Guilt-free or guilt-laden? Healthy snacks may not be so good
Is a protein bar any better than a chocolate bar? And are you actually even hungry?
“If you’re hungry and you want to get something quick I think it’s great that there are other options there and you’re not only limited to crisps and things.”
It’s almost impossible to remember a time when protein bars and healthy convenience foods didn’t swamp the shelves of every shop. From kale crisps to protein bars in every flavour, the health snacks industry has exploded in recent years.
Our appetite for snacking has grown in size and importance as the market meets the demands of our increasingly on-the-go lifestyles. The industry is now worth an impressive €2.45 billion and growing at a pretty healthy rate of 2.3 per cent year on year, according to the number crunchers at Bord Bia.
These attractively packaged products, praised and promoted by the #fitfam on Instagram and Snapchat, call out to us at every turn these days. They promise to fill us with vitamins and protein and keep us safe from the sugar-laden treats we really desire.
As the market and the science behind the products develops, these “healthy” treats are coming increasingly closer to matching traditional treats in the taste stakes. But is there any great reward to be reaped from dropping that Mars bar at the till when we spy a protein-packed alternative giving us the filthies out of the corner of our eye?
Sarah Keogh, a dietitian with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, says we’d be making the right decision and welcomes the greater choice in healthier, convenient snacks.
“You might go into a petrol station now and where there was just, say, chocolate and crisps, there’s now chocolate and crisps and nuts and seeds and protein bars, a whole range of things,” she says.
“I think people are more conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies and there is a certainly a drive for people to think, ‘Well if I am having a snack, if I get the traditional bar of chocolate I’m just getting a whole lot of sugar, a whole lot of fat and maybe not a lot of anything else, whereas if I choose something like a packet of nuts or I’m getting a protein bar, there’s vitamins and minerals in there’.
“Sometimes you can eat something that might just have calories but it’s not giving you any vitamins and minerals. What I like to see is that now you can go into a lot of places for a snack and pick up a snack that’s actually going to nourish your body.”
Sharon Madigan is the head of Performance Nutrition with the Irish Institute of Sport and she warns that the hype around such healthy treats should be taken with a pinch of salt. “Using a word or a phrase or terminology such as ‘protein’ before something, people seem to lose the run of themselves. The question is, in the first place, do they need it?
“‘Healthy’ and ‘treat’ are very juxtapositioned. You’re trying to justify a treat when the key thing is why are they doing it? Is it because they want something to eat? Is it because they need it or do they just see it as a healthier option rather than having a chocolate bar?’
“If somebody is overweight, let’s say, and they’re eating these crisps or bars or balls or whatever and they actually don’t need the overall calories then it’s not really healthy. The same problem still exists. If you eat a protein bar and it’ll give you 150 calories then that’s still an extra 150 calories that you may not need, irrespective of whether it’s from protein or carbohydrate or fat.”
Although they can be a convenient means of consuming extra protein or nutrients for those who need it, Madigan says we need to be wary of labels and packaging.
“Sometimes though the difficulty is that that word ‘protein’ covers over a multitude of other cracks that might be there. There are sugars in there that are termed ‘natural sugars’, which is another word that covers over a multitude of cracks,” she warns.
“It’s irrelevant if it’s natural – it still goes through the same process and it’s still going to be a sugar at the end point. We would see people struggle with their guts because they’ve eaten quite a lot of these bars or alternatives and that’s because of some of the sugar alcohols or polyols that are added into them so they can say that there’s no added sugar or that they’re sugar free.”
She says there are other, more natural healthy alternatives available and encourages making your own snacks. “I would rather spend my money on some really nice fruit salad and add something to that – some nice Greek yoghurt, nuts. That would be what healthy should look like to me,” she explains.
“If things aren’t processed and packaged to within an inch of their lives, that tends to be much healthier for you. If you make a banana bread or some cake yourself, you know what’s in it and it’s actually not that bad. I would see that as a treat as well and for me that would be the route I would prefer to go to.”
Keogh, however, points out that not everyone is so organised: “For a lot of people, snacks are a grab-and-go situation. Some people are great at planning ahead and having things with them, but they’re about convenience for a lot of people.”
Go straight for it
Both Keogh and Madigan tell us what we really want to hear – that if a chocolate bar is what you’re going to end up eating anyway, you may as well go straight for it.
“If you’re choosing something for a snack, you need to look at whether you’re actually hungry and what do you want from it. If what you really want is chocolate then you’re going to have chocolate, but if you’re hungry and you want to get something quick I think it’s great that there are other options there and you’re not only limited to crisps and things,” Keogh says.
