Written by Nyomi Graef
Do you think that muesli bars are healthy? If so, think again. Many muesli bars are highly processed junk food that contain unhealthy trans fat, loads of sugar, and lots of food additives. Eat these bars often and we are on the road to weight gain, increased risk of heart disease and other health problems.
Don’t be fooled by muesli bars’ slick marketing and packaging. Be wise. The snacks that we eat are important. They all add up to affect our health, body weight, energy levels and more. For better health and well being, choose good quality muesli bars. Key things to look for are bars that are low in sugar and salt, but high in fibre, with no hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated fat.
Recently I saw a wall of muesli bars near the entrance of my local supermarket. The packets had the usual marketing hype – the bars contained wholegrains, and they are great for athletes... But I was suspicious.
I read the nutrition panel and ingredients list. Yep, just as I thought, high sugar! The sugar content was nearly 40 grams (g) per 100g. Far too high! This is over double the maximum amount of sugar in a food (i.e. 15g per 100g) that Australian nutrition guidelines recommend. These muesli bars were sugary biscuits. Sugar was also listed among the top three ingredients in the ingredients list. No surprises there, and no good!
Now to the fat: they contained hydrogenated fat (‘bad’ fat). This fat contains trans fat, which can cause heart disease, inflammation and other health problems.
And there was more: the bars were highly processed, low in fibre, and had lots of food additives. So, just as I thought, these muesli bars were junk food posing as healthy snacks.
So what can we do about it? Check the nutrition panel and ingredients list on muesli bar packets for ourselves, and choose healthy bars over unhealthy ones. How? Use the tips below.
5 top things to check on muesli bar packets before you buy them
1. Check the sugar content
A diet low in added sugar is a cornerstone of weight loss. Most Australians (among many other nationalities) each too much added sugar. A high-sugar diet increases our risk of unwanted weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, inflammation and many other health conditions.
Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute (Baker IDI for short) is an internationally-renowned medical research facility. It recommends choosing fruit-based products (fruit is listed in the first three ingredients) with 25g per 100g or less of sugar. For all other food products, Baker IDI recommends 15g per 100g or less of sugar.
The Australian Government has a similar recommendation for sugar. For more information, read How to Understand Food Labels, published by the Australian Government.
Another tip for sugar: avoid muesli bars in which sugar is one of the first few ingredients in the ingredients list. Why? Ingredients are listed in order from highest to lowest in weight. Low-sugar muesli bars are better choices than high-sugar ones.
Food companies sneak sugar into foods under different names and in different ways. They all count as added sugar. Examples include honey, golden syrup, maple syrup, molasses, fruit juice, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, rice malt syrup, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup.
2. Look for food additives, and how natural and processed the bars are
Nutrition experts recommend that we eat mostly “real” foods. “Real” foods are natural/whole/unprocessed/minimally processed foods. In contrast, “fake” foods are highly processed/unnatural foods. Eat only small amounts of “fake” foods.
Many muesli bars are highly processed manufactured foods that bear little resemblance to healthy whole foods. A long ingredients list on the muesli bar packet, with lots of sugar and additives, is a big clue that you’re probably eating a “fake” food, not a “real” food. Other clues include low amounts of wholegrains, and the addition of hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated fat.
Avoid muesli bars with lots of food additives. These include preservatives, artificial colours and artificial flavours. A number of additives can cause health problems, especially in people who are sensitive to them. For example, some preservatives and artificial colours can cause hyperactivity in a number of people. Also, even though food additives are only in small amounts in foods, some additives can be harmless short term/in small amounts, but harmful long term/in larger quantities. Jamie Oliver talks about avoiding foods with lots of additives. Follow his lead.
Tip: don’t buy muesli bars that a kind and food savvy grandma wouldn’t bake for you because the ingredients list looks like the bars could only be made in a lab, not a home kitchen.
3. Check the fat content
Look for the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredients list on the packet. If this word in the list, don’t buy those muesli bars. As mentioned above, hydrogenated fats and oils, including partially hydrogenated varieties, can cause heart disease and inflammation, among other health problems.
The Australian Government recommends that we “Generally choose foods with less than 10g [of total fat] per 100g.”
Baker IDI says aim for 2g per 100g or less of saturated fat.
The Australian Government recommends less than 3g of saturated fat per 100g.
Saying this, however, research has found that not all saturated fat is unhealthy. This means that saying that all saturated fat is “bad”, so we should eat low amounts of all types of it, is false and misleading. For example, the fat in over-heated deep-fried oil high in saturated fat is unhealthy, but raw organic unrefined cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil (which is high in saturated fat) has health benefits, according to various leading health professionals. Dr Joseph Mercola is one of a number of nutrition experts who promotes the health benefits of this type of coconut oil.
Remember that dietary guidelines are guidelines, and they are general recommendations. And guidelines can have exceptions. Avocados, olives, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, and oily fish, for example, contain lots of healthy fat, which we need for good health. So for these foods, the saturated fat content and total fat content doesn’t really apply when it comes to reading food labels on muesli bars. (These foods and oils, with the exception of perhaps some healthy oils, aren’t ingredients in muesli bars though.)
4. Read the fibre content
Baker IDI recommends a fibre content of 8g or more of fibre per 100g.
Generally, when it comes to muesli bars, and other foods, the more fibre the better. This is because most of us don’t get enough fibre for good health.
5. See how much salt (sodium) is in the bars
Baker IDI says look for 120mg of sodium per 100g of food, but this can be hard to find, so have an upper limit of 400mg per 100g. The Australian Government’s recommendation for sodium is very similar.
What are some better snacks than unhealthy muesli bars?
Suggestions for ingredients for homemade muesli bars
Important tip: make sure the bars are low in added sugar, this includes honey, rice malt syrup, golden syrup, maple syrup and so on.
Choose healthy muesli bars, and other healthy snacks, for you and your family. Use the above guide to help you.
For better health, and to promote weight loss, if you like eating unhealthy muesli bars, and don’t want to give them up completely, don’t think of them as an everyday snack. Eat them now and then – not daily – and only in small amounts.
There are plenty of recipes on the internet, in cookbooks, and so on, for healthy and tasty muesli bars. Research them for yourself, if you are interested.
Also, if you like sugary foods, for the sake of your health and your waistline, learn to like the flavour of less sugary foods. It takes time for our tastebuds to adjust to less sweet foods, but it’s worth it for good health and to sustain a healthy body weight.
Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, 2017, The Baker IDI Wellness Plan: scientific secrets for a long and healthy life, Australia: Penguin Books.
How to Understand Food Labels, 2019, Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, eatforhealth.gov.au, https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/sites/default/files/files/eatingwell/efh_food_label_example_130621.pdf
Mercola, J, 2011, Coconut Oil Benefits: When Fat is Good for You, Huffpost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/coconut-oil-benefits_b_821453