Monday 24 October 2016

Are your in-between meals snacks good for you?

Claire O’Mahony

Published 29/09/2015 | 02:30

Just how healthy is your choice of snack? Photo: Getty Images.
Just how healthy is your choice of snack? Photo: Getty Images.

Pass the nuts please, for we are a nation of grazers. According to a study from Bord Bia on snacking in Ireland and the UK, from March of last year, on average we snack 2.55 times a day, with the top three snacking categories confectionery (21 per cent), crisps (15 per cent) and fruit (12 per cent), with most snacking occasions occurring at home.

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The Irish market for these was worth an impressive €147.1m, a 4.4 per cent growth on the previous year.

The study also states that snacks are being increasingly seen as a boost, as opposed to the traditional mindset of being a treat, and as a younger demographic of consumers move to more constant grazing throughout the day and are less likely to have three set meals, they now need their snacks to have a broadermore nutritive function.

That we demand more from our nibbles is evident in the recent explosion of healthy snacks on the market, ranging from artisan-flavoured popcorns, kale crisps and protein bars to wasabi peas and coconut chunks, all (probably) available at a convenience store near you.

The reasons we snack — convenience, time saving — are not going away, but at least we can tell ourselves that by choosing these options, marketed as the healthy choice, we’re making wise nutritional choices.

But are we really?

According to consultant nutritionist Gayle Godkin, a healthy snack is defined as “something that just tides you over until your next meal, doesn’t give you a major sugar rush, prevents you getting hunger pangs and balances out your blood sugar during the day.

“The food industry and Joe Public at large believe healthy snacking to be low fat and low in calories and that’s rubbish. Low fat and low calorie does not give satiety and they do not equal healthy snacking.”

So your low-fat granola, with rolled oats nuts and dried fruit, which appears to be a healthy option, actually isn’t if it contains more sugar than your bowl of average breakfast cereal.

The other problem with snacking, Godkin maintains, is that we tend to do too much of it.

“The rule of thumb is three meals a day and two snacks and the snacks should be from fruit, nuts, natural yoghurt, maybe some oat cakes and if you really fancied it, something like two squares of 70 per cent dark chocolate,” she says.

“People think ‘healthy snacks’, so I will have a lot of patients who will sit down and eat dried mango, dried pineapple, dried fruit and they’re pure fructose.

“What happens at that stage is you get an overload of fructose in the blood stream and the cells are under pressure to uptake because all sugar is converted to glucose and the cells uptake that with the help of insulin.

“So if you’re introducing a lot of fructose, and high sugar foods and high carbohydrate foods, you are increasing the production of insulin in the body and you are also putting the cells under pressure to uptake that glucose.

“That leads to weight gain and poor blood sugar control, and the children are most at risk,” she adds.

Another issue is portion control, as a snack is not meant to be a meal and snack sizes needs to reflect that. Godkin says that counting calories is a waste of time — “It’s a fantastic failure and if it was as simple as counting calories, we wouldn’t have weight issues in Ireland” — which means high-calorie snacks like nuts are good to nibble on but it’s important to be mindful of the quantities that you are eating.

“Nuts are okay, but you’re talking about maybe 12 nuts, not sitting down and eating 250g at night with four glasses of wine and saying ‘Well, the wine and nuts are good for my heart’,” she says.

She believes the cinema is one of the most dangerous places for snacking. “You go to the cinema at night and you’ve had your main meal during the day or dinner that evening, you sit down and you think ‘popcorn’.

“It’s not necessarily a great food to be snacking on because it raises blood sugar and it’s a refined carbohydrate so that’s not a ideal food,” she says.

As well as how often we’re snacking and what we’re snacking on, scientific research is also indicating that snacking isn’t as necessary or as healthy as is widely believed.

For quite some time, the perceived wisdom has been to to eat a little and often is preferable to eating large meals, and that snacking boosts metabolism and promotes weight loss.

However some research doesn’t back up this widely held assumption. Several studies conclude this, including one published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2010, which found that increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an eight-week equi-energetic, energy-restricted eight-week diet.

Snacking is also assumed to be a way of keeping blood sugar levels steady, but research from the Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Prague last year indicated otherwise. In the study they fed two groups of volunteers with Type 2 diabetes the same calorie diet over two or six meals a day. Those who ate two meals a day reported lower blood sugars and also lost more weight than the frequent snackers.

Another study last year from the Netherlands published in the Journal of Hepatology suggests that snacking combined with a high-calorie diet is a contributory factor in the development of fatty liver disease, but an increased meal size was not.

Unprocessed is generally the better nutritional choice than processed snacks. Because it’s easy to be blindsided by the marketing spiel surrounding some so-called healthy snacks, getting into the sometimes tedious but necessary habit of reading food labels is important.

The Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute, the professional organisation for dietitians in Ireland, have a useful fact sheet on its website,, to help shoppers cut through the jargon. It tells you how to figure out the salt content in food (sodium not being the same as salt); that ‘of which sugars’ indicates the amount of refined sugar in the product, which should be less than 10g per 100g, and that for something to be deemed ‘low’ sugar, the product needs to contain less than 5g per 100g.

Whether you categorise your snacks as healthy or not, it’s always worth asking the question ‘Do I really need it?’

The idea of even being a little bit peckish and not saying it has become alien but the fact is that there’s nothing wrong with being a tiny bit hungry as long as you don’t get to starving point.

