Traps of High Sugar and Energy Content in Energy Bars and Snack Bars Even High Protein and Fibre Has to Consume Wisely

14 May 2020
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小心能量棒及小食棒的高糖、高脂陷阱  高蛋白质、高纤也要吃得时宜

Snack bars and energy bars mainly contain ingredients such as grains, nuts, dried fruits, protein or plant protein. They have always been perceived as healthy food and are popular among sports enthusiasts and parents when preparing snack for their children. However, a market survey conducted by the Consumer Council on nutrition labels of 38 models of energy bars and snack bars available in the market revealed that both products are similar in their appearances and nutrient content, with over 90% of models were “high sugar” and over 30% were “high fats”. Nearly 45% were found to be “high protein” and 40% “high fibre”. In fact, there is no clear definition of “energy bars” and “snack bars”, consumers could differentiate them merely by the product labels or judge by their respective promotion tactics, but these could be confusing or even misleading. The Council stressed that consumers should stay guarded against the high sugar and fat content of these types of food, to avoid excessive consumption. As for models that are found to be high in protein or fibre, consumers should still take heed to how to consume them during exercise to avoid affecting their sports performance. 

The energy value of snack bars and energy bars should not be under-estimated. It was revealed in the survey that the energy level found in each piece of 70% models was higher than the “Nutritional Guidelines on Snacks for Students” (“Guidelines”) of the Department of Health (“DOH”), which indicated that the energy level should not exceed 125kcal per snack serving. People consuming them as energy supplement are advised to be mindful of their exercise intensity and the intake amount to avoid excessive energy intake, which may result in gaining weight instead of staying fit.

The survey reviewed the nutrition content of 12 models of energy bars and 26 models of snack bars, including energy, protein, total fat, sugars and dietary fibre. Vast disparity was found among the models and consumers are advised to compare the products carefully. The declared energy value and net weight of energy bars models were generally higher than that of snack bars, with each piece priced at around $20 to $36.9, and weighted at 32 to 70g; whilst each piece of snack bar priced at around $4 to $35, weighted at 19 to 52g.

Sugars

            Among all the 38 models, except 1 energy bar model labelled 0g for its sugar content, all models had a range of sugar content of 11.3 to 53g per 100g. Of which over 90% (35 models) reached the reference level of “high sugar” food (more than 15g of sugars per 100g) of the Centre for Food Safety. The model with the highest sugar content (53g per 100g) even exceeded the reference level by 2.5 times.

In reviewing the ingredient list, 33 models were found to have sugars added. Consumers are advised to read the nutrition labels carefully to avoid excessive sugar intake, which may cause health problems in the long run. In the 5 models without added sugars, except the model labelled 0g for its sugar content, it was believed the sugar content in the rest models were mainly came from fructose in dried fruits. Fruits contain natural sugars, but fructose become more concentrated when fruits are dried. As dried fruits are less filling than fresh fruits, it may cause excessive sugar intake inadvertently if large quantity of dried fruits is contained in snack bars. Consumers are thus advised to take heed of the serving size.

Energy

Energy bars are generally claimed best to be consumed before, during or after exercise for supplementing body energy. The energy level of 38 models was in a range from 64 to 290kcal per piece. It would take an adult weighted 55kg to walk 1 to 4.5km (about 20 to 90 mins) or run 1.1 to 5km (about 8 to 38 mins) to burn the energy ingested from consuming 1 piece of energy bar or snack bar. Therefore, consumers should assess their exercise intensity before demanding for such energy supplement.

The findings revealed that 28 models were found to contain energy value of over 125kcal. The model with the highest energy content (290kcal) was 2.3 times of the DOH’s Guidelines. Consuming 1 piece of this model is equivalent to energy intake of consuming 2 slices of sandwich white bread or over 2.5 pieces of bananas in moderate size. Parents should take note that the appetite for the next main meal may be affected if school kids consume these energy bars and snack bars between meals.

Fat

            The total fat detected from 38 models ranged from 4.1 to 42.5g per 100g. Of which over 30% (12 models) were found to have total fat content exceeded the reference level of “high fat” food (more than 20g of fat per 100g) of the Centre for Food Safety. Because food that are high in fat are not easy to digest, eating them before exercise may affect performance.

            In reviewing the ingredient list, 31 models were found to have added fat or oil labelled. It was believed that the remaining 7 models without added fat or oil labelled, their fat content came mainly from nuts and seeds. Although the unsaturated fat found in nuts and seeds is good for the heart, consumers may gain weight if eating too much of these high energy foods, thus have to be careful. It is advised to note on the serving size and should reduce fat intake from other diets.

Dietary Fibre

            Most of the models (33 models) provided information of dietary fibre on their nutrition labels, of which 16 models met the definition of “high in fibre” (not less than 6g of fibre per 100g of solid food) as indicated in the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations. The model with the highest fibre content was the energy bar model labelled with added dietary fibre. While dietary fibre is good for our body, it also slows down sugar absorption. It may cause abdominal pain if excessive intake occurs and may affect the performance if taken before and during exercise.

            If calculated per piece, consuming 1 piece of model that contains 7g of dietary fibre, the dietary fibre intake is equivalent to 28% of daily intake that an adult would require. However, the sugar content of this model was the third highest among all models. Consumers pursuing food high in fibre should also balance the content of other ingredients. Otherwise, it may not meet the expected slimming effect.

Protein

            Among the 38 models, the protein content of 17 models met the definition of “high protein” (protein content per 100g of solid food not less than 20% of the Chinese Nutrient Reference Values (NRV), or proteins content per 100kcal of food not less than 10% of the Chinese NRV) as indicated by the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations, of which 7 models labelled the wording “Protein” on their product packaging. For the 2 models with the highest content, consuming 1 entire bar (20g of proteins) is equivalent to consuming the protein contained in more than 3 eggs. The protein contained in energy bars and snack bars are mostly come from milk and soy protein. It should be noted that food high in protein are more difficult to digest and are not recommended for consumption before exercise.

            In this survey, it was found that only 1 model labelled as “low sodium” (not more than 120mg of sodium per 100g of food) among all the models. However, that model was classified as “high sugar” food, it is not advised to eat too much despite of its low sodium content.

            When purchase and consume energy bars and snack bars, consumers should note the following in addition to read through the nutrition labels:

  • The sugars and energy contained in energy bars are generally high, yet the sugars and fat contained in snack bars should also not to be under-estimated. Consider the time for consumption and purpose as well as exercise intensity to choose a suitable food product;
  • When considering snack bars mainly made of dried fruits, it is advised to choose those without added sugars. When choosing snack bars mainly made of nuts, it is advised to choose those without added fat or oil;
  • It is not advised to consume snack bar with energy value higher than 125kcal per piece as snack between meals, as it will affect the appetite for the next main meal, and help avoiding excessive energy intake.

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