Snacks - Low Fat, High Sugar?

Many snack foods are advertised or packaged as healthy options because they are reduced fat, low fat, lower fat, very low fat, light or even lite! But these marketing messages are meaningless, as they don’t tell you the actual fat or calorie content, or whether it is lower in fat than the ‘less healthy’ alternative. So you have to check that food label.

And just to complicate matters more, these snacks are usually aimed at people who want to lose weight. They are claimed to be low in fat and therefore an ideal healthy alternative for would-be slimmers, BUT the sugar content can be surprisingly high. For example, Tesco’s own brand digestive biscuits have 19.1g of sugar per 100g, whereas the ‘reduced fat’ option does have less fat as stated, but more sugar - 21.1g per 100g! Not exactly helpful for weight loss, as too much sugar in the diet will turn to fat when not used up through regular exercise.

When food manufacturers reduce the fat content in a food, additional sugar is often added to make the taste more palatable. And there can be a strong temptation for people to eat a larger portion size of a ‘healthy snack’ because it is perceived to be more beneficial to successful weight loss.

Food Labels
Manufacturers are now required by law to give nutritional information on the food label if they make a nutritional claim, such as 'low fat' or 'high fibre'.

Legally, any food that claims to be ‘fat free’ should have less than 0.15g fat per 100g, whereas foods that claim to be ‘low fat’ should contain less than 3g fat per 100g. As a general rule, more than 20g fat per 100g is too much. It’s important to realise that reduced fat products aren’t automatically low in fat, nor are they necessarily lower in calories than their full-fat alternatives. Using the term ‘reduced fat’ on food packaging simply means the food must contain 25% less fat than its equivalent standard product.

Similarly, beware of products labelled ‘light’ or ‘lite’. There’s no legal definition for these terms, so manufacturers often use them as they wish. For example, they may use the phrase to convey a product’s texture, or to give the impression that it has less fat or calories, when this isn’t actually the case.

You will see figures for the fat content on many food labels broken down into saturated (bad fats) and others, such as polyunsaturated or monounsaturated. A high amount is more than 5g saturates per 100g, low is 1.5g saturates or less per 100g.

When checking the sugar content in a food look for the 'carbohydrates, of which sugars' figure in the food label. High is more than 15g sugars per 100g, and low is 5g sugars or less per 100g. Watch out for other words that are used to describe added sugars - such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, corn syrup and honey. Added sugars must be included in the ingredients list, which always starts with the biggest ingredient first.

Natural v Processed
When choosing snacks, products that are highly processed is an important factor to take into consideration. For example, rice cakes are marketed as both low in fat and sugar. Which is true! But, they are also highly processed, and this puts them into a category where they are digested quickly and create a rise in blood sugar levels, causing you to feel hungry sooner. Natural foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, and wholemeal products (complex carbohydrates) will release sugar into the bloodstream at a slower rate, providing sustained energy, making you feel more satisfied. A good way of checking a favourite food is to use the Glycaemic Index, which rates all foods from 0 to 100, and sets sugar (glucose) at the top rate of 100 (as used by diabetics). Rice cakes are set at a whopping 82!

* Fresh fruit
* Raw vegetables (crudités – carrots, peppers, celery, cauliflower, radishes)
* Nuts (can be high in fat, so limit portion size – healthiest ones are unsalted peanuts, almonds and hazelnuts)
* Wholemeal pitta bread, with hummus or low fat natural yoghurt
* Cereal (wholegrains, no sugar/honey coatings or added sugary fruit & nuts)