content within each star). BARS WITHOUT STARS have no health star rating because there was insufficient information available (see “About our survey”). HEALTH STARS were rated using the Ministry for Primary Industries’ calculator. ANestle has advised that this product is being reformulated and will have a three star rating. FAT, SATURATED FAT, SUGARS, SODIUM, FIBRE figures are from label information or provided by manufacturers. FVNL is the percentage of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes (including seeds and coconut) from label information or provided by manufacturers; ns = not stated and not provided by the manufacturer.

Snack bars (with stars)

Product[sort;desc] Health stars[sort;asc] Energy (kJ/serve)[sort;desc] Fat (g/100g) Fat (g/100g)[sort;asc;hidden] Saturated fat (g/100g) Saturated fat (g/100g)[sort;asc;hidden] Sugar (g/100g) Sugar (g/100g)[sort;asc;hidden] Sodium (mg/100g) Sodium (mg/100g)[sort;asc;hidden] Fibre (g/100g)[sort; asc] FVNL (%)[sort; asc]
Quaker Nut Bar Macadamia & Apricot (28g) 4.5 550 Red 26.7 26.7 Orange 3.4 3.4 Orange 12.4 12.4 Green 43 43 8.8 48
Tasti Milkies Choc Strawberry (20g) 4 276 Orange 9.1 9.1 Orange 1.9 1.9 Orange 19.7 19.7 Orange 222 222 11.0 2
Be Natural Trail Bars Nut & Fruit (32g) 4 480 Orange 6.4 6.4 Orange 1.6 1.6 Orange 17.8 17.8 Orange 180 180 13.0 14
Weight Watchers Apple Crumble (40g) 4 508 Green 1.0 1.0 Green 0.3 0.3 Red 27.5 27.5 Orange 127 127 14.7 26
Tasti Fruitsies Apple Vanilla (20g) 3.5 294 Orange 7.0 7.0 Green 1.0 1.0 Red 36.0 36.0 Orange 240 240 12.4 25
Select Fruit Bars Custard & Apple Flavoured (37.5g) 3.5 548 Orange 6.7 6.7 Green 0.7 0.7 Red 29.0 29.0 Orange 190 190 10.0 15
Nice & Natural Homestyle Chewy Muesli Bars with Toasted Almonds (45g) 3.5 723 Red 17.6 17.6 Orange 5.0 5.0 Orange 14.9 14.9 Green 31 31 4.7 19
Freedom Foods Nut Free Muesli Bar (35g) 3 578 Orange 13.1 13.1 Orange 4.6 4.6 Red 30.9 30.9 Green 47 47 6.9 46
Pams Fruit Nut Bars (32g) 3 650 Red 30.5 30.5 Orange 3.5 3.5 Orange 19.7 19.7 Green 35 35 5.8 71
Flemings Snacker Double Choc (22.5g) 2.5 370 Orange 12.3 12.3 Orange 3.7 3.7 Red 28.3 28.3 Orange 207 207 5.3 0
Nestle Milo (27g) 2.5 (A) 450 Orange 9.1 9.1 Orange 4.4 4.4 Red 27.3 27.3 Green 97 97 6.3 0
Flemings Kiwi-Licious Hokey Pokey Flavoured Chewy Muesli Bars (29g) 2.5 476 Orange 11.8 11.8 Red 7.0 7.0 Red 29.2 29.2 Orange 160 160 6.3 0
Flemings Chewy Muesli Apricot Choc Chip (30g) 2.5 500 Orange 14.1 14.1 Red 8.6 8.6 Red 25.3 25.3 Green 95 95 7.2 3
Pams Apricot Muesli Bars (31g) 2.5 500 Orange 10.5 10.5 Red 6.7 6.7 Orange 19.8 19.8 Green 65 65 4.7 6
Homebrand Oven Baked Fruit Bars Apple (37g) 2.5 503 Green 1.5 1.5 Green 0.5 0.5 Red 32.6 32.6 Orange 175 175 2.7 10
Tasti Lots of Delicious Almonds Cranberries & Apricots (30g) 2.5 572 Red 21.7 21.7 Red 5.4 5.4 Red 25.0 25.0 Green 69 69 4.4 40
Tasti Muffin Bakes Choc Fudge (40g) 2.5 603 Orange 10.8 10.8 Orange 3.2 3.2 Red 28.1 28.1 Orange 487 487 8.9 0
Nice & Natural Nut Bar Apricot (32g) 2.5 610 Red 23.0 23.0 Orange 5.0 5.0 Red 31.8 31.8 Green 35 35 4.2 55
Weight Watchers Almond & Apricot (34g) 2.5 632 Red 19.4 19.4 Orange 5.0 5.0 Red 25.1 25.1 Green 91 91 5.2 45
Nature Valley Crunchy Oats & Honey (42g) 2.5 799 Orange 15.5 15.5 Orange 1.7 1.7 Red 27.8 27.8 Orange 350 350 5.0 0
Mother Earth Pingos Raspberry Yoghurt Flavour (17g) 2 259 Orange 7.6 7.6 Orange 4.7 4.7 Red 29.7 29.7 Orange 212 212 1.7 9
Tasti Harvest Bars Apricot (35g) 2 575 Orange 10.5 10.5 Orange 3.7 3.7 Red 38.3 38.3 Orange 316 316 3.4 29
Nice & Natural Chocolate Nut Bar Apricot (30g) 2 580 Red 24.1 24.1 Red 6.2 6.2 Red 33.8 33.8 Green 35 35 4.4 49
Pams Fruity Cereal Bars Tangy Apricot (50g) 2 764 Orange 7.8 7.8 Orange 3.7 3.7 Red 36.1 36.1 Orange 316 316 3.5 25
Tasti Nut Bar Choc Apricot Coconut & Cashew (35g) 2 774 Red 34.3 34.3 Red 10.4 10.4 Orange 21.6 21.6 Green 25 25 5.7 60
Kellogg's Special K Chocolatey Bars Raspberry flavour (21.5g) 1.5 370 Orange 8.1 8.1 Red 6.0 6.0 Red 32.4 32.4 Orange 200 200 2.4 4
Kellogg's LCMs Rice Bubbles Choc Chip (22g) 1.5 380 Orange 11.1 11.1 Red 5.5 5.5 Red 31.4 31.4 Orange 315 315 0.8 0
Kellogg's LCMs Rice Bubbles Kaleidos (22g) 1.5 380 Orange 9.7 9.7 Orange 4.3 4.3 Red 34.5 34.5 Orange 230 230 1.3 0
Naked Macadamia & Apricot Bites (25g) 1.5 507 Red 30.4 30.4 Red 9.2 9.2 Red 28.0 28.0 Green 67 67 3.0 56
Griffin's Choc Chippies Muesli Bar (30g) 1.5 555 Orange 13.9 13.9 Red 7.7 7.7 Red 35.1 35.1 Orange 160 160 2.5 0
Pams Oat Baked Bars Apricot & Chocolate (40g) 1.5 678 Red 19.7 19.7 Red 12.5 12.5 Red 31.9 31.9 Orange 159 159 5.5 32
Tasti Snak Logs Carob Coated Apricot (40g) 1.5 787 Red 24.1 24.1 Red 10.9 10.9 Red 39.9 39.9 Orange 138 138 4.5 21
Tasti Protein Bar Roasted Peanut (40g) 1.5 851 Red 28.6 28.6 Red 6.7 6.7 Orange 20.3 20.3 Orange 461 461 2.6 40
Tasti Mega Nuts Nutty Crunch (40g) 1.5 889 Red 32.0 32.0 Red 11.9 11.9 Red 30.3 30.3 Green 70 70 4.2 39
Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Bar Original (30g) 1 520 Orange 9.3 9.3 Red 7.1 7.1 Red 36.6 36.6 Orange 255 255 1.8 0

