Cereal bars: health food or sweets?

Packs of cereal barsCereal bars are often seen as a healthier alternative to biscuits or chocolate, or even as a quick replacement for breakfast. So what’s in them really? DiabetesChoices surveyed 31 brands to help you make a choice when you fancy something sweet and chewy, but without too many calories, sugar or fat.

Which brands were surveyed?

Alpen Fruit & Nut bar; Alpen Light apple & sultana bar; ASDA Fruit & Grain mixed berry cereal bar; ASDA Vitality Apple & Raspberry cereal bar; Carman’s Classic fruit muesli bar; Dorset Cereals blackcurrant, cherry and raspberry bar; Doves Farm low-fat fruit oat cereal bar; Eat Natural toasted muesli bar; Fruitus moist organic apricot & oat bar;  GeoBar apricot chewy cereal bar; Jordans Breakfast multigrain bar; Kellogg’s Fibre Plus dark chocolate and almond cereal bar; Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain; Kellogg’s Special K red berry cereal bar; Marks & Spencer almond, apricot and mango cereal bar; Marks & Spencer red berries cereal bar; Marks & Spencer Simply More… multiflake bar; Morrisons eat smart apple breakfast cereal bar; Morrisons trim bar with cranberries; Morrisons Value fruit cereal bar; Natural Energy power bar; Nature Valley crunchy granola bar; Quaker Oats Oat Bar golden syrup flavour; Sainsbury’s basics choc chip and raisin cereal bar; Sainsbury’s red berry balance cereal bar; Soreen Go! cereal bar; Tesco Fruit & Fibre cereal bar; Tesco Light Choices cranberry and blackcurrant cereal bar; Tracker roasted nut bar; Waitrose essential apricot cereal bar; Weetabix Oaty Bars strawberry crusher.

What did we learn?

• All but one of the cereal bars in this survey count as a ‘high sugar’ food, with 15% or more of their calories coming from sugar. The only exception, Carman’s classic fruit muesli bars, has 14.5% sugar. Most are between 25% and 30% sugar, and the brand with the highest percentage, Doves Farm low-fat fruity oat cereal bar, has 42.5% sugar.

• The actual amount of sugar in an individual bar ranges from 4.6g to 16.9g, partly because of the size of the bar; the smallest in the survey are 21g and the biggest, 45g.

• Calorie count per bar varies widely too, from only 62 calories to 220 calories – again, partly dependent on the size of the bar.

• Only one bar surveyed (Marks & Spencer almond, apricot and mango) could be described as a ‘high fat’ food, with more than 20% of its calories from fat. Total fat content per bar ranges from just 0.2g to 12.1g.

• Prices in our survey range from just under 11p per bar to an astonishing £1.85.

• You might expect a cereal bar to contain fibre, but in many the amount is very low: content ranges from only 0.5g per bar to 5.5g per bar (around 25% of your daily requirement).

• Cereal bars typically contain a mixture of cereals, and this nearly always includes some form of wheat, which makes them unsuitable for people with gluten intolerance.

What’s the verdict?

With so many variables, it is hard to compare brands to find an overall healthiest choice. And ‘healthiest’ is a relative term; if you think of cereal bars as confectionery, like sweets or chocolate, it helps put them in their rightful place in your diet. That said, looking at sugar, fat, calories, fibre, price – and taste, which is obviously subjective – here are:

DiabetesChoices all-round best buys

Tesco Light Choices cranberry & blackcurrant cereal bar (25g bar)

ASDA Vitality apple & raspberry cereal bar (22g bar)

Weetabix Oaty Bars strawberry crusher (23g bar)

Highs and lows:

Smallest bar: Alpen Light apple & sultana, 21g; Morrisons trim bars with cranberries, 21g; ASDA Vitality apple & raspberry cereal bars, 22g

Largest bar: Eat Natural toasted muesli bar, 45g; Carman’s classic fruit muesli bars, 45g; Marks & Spencer almond, apricot and mango cereal bar, 45g

Lowest price: Morrisons Value fruit cereal bars, 10.8p (65p for 6); Tesco Fruit & Fibre cereal bars, 13.6p (82p for 6) Sainsbury’s Basics choc chip & raisin cereal bars /Tesco Light Choices cranberry & blackcurrant 14.8p (89p for 6)

Highest price: Nestlé Natural Energy Power Bar, £1.85; Marks & Spencer almond, apricot and mango cereal bar, 89p; Eat Natural toasted muesli bar, 68p

Fewest calories per bar: Alpen Light apple & sultana, 62kcals; ASDA Vitality apple & raspberry cereal bar, 74 kcals; Tesco Light Choices cranberry & blackcurrant cereal bar, 75 kcals

Most calories per bar: Marks & Spencer almond, apricot and mango cereal bar, 220 kcals; Eat Natural toasted muesli bar, 198 kcals; Carman’s classic fruit muesli bars, 190 kcals

Least fibre per bar: Kellogg’s Special K Red Berry cereal bar, 0.5g; Morrisons trim bars with cranberries, 0.5g; Morrisons Value fruit cereal bars, 0.6g

Most fibre per bar: Tesco Light Choices cranberry & blackcurrant, 5.5g; Weetabix Oaty Bars strawberry crusher, 5.1g; Kellogg’s Fibre Plus dark chocolate and almond bars, 5g

Least sugar per bar: Weetabix Oaty Bars strawberry crusher, 4.6g; ASDA Vitality apple & raspberry cereal bars, 4.8g; Kellogg’s Fibre Plus dark chocolate and almond bars, 5g; Tesco Fruit & Fibre cereal bars, 5g; Tesco Light Choices cranberry and blackcurrant bars, 5g

Most sugar per bar: Doves Farm Organic low fat cereal bar, 16.9g; Eat Natural toasted muesli bar, 15.9g; Marks & Spencer almond, apricot and mango cereal bar, 15.7g

Least fat per bar: Waitrose essential apricot cereal bar, 0.5g; ASDA Vitality apple & raspberry cereal bar, 0.6g; Tesco Light Choices cranberry & blackcurrant bars, 0.7g

Most fat per bar: Marks & Spencer almond, apricot and mango cereal bar, 12.1g (of which sat fat 7.5g); Eat Natural toasted muesli bar 8.3g, of which sat fat 3.2g; Carman’s classic fruit muesli bar, 7.5g, of which sat fat 0.9g

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