“Hunger is the best sauce,” agrees Gaye Godkin, who says the danger that becoming too hungry is that it can lead to poor food choices. “You should be hungry before your dinner or your lunch, but not ravenous,” she says.

We put the most popular snacks to the test...


Marks and Spencer Soy and Balsamic Sweet Potato Hand Cooked Crisps

(per quarter pack/ 25g serving), kilocalories 129, carbs 11.0g (4.4g sugars), salt 0.20g

Rating: †††

Marks and Spencer Lightly Salted Pitta Chips

(per sixth pack/25g serving), kilocalories 109, carbs 15.8g (0.6g sugars), salt 0.3g

Rating: †††

Velvet Crunch Gourmet Bites Thai Chilli and Aromatic Sweet Basil Flavour

(per pack/20g serving), kilocalories 87, carbs 16g (2.8g sugars), salt 0.30g

Rating: ††

Tesco Finest Hand Cooked Lightly Sea Salted Crisps

(per pack/40g serving), kilocalories 208, carbs 23.4g (<0.01g sugars), salt 0.5g

Rating: †

The Good Snack Chili Bites Spicy Rice Crackers

(per pack/75g serving), kilocalories 439, carbs 40.8g (9.6g sugars), salt 1.8g

Rating: †

Fresh fruit

Walshe’s Really Fresh Fruit Salad

(per 100g serving), kilocalories 49, carbs 11.5g (10.3g sugars), salt 0g

Rating: ††††

Tesco Pink Lady Apple & Grape Snack Pack

(per 80g serving), kilocalories 46, carbs 10.1g (10.g sugars), salt 0.01g

Rating: ††††

Tesco Berry Medley

(per 100g serving), kilocalories 50, carbs 11.2g (sugars 11.2g), salt 0.01g

Rating: ††††


(per 100g), kilocalories 95, carbs 23g (sugars 12g), salt 0.01g

Rating: ††††

Marks and Spencer Mango Chips & Raspberry Dip

(per 100g serving), kilocalories 65, carbs 14.0g (8.9g sugars), salt 0.03g

Rating: †††

Breakfast snacks

Glenisk Strained Greek Style Yoghurt

(per 150g pack), kilocalories 84, carbs 6.0g (6.0g sugars), salt 0.15g

Rating: †††††

Nomadic Strawberry Oat Clusters & Natural Yoghurt

(per 100g serving), kilocalories 172.6 carbs 24.4g (13.1g sugars), salt 0.17g

Rating: ††

Tesco Butter Croissant

(one croissant/per 41g), kilocalories 171, carbs 19.1g (2.8g sugars), salt 0.3g

Rating: ††

Kelkin Triple Berry Oat Granola

(per 45g serving), kilocalories 192, carbs 28g (9.1g sugars), salt 0.01g

Rating: ††

Special K Multi-Grain Porridge

(per 50g serving), kilocalories 194, carbs 35g (13g sugars), salt 0.1g


Nairns Gluten Free Oatcakes

(per oatcake), kilocalories 44, carbs 4.8g (0.1g sugars), salt 0.1g

Rating: †††††

Biscuits and bars

Tesco Chocolate Chip Cookies

(per cookie), kilocalories 63, carbs 8.4g (5.3g sugars), salt 0.1g

Rating: †††

Special K Biscuit Moments Strawberry

(per two bars/25g), kilocalories 98, carbs 19g (7.8g sugars), salt 0.19g

Rating: ††

Super Seeds Fruity Carob Hit 9 Bar

(per bar/50g), kilocalories 255, carbs 16.6g (14.2g sugars), salt 0.12g

Rating: ††

Nutri Grain Fruity Breakfast Bar Apple

(per bar/37g), kilocalories 131, carbs 25g (12g sugars), salt 0.29g

Rating: †

Tesco Whole Foods Walnuts

(per 25g serving), kilocalories 172, carbs 1.8g (0.7g sugars), salt 0.01g

Rating: †††††

Trail mixes

Good4U Super Fruit and Seed Mix

(per 20g serving), kilocalories 99, carbs 6.5g (4.6g sugars), salt trace

Rating: †††††

Walkers Sensations Californian Honey and Salt Flavour Oven Roasted Peanuts

(per 30g serving), kilocalories 168, carbs 9.4g (7.4g sugars), salt 0.40g

Rating: †††

Tesco Granola Mix

(per 25g serving), kilocalories 114, carbs 15.5g (10.4g sugars), salt 0.1g

Rating: ††

The Good Snack Co Chocolate Peanuts

(per pack/50g serving), kilocalories 270, carbs 18.3g (16.8g sugars), salt 0.0g

Rating: †

Tesco Caramel Crispy Bites

(one bite), kilocalories 48, carbs 8.3g (4.0g sugars), salt 0.1g

Rating: ††††

Cakes and muffins

SuperValu Mini Fruit Scones

(per fruit scone/47.5g serving), kilocalories 144, carbs 24g (4.8g sugars), salt 0.90g

Rating: †††

SuperValu Paradise Slices

(per slice/37g serving), kilocalories 151, carbs 21g (12g sugars), salt 0.13g

Rating: ††

Gluten and Wheat-Free Lemon Muffins

(per muffin/ 85g serving), kilocalories 365, carbs 42.0g (21.0g sugars), salt 0.74g

Rating: †

Tesco Blueberry Muffin

(per muffin/125g serving), kilocalories 433, carbs 58.0g (29.9g sugars), salt 0.4g

Rating: †

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