TRIED & TESTED Do 'healthy' alternatives to chocolate bars taste good? And are they really healthy? Our panellists sample six
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ACCORDING to industry sources, we spend more money on crisps and savoury snacks than any other Euro-pean nation, amounting to a collective total of pounds 1,627 million in 1995, plus a staggering pounds 4.5 billion on biscuits and chocolate bars. This means rich pickings in the British market not only for manufacturers of crisps, chocolate bars and biscuits, but increasingly for rival producers of "healthy" bars made from apparently more wholesome ingredients such as cereals, nuts, fruits, honey, yoghurt and so on. We chose our sample bars from a vast range imported from all over the world. Most display detailed nutritional information on the packaging and some are promoted as food for sports enthusiasts.


Our experts were Gary Frost, chief dietician of Hammersmith Hospital, London; and Jane Bartlett, editor of the new, natural health magazine Vital, along with several members of her staff. Our lay consumers were brothers Giles and Joss Gale, students; lecturer Penny Hudd; and artist David Davies .


We asked our typical consumers to consider, first and foremost, whether the bars tasted good; then whether they were influenced, or indeed bewildered, by the packaging. We also wanted to know if our sample bars were considered health-promoting by professional dieticians. The results were not encouraging. Many of the testers could not be prevailed on to finish the bars, discarding them after nibbling. Gary Frost refused to eat them at all, preferring to comment on their nutritional value by reading the wrappers. "It's not that snacking isn't good for you," he said. "Some studies show that it helps to maintain lower lipid levels (cholesterol) in the blood, and causes insulin to behave better. The problem is that people choose highly calorific snacks, when what they need is something like an apple." None of the bars was especially low in calories (from around 300-530 cals per 100g - a chocolate bar typically has 400-530 cals per 100g), nor indeed good for your teeth, so they did not get the dieticians' stamp of approval.


33.3g, 35p; 431 calories per 100g

Without doubt the best-known bar among those sampled, this muesli-type confection of raisin and hazelnut is well-priced and widely distributed. All our testers thought it the most attractively packaged, though some approved of the wrapper's apparent attempt to compete with chocolate bars while others scorned it. Jane Bartlett, who confesses to snacking on two health bars daily in order to keep her weight up, often buys these because "they look attractive - golden and tasty - and they're not oversweet, but they are quite filling". David Davies, on the other hand, compared the softness which Vital's staff liked to "balsawood" and Penny Hudd agreed that the Frusli was "unpleasantly soggy". The students were evenly divided between liking the bar's "nice chewy texture" and dismissing it as reminiscent of "yesterday's muesli". Gary Frost agreed that, in principle, nuts, fruits and cereals are inoffensive foods: "Binding them together with something, usually some sort of syrup as in this bar, is what adds the calories. There are fewer calories in a Milky Way than in this."


30g, 25p; 534 calories per 100g

This small, simple Greek snack is packed in a partially see-through wrapper that's deficient, said Jane Bartlett, in proper nutritional information. The Vital contingent decided that the texture of this bar was overly brittle and sticky. "It sticks to your teeth," they complained, adding that it has "a sweet toffee taste, but with a bitter after-tang to the seeds". Gary Frost pointed out that stickiness is a major factor in dental caries; this was the stickiest of the bars, but many of the others worried him for the same reason. Joss Gale liked the honey flavour of the Sunita bar and Penny Hudd liked the crunch, but Giles Gale said it "tasted burnt" and wasn't as crunchy as sesame snaps. Everyone liked the price - even if you would need to eat two of these bars to equal one of the others.


50g, 99p; 310 calories per 100g

Many of the panel were drawn to this bar for its curiosity value. Impressively, it contains 5g of hitherto unheard-of micro-algae called spirulina, containing "high protein, chlorophyll, beta-carotene, vitamin B12" and various other vitamins and trace elements. Gary Frost confirmed that it does contain all these things, even if the B12 is in a form that cannot be absorbed - a misleading piece of labelling. In any case, beneath its silver "and rather messy" packaging, as Jane Bartlett commented, is a startlingly jet black bar, "like a little black brick". Its content is primarily dates, figs, sunflower seeds, almonds and malt. "We've never tasted anything like it," was the perplexed verdict of the Vital team, who thought it tasted like "the seaweed served in Japanese restaurants". "Its saving grace is its nutty texture," commented Jane, who was more polite than the Gale boys. "Vile," was their verdict, which Penny Hudd amplified by offering suggestions for improvement. "It tastes yeasty and they shouldn't disguise it with so much sugar," she said. "It needs to be flavoured more with liquorice."


40g, 85p; 497 calories per 100g

This Australian product was Jane Bartlett's absolute favourite. She praised its "incredible texture, with a real multitude of nuts and seeds. It's nice and gooey rather than sticky, and looks great, although the packaging is amateurish and does it a disservice." The Vital staff considered that the ingredients - mainly macadamia nuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds bound together with rice cereal - justified the price, but Giles and Joss Gale were irrevocably put off by the bar's appearance, which, they said, is horribly similar to "the cake of fat and seeds that you leave out for the birds". In fact, there was more than one reference to budgerigars in comments about the Wallaby Natural bar. Gary Frost was not in favour of eating so many nuts at once, because of their high fat content. "Almost 60 per cent of the energy here is in the form of oils, which is about 30 per cent above the COMA recommendations."


65g, 99p; 340 calories per 100g

This apricot- and apple-flavoured bar ranks among the exotics sampled (it hails from Canada) and has to overcome a big price differential with many of the home-produced bars. Yet even before they began tasting, many panel members declared that they preferred bars featuring apricots, because of their "sweet, yet tart" taste. The Okanagan Sport has a simple list of ingredients - apples, apricots, apple concentrates, natural flavour, apple fibre - so as a confection it was hard to object to. Joss Gale said he wouldn't hesitate to buy it in future, but Penny Hudd commented, "It's just dried fruit," and Giles Gale maintained that although it was nice, if he wanted something fruity, he would simply buy fresh or dried fruit. While the Gale boys - who play a number of sports - found the name and packaging appealing, Jane Bartlett took exception to the incongruity between wrapper and contents. "It's quite un-sporty once you get into it," she said. "Surely athletes need something quickly digestible? This weighs you down." But she also commented on its "beautiful smell of apricots and lovely soft, chewy texture". Gary Frost didn't give the bar the unequivocal approval we laymen thought it would get. "Like everybody else, athletes need a combination of sugars which are quickly absorbed and sugars which take longer to digest. Smashing up fruits speeds up their absorption time because you don't have to digest the fruit-cell walls."


37g, 35p; 297 calories per 100g

We chose this Californian offering for its quintessentially American filling of blueberries, which sounded appealing. The filling was indeed singled out as the best thing about a bar otherwise described by Jane Bartlett as "dry, bland and heavy, like one of those fig rolls". Penny Hudd also likened it to an American fig roll and the comparison was not complimentary. Barbara's bar may be made with organically grown flour and contain no refined sugar, but David Davies was unimpressed. "It has lots of bran," he said, adding, "I'm sure you can buy these in pet shops." Gary Frost said the fact that this bar contains no fat at all is "amazing", but he added: "It's odd to say that it contains no refined sugar when its main ingredients are concentrated pineapple and pear juice, which are just carbohydrates in refined form." Joss Gale gave this bar a resounding thumbs-down: "The outside is quite horrid and you would never know that it has blueberries inside."