Food and diet

Cereal bars don't deserve 'healthy image'

What is the issue?

Recent research by the consumer group Which? has found that most cereal bars are high in sugar and fat, making their healthy image a "myth", according to the BBC and The Independent. This story has been covered by a number of other newspapers, including the Sun, which calls the snack bars "cereal offenders", as well as the Daily Mail and the Mirror.

The BBC and Daily Mail told their readers that one of the 30 cereal bars analysed, Nutri-Grain Elevenses, contained nearly four teaspoons of sugar – 20% of an adult’s recommended daily allowance, and more than the amount found in a 150ml can of cola.

In the news coverage the results of the survey were accurately reported. 

What did Which? do?

Which? examined the nutritional content of 30 different cereal bars “from best selling brands”. The researchers say they looked at bars on supermarket shelves and chose 30 bars, bakes and biscuits, focusing on fruit and nut varieties and those that “appeared most healthy, avoiding ones that contained chocolate and yoghurt if possible”.

The researchers then analysed each cereal bar for how much it contained of the following: 

  • calories
  • sugar
  • fat
  • saturated fat
  • salt

What did Which? find?

The research found that 29 of the 30 bars were high in sugar (over 15g of total sugars per 100g, or 15% sugar) and 16 bars contained more than 30% sugar. Some of this sugar was from fruit; however, 29 of the bars had added sugar. The Naked Apple Pie bar was the only one not to have added sugars, and was the only one not to be high in sugar. The Nutri-Grain Elevenses bar had the most sugar. It contained 18g of sugar, equivalent to 20% of the guideline recommended daily allowance for an adult in one bar.

The survey also found that often several different forms of sugar were used. Which? said this could confuse consumers because, by law, manufacturers must list all the ingredients on their food labels in order of quantity, with the greatest first. When several different forms of sugar are used in a product, each of these sugars is listed separately and appears lower down on the ingredients list. In the case of some of the cereal bars, this gives the impression that the bars contain less sugar than they do – the amount of sugar, if it was given as a total, would have had to appear higher on the list.

Some of the different kinds of sugar found in the cereal bars were glucose syrup, honey, golden syrup, raw cane syrup, inverted sugar syrup, molasses, glucose-fructose syrup, barley malt syrup, dried glucose syrup, partially inverted sugar syrup, fructose, lactose, prebiotic oligofructose syrup, grape juice concentrate, oligofructose syrup, dextrose and sugar. A cereal bar that contains, for example, honey, glucose syrup and fructose would have these three ingredients listed separately on its list of ingredients, even though they are all sugar.

The survey also found that 11 of the bars had at least the same number of calories as several digestive biscuits. In addition, 10 bars were high in saturated fat (more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g). One bar, the Wholebake 9Bar, contained 277 calories.

The Which? report did not comment on the amount of salt in the cereal bars. The analysis results show that the highest salt content (0.3g per bar) was found in three bars – All-Bran Breakfast Biscuit, Nature Valley Crunchy and More Oats and Berries, and Nutri Grain Soft and Fruity Apple. A number of cereal bars had the amount of salt listed as a 'trace', and the rest had between 0.1 and 0.28g.

Several of the tested bars were marketed at children. One bar carried the line "great for your lunch box" on the packaging. The survey found all the bars marketed at children to be high in sugar, with the highest amount of sugar listed as 11.8g in a single bar (Monster Puffs Cereal and Milk Chocolate).

Which? also found that the Kellogg’s bars had listed on their packaging guideline daily allowances for adults, rather than children. Which? said they had raised this issue with Kellogg’s.

Which bars were the most/least healthy?

Of the bars examined, the least healthy bar was the Tracker Roasted Nut bar, which was found to be high in sugar, fat and saturated fat. The main ingredient of this bar was sugar and it was 30% fat. The researchers acknowledge that a proportion of the fat content came from peanuts and hazelnuts, but point out that it also contained "harmful hydrogenated fats".

The bar highest in calories was found to be the Wholebake 9Bar, which contained 277 calories. It also contained 20g of fat and 13g of sugar.

The healthiest bar was the Alpen Light Apple and Sultana – the only bar to have a "green light" for being low in fat, saturated fat and salt. It contained 0.7g of fat, 0.3g of saturated fat and 8.3g of sugar, and it also had the lowest calorie count, at 63.

The Alpen Fruit and Nut bar, the Naked Apple Pie and the Nature Valley Chewy Trail Mix Fruit and Nut also made it into Which?’s "healthiest" category.

The healthiest children’s bar was Weetabix Oaty Strawberry Crusher, with 1.4g of fat, 0.6g of saturated fat and 79 calories, but it was still considered to be high in sugar, with 4.6g.

The unhealthiest children’s bar was the Monster Puffs Cereal and Milk Chocolate bar, which was high in sugar (11.8g) and high in saturated fat (1.9g). It contained 210 calories and 4.1g of fat. 

What does Which? want?

Which? wants to see clearer labelling on cereal bars. The researchers call for changes to make healthy choices easier for consumers, including:

  • clear, traffic light colour coding on the front of packs
  • accurate claims about nutritional content to be used regarding food products, so that they are marketed accurately
  • tighter controls over marketing to children, for example not allowing cartoon characters to be used to promote foods that are high in sugar

Bottom line

This research has found that many cereal bars have high levels of sugar and fat, and that their health image is a "myth". Consumers may be led to believe that a cereal bar is a healthier option than, for example, chocolate biscuits or chocolate bars, but this is not always the case. Consumers need to be aware that there are different types of sugar, and should examine ingredients lists and nutritional content carefully to make sure they understand what the cereal bar contains. As with many foods, cereal bars can still be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet.

NHS Attribution