How to tell which store bought kids' snacks are the healthiest

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Many parents go out of their way to source healthy snack foods for their children.

But not everything is as it seems, according to food manufacturing whistleblowers, such as the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, consumer watchdog CHOICE and the Obesity Policy Coalition, who have taken aim at companies that distort the facts.

Food manufacturer Heinz was recently found by the Federal Court of Australia to have made misleading claims about the health benefits of one of its popular snack foods aimed at toddlers.

According to the ACCC, H.J. Heinz Company Australia Ltd was misleading in its claim that its Little Kids Shredz products were beneficial for young children.

The ACCC alleged in court that images and statements represented to consumers that Little Kids Shredz products were a healthy and nutritious food for children aged one to three years, when this was not the case.

The court found that nutritionists employed by Heinz would have known they were misleading the public when they claimed a product was healthy, even though it was largely made up of sugar.

The snack, which contained 60 per cent sugar, compared with an apple, which is 10 per cent sugar, was removed from sale in 2016.

The court decision came almost two years after the ACCC took action against Heinz over the products' packaging, which featured prominent images of fresh fruit and vegetables and statements such as "99 per cent fruit and veg".

The action followed a complaint lodged in 2015 by the Obesity Policy Coalition regarding foods aimed at toddlers.

The coalition is targeting food manufacturers who say their products contain fruit and vegetable when they are in fact made from fruit juice concentrates and pastes that have a very high sugar content.

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The coalition's executive manager Jane Martin said the Heinz case was just one example of how some food companies market processed food as healthy.

"Heinz Shredz toddler products were falsely promoted to parents as healthy choices for children," Ms Martin said.

"They boasted the same nutritional value as fruit and vegetables, when in reality, they're made from fruit and vegetable concentrates and contain more than 60 per cent sugar."

Ms Martin said the coalition was concerned Australian parents were buying products in the belief they were healthy when some were higher in sugar than confectionery.

"We hope this case and the court's judgement send a message to other food manufacturers," Ms Martin said.

"Industry needs to be accountable to their customers and not imply that high-sugar products, particularly those developed for children, are healthier than they really are."

Ms Martin says the coalition wants food manufacturers to disclose if sugar has been added to products and is lobbying the Federal Government to overhaul its Health Star Rating System to recognise all sources of sugar, and rate products accordingly.

Consumer watchdog CHOICE is another organisation that regularly calls out food manufacturers over misleading claims and has called for an overhaul of the rating system.

CHOICE scored a win recently when Nestle agreed this month to change the packaging of its Milo Cereal Bars.

The snack bars packaging includes the words "with milk", when in fact the ingredient contained is white chocolate.

CHOICE also successfully petitioned both Nestle and Ovaltine to remove the 4.5-star rating on its powered drink products amid claims it was misleading because it was based on it being served with skim milk.

So which products are the best snack foods for kids?

Australian dietitian and nutritionist Susie Burrell writes on her website Shapeme.com.au that while fruit, dairy and homemade snacks are always the best option, there are some better packaged snacks on the market for time-poor families.

She said parents should look for items that were lower in calories and sugar, but higher in fibre when buying packaged snack foods for their kids.

She said LCM's Oaty Bubble Bars had 100 calories per serve, 2 grams of fibre and contained 25 per cent less sugar than the original LCM bars.

Sunbites Air Popped Popcorn offered 2 grams of fibre and no added sugar in its 80 calorie serve, while Uncle Toby's Fruity Bites had 5 grams of sugars, she said.

Milo Energy Snack Bars offered the same amount of calories and fibre as popcorn and 5 grams of added sugar, while Milo Starz are relatively low in sugar compared with traditional biscuit snacks for kids, Ms Burrell writes.

Freedom Foods Caramel Crunch snack bar offered a gluten-free alternative and had 4 grams of fibre and little sugar, she said.

You can find Susie Burrell's full list of snacks here:  http://www.shapeme.com.au/blog/packaged-snacks-for-kids-2/