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Are oat-based muesli bars healthy snacks for kids?

Oat-based muesli bars are a popular snack food for kid’s lunchboxes and there are a wide range of products available. An estimated 40% of Australian school children’s lunchboxes feature muesli bars despite classification as a discretionary food in the Australian Dietary Guidelines. We take a look at the category and evaluate their nutritional profile, and compare commercial and home-made options.

Muesli bar category audit

The Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC) have completed a category audit of 165 grain-based snack bars from four major supermarkets in Sydney (nut bars, protein bars or fruit bars were not included).

The audit found:

  • Average sugar content had declined by 14% since the last audit in 2015
  • 56% are at least a source of fibre (2g or more per serve)
  • 65% are at least a source of wholegrain (8g or more per serve)
  • 48% are low in sodium (under 120mg per 100g)
  • 25% had a Health Star Rating (HSR) of 4 or more
  • Average serve size was 35g (there is some variation by type)
  • 63% of bars displayed a Health Star Rating (HSR)
  • Muesli/oat-based bars and grain-based bars had higher HSR than oat slice type bars
  • Sugar content varied, but was highest in oat slice type bars although this was due to a larger serve size (55g vs 35g overall average)
  • Wholegrain bars were higher in protein, fat and fibre and lower in carbohydrate, sugars and sodium than refined grain bars

The report included the following tips for choosing a healthy snack bar: Look for wholegrain bars, choose bars lower in saturated fat and sugars and choose bars with a higher health star rating.

Is home-made healthier?

Health professional advice and public discourse often promote home-made lunchbox snacks as a healthier alternative to those commercially produced. We compared four muesli-bar recipes with four commercial oat-based muesli bars to test this assumption, as well as comparing all eight bars against school canteen criteria. One recipe is from Australia's most popular online recipe site Taste.com.au, one from a parenting website called Kidspot.com.au, another from bestrecipes.com.au and a recipe from the 'I Quit Sugar' brand.

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Recipe marketing and nutrition claims

The home-made recipes above may be perceived by parents as a healthy lunchbox choice however the nutritional information per serve and Health Star Rating suggest otherwise.

The Kidspot.com.au recipe scored a Health Star Rating of 2 (low). The website introduces the recipe as:

"Muesli bars are an easy snack to drop into your kids' lunch boxes but they can be expensive - and full of sugar, fat and who knows what else! Try making these healthy homemade muesli bars instead - your kids won't taste the difference."

The Bestrecipes.com.au recipe scored a HSR or 1.5 (low) and is introduced on the website as:

"these scrumptious muesli bars are not only healthy but bursting with flavour that everyone will make their lunch box favourite..."

The Taste.com.au oat and mixed berry recipe is introduced on the website as:

"High in fibre and low in saturated fat, these healthier muesli bars make a great lunchbox filler."

The recipe scored a Health Star Rating of 3, which is below what would be eligible for sale in an Australian school canteen. If this product was a packaged food, it would not be able to make the claim 'high in fibre'. FSANZ Standard 1.2.7 requires at least 4g per serve to make this claim and this muesli bar only has 2.3g per serve.

The 'I Quit Sugar' brand has now been discontinued however the recipes are still available. While containing stevia instead of sugar, this bar recipe contained almost double the kilojoules and a huge 9g saturated fat per serve (due to the use of coconut oil). This represents 38% of the Daily Intake of saturated fat for adults and would represent an even higher proportion in a child's diet.

School canteen nutrient criteria for muesli bars

School canteen associations around Australia classify muesli bars as "amber" foods in the traffic light system: foods to select carefully and in moderation. All State and Territory associations require muesli bars to be 600kJ or less and contain 1.5g or more of fibre per serve. Most agree on 3g saturated fat or less per serve (NSW requires 2g saturated fat or less). All constituencies agree that muesli bars sold in canteens cannot include confectionery, such as chocolate, yoghurt coating or sprinkles. In the above comparison, two commercial muesli bars are eligible to be sold in school canteens but none of the recipes.

In NSW, school canteens require 'occasional' foods (discretionary foods as per the Australian Dietary Guidelines) to occupy no more than 25% of the menu and packaged foods must score 3.5 stars or more. In the case of muesli bars, they must be less than 50g per serve. Half the commercial muesli bar examples above are eligible to be sold in NSW school canteens but none of the home-made bars made from recipes would comply.

Background on recipes

In contrast to recipes/formulations used by food companies, most recipes found in magazines, websites and blogs have little or no expert nutritional oversight. Only a minority have any input from a dietitian, and having a dietitian involved makes a positive difference to the nutritional profile of recipes. Most recipes are exempt from the tight rules around making nutrition and health related claims that food products in the supermarket are subject to. Recipes tend to follow the rollercoaster of food and nutrition trends and - unlike food companies - experience almost no scrutiny.

Summary

The advice to include home-made muesli bars in children's lunchboxes may not result in a healthier choice being provided.

Commercial muesli bars are diverse in their nutritional profile but healthier choices are available. Choose wholegrain products with a high Health Star Rating.

Muesli bars with 3.5 Health Star Rating or above and less than 600kJ per serve meet school canteen criteria.

NEXT: How much free sugar are toddlers eating?

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