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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)4.5550Red 26.726.7Orange 3.43.4Orange 12.412.4Green 43438.848
Tasti Milkies Choc Strawberry (20g)4276Orange 9.19.1Orange 1.91.9Orange 19.719.7Orange 22222211.02
Be Natural Trail Bars Nut & Fruit (32g)4480Orange 6.46.4Orange 1.61.6Orange 17.817.8Orange 18018013.014
Weight Watchers Apple Crumble (40g)4508Green 1.01.0Green 0.30.3Red 27.527.5Orange 12712714.726
Tasti Fruitsies Apple Vanilla (20g)3.5294Orange 7.07.0Green 1.01.0Red 36.036.0Orange 24024012.425
Select Fruit Bars Custard & Apple Flavoured (37.5g)3.5548Orange 6.76.7Green 0.70.7Red 29.029.0Orange 19019010.015
Nice & Natural Homestyle Chewy Muesli Bars with Toasted Almonds (45g)3.5723Red 17.617.6Orange 5.05.0Orange 14.914.9Green 31314.719
Freedom Foods Nut Free Muesli Bar (35g)3578Orange 13.113.1Orange 4.64.6Red 30.930.9Green 47476.946
Pams Fruit Nut Bars (32g)3650Red 30.530.5Orange 3.53.5Orange 19.719.7Green 35355.871
Flemings Snacker Double Choc (22.5g)2.5370Orange 12.312.3Orange 3.73.7Red 28.328.3Orange 2072075.30
Nestle Milo (27g)2.5 (A)450Orange 9.19.1Orange 4.44.4Red 27.327.3Green 97976.30
Flemings Kiwi-Licious Hokey Pokey Flavoured Chewy Muesli Bars (29g)2.5476Orange 11.811.8Red 7.07.0Red 29.229.2Orange 1601606.30
Flemings Chewy Muesli Apricot Choc Chip (30g)2.5500Orange 14.114.1Red 8.68.6Red 25.325.3Green 95957.23
Pams Apricot Muesli Bars (31g)2.5500Orange 10.510.5Red 6.76.7Orange 19.819.8Green 65654.76
Homebrand Oven Baked Fruit Bars Apple (37g)2.5503Green 1.51.5Green 0.50.5Red 32.632.6Orange 1751752.710
Tasti Lots of Delicious Almonds Cranberries & Apricots (30g)2.5572Red 21.721.7Red 5.45.4Red 25.025.0Green 69694.440
Tasti Muffin Bakes Choc Fudge (40g)2.5603Orange 10.810.8Orange 3.23.2Red 28.128.1Orange 4874878.90
Nice & Natural Nut Bar Apricot (32g)2.5610Red 23.023.0Orange 5.05.0Red 31.831.8Green 35354.255
Weight Watchers Almond & Apricot (34g)2.5632Red 19.419.4Orange 5.05.0Red 25.125.1Green 91915.245
Nature Valley Crunchy Oats & Honey (42g)2.5799Orange 15.515.5Orange 1.71.7Red 27.827.8Orange 3503505.00
Mother Earth Pingos Raspberry Yoghurt Flavour (17g)2259Orange 7.67.6Orange 4.74.7Red 29.729.7Orange 2122121.79
Tasti Harvest Bars Apricot (35g)2575Orange 10.510.5Orange 3.73.7Red 38.338.3Orange 3163163.429
Nice & Natural Chocolate Nut Bar Apricot (30g)2580Red 24.124.1Red 6.26.2Red 33.833.8Green 35354.449
Pams Fruity Cereal Bars Tangy Apricot (50g)2764Orange 7.87.8Orange 3.73.7Red 36.136.1Orange 3163163.525
Tasti Nut Bar Choc Apricot Coconut & Cashew (35g)2774Red 34.334.3Red 10.410.4Orange 21.621.6Green 25255.760
Kellogg's Special K Chocolatey Bars Raspberry flavour (21.5g)1.5370Orange 8.18.1Red 6.06.0Red 32.432.4Orange 2002002.44
Kellogg's LCMs Rice Bubbles Choc Chip (22g)1.5380Orange 11.111.1Red 5.55.5Red 31.431.4Orange 3153150.80
Kellogg's LCMs Rice Bubbles Kaleidos (22g)1.5380Orange 9.79.7Orange 4.34.3Red 34.534.5Orange 2302301.30
Naked Macadamia & Apricot Bites (25g)1.5507Red 30.430.4Red 9.29.2Red 28.028.0Green 67673.056
Griffin's Choc Chippies Muesli Bar (30g)1.5555Orange 13.913.9Red 7.77.7Red 35.135.1Orange 1601602.50
Pams Oat Baked Bars Apricot & Chocolate (40g)1.5678Red 19.719.7Red 12.512.5Red 31.931.9Orange 1591595.532
Tasti Snak Logs Carob Coated Apricot (40g)1.5787Red 24.124.1Red 10.910.9Red 39.939.9Orange 1381384.521
Tasti Protein Bar Roasted Peanut (40g)1.5851Red 28.628.6Red 6.76.7Orange 20.320.3Orange 4614612.640
Tasti Mega Nuts Nutty Crunch (40g)1.5889Red 32.032.0Red 11.911.9Red 30.330.3Green 70704.239
Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Bar Original (30g)1520Orange 9.39.3Red 7.17.1Red 36.636.6Orange 2552551.80

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)253Green 2.82.8Orange 1.61.6Red 38.038Orange 270270nsns
Homebrand Choc Chip Muesli Bars (25g)420Orange 12.812.8Red 6.26.2Orange 16.416.4Green 6969nsns
Kellogg's Special K Biscuit Moments Blueberry flavour (25g)430Orange 8.98.9Orange 3.43.4Red 27.127.1Orange 2902901.9ns
Cadbury Brunch Mixed Berry Bar (35g)634Orange 15.415.4Red 8.48.4Red 34.834.8Orange 189189nsns
Mother Earth Baked Oaty Slices Apricot Chocolate (40g)668Red 18.618.6Red 11.611.6Red 31.231.2Orange 2102107.9ns
Signature Range Fruit Cereal Bars Apricot (50g)789Orange 8.98.9Orange 4.14.1Red 32.332.3Orange 331331ns24
Select Nut Bar Macadamia & Cranberry (40g)844Red 30.230.2Orange 4.54.5Red 23.823.8Green 12128ns
Bumper Bar Apricot Chocolate (75g)1420Red 23.923.9Red 16.416.4Red 27.427.4Green 1041048ns
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