Snack bars (without stars)

Product [sort;desc] Energy (kJ/serve)[sort;desc] Fat (g/100g) Fat (g/100g)[sort;asc;hidden] Saturated fat (g/100g) Saturated fat (g/100g)[sort;asc;hidden] Sugar (g/100g) Sugar (g/100g)[sort;asc;hidden] Sodium (mg/100g) Sodium (mg/100g)[sort;asc;hidden] Fibre (g/100g)[sort; asc] FVNL (%)[sort; asc]
Mother Earth Fruit Sticks Apricot (19g) 253 Green 2.8 2.8 Orange 1.6 1.6 Red 38.0 38 Orange 270 270 ns ns
Homebrand Choc Chip Muesli Bars (25g) 420 Orange 12.8 12.8 Red 6.2 6.2 Orange 16.4 16.4 Green 69 69 ns ns
Kellogg's Special K Biscuit Moments Blueberry flavour (25g) 430 Orange 8.9 8.9 Orange 3.4 3.4 Red 27.1 27.1 Orange 290 290 1.9 ns
Cadbury Brunch Mixed Berry Bar (35g) 634 Orange 15.4 15.4 Red 8.4 8.4 Red 34.8 34.8 Orange 189 189 ns ns
Mother Earth Baked Oaty Slices Apricot Chocolate (40g) 668 Red 18.6 18.6 Red 11.6 11.6 Red 31.2 31.2 Orange 210 210 7.9 ns
Signature Range Fruit Cereal Bars Apricot (50g) 789 Orange 8.9 8.9 Orange 4.1 4.1 Red 32.3 32.3 Orange 331 331 ns 24
Select Nut Bar Macadamia & Cranberry (40g) 844 Red 30.2 30.2 Orange 4.5 4.5 Red 23.8 23.8 Green 12 12 8 ns
Bumper Bar Apricot Chocolate (75g) 1420 Red 23.9 23.9 Red 16.4 16.4 Red 27.4 27.4 Green 104 104 8 ns
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