July 30, 2014

“A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play”… and gain weight. This famous (infamous?) slogan from the 80s might really be outdated.

With all the recent evidence and publicity about excess carbohydrates and sugar being bad for our weight, using ‘low-carb’ products seems to make sense.

The logic goes that if we can keep carbohydrates and sugar low enough, we can use our stored body fat for fuel and as a result lose our extra weight. And if we’re eating nutrient-dense foods, our nutritional needs will be met, hunger won’t be a problem, and cravings will be a thing of the past. So far, so good.

We also need to consider the advantages of having a mid-morning or mid-afternoon healthy snack: the habit and social benefit of having a snack with a cuppa or with family or friends; the psychological benefit of having a ‘treat’ as a tasty snack; and the feelings of satiety which stop us snacking on less healthy options.

Back in the fat-phobic 80s, a Mars bar seemed appropriate. So with our improved understanding of nutrition, how do we now know what sort of snack is best?

Reading the nutrition panel is a good starting point. This gives you an idea of the macro-nutrients in the snack – the amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Look for a snack with more or less equal amounts of protein and carbohydrate, and with enough fat to make the snack palatable.

While this starting point is good, we can’t always rely on the accuracy of nutrition panels. Many products have been tested and found to provide incorrect information, whether it’s in the ingredients used, the amounts of macro-nutrients, or both.

In Australia and New Zealand, labelling laws are strict. Products manufactured in other countries don’t have the same standards, and often are imported with their labels not complying with our laws.

What this means is that many of the ‘low-carb’ snack products available in Australia and New Zealand offer incorrect information. Consumers using this information to make their choices may inadvertently be sabotaging their weight loss efforts.

‘Net carbs’ is an example of this. ‘Net carbs’ are determined by subtracting dietary fibre and sugar alcohols from total carbohydrate, and is not allowed to be used by Australian or New Zealand manufacturers but is common in the USA. Comparing a product made in New Zealand with a product made in the USA, therefore, is not always comparing like for like.

In Australia and New Zealand, dietary fibre is usually listed separately to total carbohydrates, while sugar alcohols may or may not be listed separately, but do form part of the total carbohydrate count.

Some commonly used sugar alcohols include glycerol, erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, inositol, isomalt and maltitol. Some of these cause tummy pain, bloating, flatulence, and toileting problems for some consumers

So when looking for an appropriate between-meal snack, select one that:

  • Is made in Australia or New Zealand
  • Lists total carbs (not net carbs)
  • Lists all sugar alcohols as part of their total carbs
  • Contains approximately equal amounts of protein and carb
  • Is not too low in fat.

If in doubt, pop into your nearest Healthy Inspirations centre and check out their range.