“If you’re watching your weight, certainly check the calories on what you’re eating. Between protein bars and standard chocolate bars there often isn’t a huge difference in calories but there is a big difference in nutrition.”
Madigan thinks there is a certain level of stigma attached to eating regular crisps and chocolate nowadays – and we have to agree we’re reluctant to snap that sneaky Kinder Bueno we had after lunch for our social media accounts.
“I’m not sure if protein is just hip and trendy at the minute, one of these nutrients that can do no wrong. I think there’s an element of it being fashionable at the minute. There’s almost a stigma associated with anybody that might be seen to be eating a chocolate bar in public,” she says.
“That’s stigmatised at the moment – it’s not in or hip or trendy enough to be doing that. There almost is a social media push on that, in my opinion. There’s a clean eating brigade out there that would stick within that.
“I think denial and guilt are really not a good place to go in terms of food because people then tend to go back and eat what they wanted initially, as well as eating the other thing first. I think people will continue to eat these foods into the future, but maybe just behind closed doors.”
Keogh agrees that the internet has played a significant part in the area of nutrition in recent years – something that’s been both positive and negative.
Although protein bars aren’t as easy on our financial budget as regular treats, costing at least double the price of a standard chocolate bar, Keogh says they do represent value for money. “When you look at what goes into creating them to try to get the taste and the flavour and for the nutrition that you get. They can be different price wise in comparison to other snacks but I think if you’re looking at the nutrition you’re getting then they can justify the price,” she explains.
Healthy snacking: Fitness forever or fitness fad... we asked Twitter for its view
Most have too much sugar. I’m a veggie and they’re just a fad I think and they’re expensive - Kelly Fogarty
You can just never have 100% trust in them - Garry Elliott
A lot of them are less healthy than regular snacks - Claire Nolan
A marketing ploy aimed at a health conscious audience with no proven benefits. Angela Holohan
Crazy expensive fad....and not too healthy for you either - Sinead Hennessy
Full of sugar and fat, making us more rounder than we should be - Mary Morgan
If you stir coconut oil into your kale, it makes it easier to scrape into the trash - Chris Kelly
Expensive fad.... till the next batch of nutritional research is revealed - Niamh Uí Ghráda
No thank you very much - Aoife Somers
It’s a trend. Protein bars are chocolate bars with added protein. Those serious about healthy eating don’t eat them - Kara Stokes
Making big promises...
It is not just in the snack aisles that food makes bold claims and barely a day goes buy with a new product appearing on our shelves that promises to make us fitter, stronger and more productive without use having to do any work. Some are good. Some are ridiculous. Here a random selection of our favourites.
Coconut oil : Advocates claim this is a magic potion that will help you reduce your cholesterol, and your weight, while boosting your immunity. However scientific prove to back up many of the claims is pretty thin on the ground. We do now that coconut oil is very high in saturated fats and, while Pricewatch is no expert, we do now that such fats are probably best consumed in moderation.
Vitamin water: How are earth did we ever survive without vitamins added to our water? Such products are two a penny nowadays – only they cost a whole lot more than a penny. We reckon you be better off drinking plain old water and eating foods which give you the vitamins you need. It would be cheaper and more sustainable in the long run.
Almond milk: This is often marketed as being a more wholesome alternative to cow’s milk. It’s grand if you are lactose intolerant or if you like the flavour – which is perfectly pleasant – but it can fall down in the protein and calcium stakes.
Cholesterol-lowering spreads and drinks: These products include plant sterols which are clinically proven to help reduce blood cholesterol by as much as 15 per cent. They are not the be all and end all but if you have a problem with your cholesterol this is one health food trend that is worth buying into.
Coconut water: This is said to be better than regular water because of the increased levels of potassium and magnesium. Truth be told it probably won’t hydrate you any more efficiently than the free alternative although it does taste nice.
Quinoa: This grain is gluten free, relatively high in protein and contains other nutrients too. It is also low GI. It may be hard to pronounce–- and it doesn’t taste amazing unless adorned with amazingness but it is probably quite a good addition to our world.
Probiotic drinks: The USP of these products is the live bacteria which promote friendly gut bacteria and can improve digestive health and immunity. There is a lot of scientific evidence to suggest they do do exactly what they say on the tin... or the bottle.
Protein-enhanced breads and breakfast cereals: Yes, you can get such products on the market nowadays. Apart from putting the Atkins people in a tizz we can’t see much value in them.
Kale crisps: We like kale. But it belongs in colcannon. Or, at a pinch, in a nutri-blasted smoothie. It should never be found a bag pretending to be a crisp.