Behind the healthy label, these bars contain a not-so-sweet surprise


Which?, the U.K. consumer advocacy organization, just released a report in which they explored the healthfulness of cereal bars. You know the ones-meal and snack bars from popular cereal brands that are meant to be healthy, and often include whole grains, nuts, and dried fruit.

But as the research team found, many of these bars were full of sugar, fat, and calories. In fact, one bar had 18 grams of sugar, which is almost four teaspoons, or about the same as a small can of Coca-Cola.

"People often choose cereal bars in the belief they're healthier than chocolate or biscuits, but our research shows this can be a myth," Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said in a statement.

The researchers looked at 30 different best-selling bars, choosing ones that were meant to appear healthiest. They found that 16 of those bars had at least 30 percent sugar and had calorie counts akin to cookies. Perhaps most shocking, a third of the bars were high in saturated fat.

Although the study was based in the U.K. market, there are several lessons that apply to American bars too. So what should you be aware of? Read on:

1. Watch your fat count: Though one wouldn't expect a great deal of fat and saturated fat in a breakfast bar, the Which? inquiry found that many of them included hydrogenated vegetable fat and other sources of saturated fat.

2. Beware of hidden calories: Unless you are truly replacing a meal with a bar, many of the cereal bars contain too many calories for a snack. In fact, Which? found that many bars contained as many calories as cookies and cakes.

3. Read the labels twice: Many cereal bars are aimed at children, with cartoon characters and palatable, kid-friendly flavors. But those same bars have nutrition labels based on dietary guidelines for adults. That means you'll need to rethink the calorie proportions with your little one in mind.

4. Check the list of ingredients: During the course of research, the Which? staff described frustration with confusing labels-especially when it came to sugar.

"By law, manufacturers have to list the ingredients in order of quantity," wrote the authors. "By having several different kinds of sugar, the names appear further down the list-allowing healthier ingredients, such as oats, to be higher up, and giving the impression that the bar is healthier than it really is."

Look for concentrated fruit juices, honey, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, and more. No matter the source, added sugar contributes to your daily intake. Although it can be tricky to parse which sugar is naturally occurring and which is added, Which? nutritionist Shefalee Loth recommends checking how many and in what position the sugar ingredients are placed. Additionally, anything with yogurt or chocolate is bound to have more added sugar than a plain fruit and nut bar.