When is a snack a healthy snack?

When is a snack a healthy snack

The Nutribox promotes itself as providing really healthy snacks, but how do you work out what makes a snack healthy?  Is it about the calories, or the fact it doesn’t have refined sugar?  And how do you work it out from the ingredient list or the nutritional information on the packet?  We decided to do an experiment comparing some  snacks you commonly find in vending machines, and some products from the first Nutribox we’ll be delivering in January.  The results showed just how confusing it can be to work out what’s healthy, and we want to share what we’ve learned with you – because the better we understand what’s healthy, the more informed choices we can make to support our health.

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To start our experiment we looked at typical vending machine contents and picked a random selection of snacks like crisps, chocolate bars and other sweets.  We then compared them to a selection of Nutribox snacks including fruit and nut mixes, bars and treats.  We did this comparison on the basis of the nutritional information on the packet – the information that is required by law, and used for the various food labeling systems that operate in the UK. One of the biggest areas of difference between the vending machine and Nutribox snacks were that the vending machine snacks had more calories, on average about 20% more.  There are many more fun and important things to do in life than count calories, but being over (or under) weight is not healthy and so we should all be trying to balance the energy we take in via our food and drink, and the energy we expend in daily life and through exercise.  But it’s also important where that energy comes from – it’s not just about calories, it’s about the other nutrients that come with the calories.

Protein is one such nutrient to consider.  Foods that contain a relatively high proportion of protein include meat, nuts, fish, and pulses (e.g. lentils, kidney beans). We tend to digest foods that contain protein more slowly so we feel fuller for longer, and we can avoid wildly fluctuating highs and lows of energy because of that slower digestion.  The protein content of both types of snacks was roughly the same, but the Nutribox snacks had a higher proportion of protein to carbohydrate than the vending machine snacks – and that ratio is an important consideration.

When foods contain a lot more carbohydrate (usually high in foods like sugars, cereals, grains) than protein it can affect our energy levels through the day, and also affect how we store the extra calories that we don’t use up in daily life or exercise.  Our bodies tend to digest carbohydrates quickly, particularly the refined sugars typically found in vending machine snacks, which release energy in our bodies quickly.  This can make us feel great initially but ultimately can end up in us feeling tired because of how our bodies respond to that rush of sugar into our bloodstream.  This probably isn’t the time or place for a lesson in biochemistry and insulin resistance, but if we elevate our blood sugar levels rapidly regularly there can be serious long-term health effects.

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Nutribox snacks contained more dietary fibre on average than the vending machine snacks.  Dietary fibre is important because it can help support a healthy digestion system and also help us feel fuller for longer so we eat less – not a bad thing given the growing rates of obesity in this country. 

Both Nutribox and vending machine snacks had similar fat content.  Fat often gets a bad name but it’s important for absorbing certain vitamins and minerals so we need to have it in our diet – the key question is what type of fat rather than how much. Because most of the fat in Nutribox snacks comes from nuts and seeds and plant sources they tend to have a greater proportion of the healthier fats.

So how do you work out what’s healthy if you haven’t got a qualification in nutrition like some of us in the Nutribox team?

There are a few clues you can find on the packaging:

The ingredient list – does it contain items that you recognize as food, rather than a chemical concoction? 

The closer food is to how you would find it in nature, the more likely it is that it will have retained its vitamin and mineral content, and that means it is more likely to be healthy

Your reaction to it – if you get a huge sugar rush followed by an energy low after eating something then you know its probably not got the best balance of sugars and other ingredients for you.

Our comparison showed that what’s on the label doesn’t always tell you the full story about what’s healthy.  One of the reasons we established The Nutribox was to do the hard work of nutritional analysis so you don’t have to.  There may not be a simple definition of what makes a healthy snack, but we guarantee that any snack you find in a Nutribox is going to be a healthy choice.   If you want to get a Nutribox delivered to your home or office door click here  

  • Ann White
  • 29 Nov 2012

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