12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.8: Time to Raise the Bar

Thanks to their name, Muesli Bars have benefitted from the same health halo as breakfast cereal. We saw what a rort these have become a few days ago, with many being high in sugar, saturated fat and/ or salt. No surprise, the same has happened to muesli bars, which is now a staple of the kid’s lunch box.

Consumer Magazine reviewed almost 90 different types of muesli bars against a set of nutritional criteria. The criteria were to be low in energy (portion size), total fat, saturated fat and sugar while also being high in fibre. A mere five muesli bars ticked all the nutritional boxes. Unfortunately these tended to be smaller bars so would be less filling. Two thirds only met two or fewer criteria (usually for energy and fibre). The nutrition criteria were far from exacting, and can be viewed at the end of the article.

As for breakfast cereals Kelloggs are among the worst offenders, with their Nutrigrain and Special K muesli bars high in both sugar and saturated fat. Like the cereals, these are marketed to us as healthy, a complete fabrication that can only be prohibited by decent food labelling such as a red traffic light to warn people away. Closer to home we have the Tasti brand, which has many varieties that also max out over the sugar and saturated fat limits (and are also worryingly high in salt). The irony here is that Tasti is major donator to the Kids Can food in schools programme. While some food has to be better than none, you have to wonder whether we could do better. This is the risk with providing food in schools – and it is the trap that some UK and US schools have fallen into – that trying to provide food on the cheap leads to feeding the kids heavily processed junk.

The worst muesli bars we found for sugar and saturated fat were those made by Griffins and Cadbury – they would probably argue that their products are clearly a treat. More surprising were the high levels of sugar and saturated fat in brands that marketed to us as ‘natural’. Many varieties of Mother Earth, Nature Valley and Nice & Natural muesli bars maxed out on the total fat, sugar and saturated fat limits.

Of course the crowning glory of the muesli bar hype is the One Square Meal. These are touted as the “Ultimate Food” and are a “completely balanced meal… providing a third of the key nutrients and energy the nutrition experts tell us we need daily. Of course we all know that fake food can’t replace the real thing, and the small print confirms this “ONE SQUARE MEAL is a formulated meal replacement – not to be used as a total diet replacement. It is important to maintain a varied diet”. Still, we thought we would put the marketing to the test, so we tried living on One Square Meal bars for a day (6 bars equal 3 “square meals”). After all, this is apparently the closest fake food gets to the real thing.

We fall for the claims of these fake foods because they are convenient. Just take a look at all the products that sit around kiosks in supermarkets, dairies and petrol stations, tempting people into impulse buys. Snacks like muesli bars have quietly crept into the Western way of life in the past twenty years, but they now add the equivalent of an extra (square) meal to our energy intake each day.[i] Remember that our animal brain is pursuing the dopamine reward afforded by sugar, salt and fat. This part of our brain works far faster than our rational brain, and is particularly powerful when our rational brain is distracted or stressed – hence our susceptibility to impulse buys. Thanks to sugar and salt these snacks can safely sit in the kiosks for months waiting for us to have a single weak moment when we are feeling a little peckish, tired or sad. Poor old vegetables just can’t compete.

The trick to avoid this is to prepare healthy snacks so you aren’t tempted by convenient food! Fruit or veggie sticks and small handful of nuts (not roasted and salted) are a far better option and will keep your kid fuller for longer.

Here are Consumer NZ’s nutrition criteria for muesli bars:

  • less than 600 kilojoules of energy per bar (about 7% of your daily intake, more for kids)
  • less than 10g per 100g total fat (and no more than 5g per bar)
  • less than 5g per 100g saturated fat (and no more than 2g per bar)
  • less than 15g per 100g sugar (or less than 25g per 100g if some of the sugar came from fruit)
  • 1.5g or more of dietary fibre per bar.

[i] Duffey KJ, Popkin BM (2011) Energy Density, Portion Size, and Eating Occasions: Contributions to Increased Energy Intake in the United States, 1977–2006. PLoS Med 8(6): e1001050.


This blog is part of a series – “The twelve fake foods of Christmas”

We don’t want to get all bah humbug about your Christmas celebrations, after all this is the one time of year you should be able to let your hair down a bit and not feel guilty about it. But it is a good time to highlight some of the fake foods that can cause some damage if we get into the habit of eating them. We’ve particularly targeted the foods that are marketed to us as “healthy” in an effort to get us to eat them every day, when in fact they are complete junk and should be confined solely to the annual Christmas binge. 

Other posts:
12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.1: Cereal Killers

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.2: Low Carb Beer Belly

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.3: Chip on Your Shoulder

 12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.4: Gettin’ Saucey

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.5: Just Juice?

 12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.6: Nothing to make this a Happy Meal

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.7: When is Fruit no Longer Fruit?

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