A nutritionist rates your favourite packaged snacks

Look for protein and fibre for the longest-lasting sense of satisfaction.
Look for protein and fibre for the longest-lasting sense of satisfaction. Photo: William Meppem

Here's a fun fact: if you're camping and can't find any decent dry kindling, Doritos corn chips work a treat. They burn steadily and slowly, so a few well arranged logs around a small pile of lit chips will get a campfire going nicely. Unfortunately, Doritos make a good fire starter because of its high fat content – so while it's a great fuel in one sense, it may not be the best fuel for a long afternoon at work.

In an ideal world, we'd all have on hand a glistening piece of fresh fruit, some neatly sliced vegetables or maybe a small handful of raw nuts to see us through the 3pm slump. But let's get serious. Sometimes your only options are the office cupboards or the corner convenience store. Aloysa Hourigan​, senior nutritionist with Nutrition Australia, says choosing something high in fibre, with a decent amount of protein and a low GI rating will best stave off mid-afternoon hunger pangs. We asked her to assess some of Australia's most popular packaged snacks to help you make smarter decisions.

1. Pre-packaged cheese and crackers

We tried Mainland Cheese and Crackers on the Go, Tasty

$2.99 for 50g single serving packet; recommended serving size 50g (five squares of tasty cheese and five water crackers)

Nutritionist rating: A - B

Cheese and crackers tick a lot of boxes. According to Aloysa Hourigan there's a good amount of protein (9.8g) and calcium. Singe-serve packaging is also a plus, as it makes portion control relatively easy. Hourigan says this snack loses points as it's high in sodium and kilojoules - at 885kj per serve it's considerably above the 600kj or less recommended by Australian Dietary guidelines for discretionary snacks. Aloysa Hourigan says looking for a product with wholegrain crackers, or adding a slice of tomato would make it an even better choice.

2. Yoghurt

We tried Yoplait Forme No Fat, Strawberry

$5 for a packet of six individual tubs; recommended serving size 175g (one tub)

Nutritionist rating: A - B

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Hourigan is also a fan of yogurt as an occasional snack, saying it's high in protein and calcium, low in fat and has an appropriate number of kilojoules per serve. She points out however, that like many "low fat" products, it uses artificial sweeteners which isn't ideal. Like the cheese and crackers, the single serving packaging is beneficial to control portion size. In terms of convenience though, yoghurt does require refrigeration which makes it a less than perfect on-the-go snack. Hourigan says adding some fresh fruit (if available) would give the snack some "chew" to help you feel more sated.

3. Popcorn

We tried Cobs Natural Popcorn, Sea Salt

$2.85 for an 80g packet; recommended serving size 20g (one quarter of the bag)

Nutritionist rating: B

If you're going for something salty and crunchy, a pack of pre-popped popcorn isn't such a bad call. According to Hourigan, the recommended serving has an appropriate number of kilojoules, more fibre (2.7 grams) than the yoghurt or cheese and crackers. Somewhat surprisingly, for a product that is literally salt flavoured, the sodium levels are moderate while the fat levels are also ok. The major downside is that many people will struggle to control serving size. Hourigan recommends pouring out the recommended serving into a dish or container, and putting the rest away out of reach.

Smiths Chips Bein

Old favourite: Smiths Chips. Photo: Virginia Star

4. Potato chips

We tried: Smiths Original Crinkle Cut potato chips

$3.20 for a 170g packet; recommended serving size 27g (approximately 15 chips)

Nutritionist rating: D

I don't know about you but I never count how many chips I've crammed into my mouth, and then when I've reached exactly 15, backed away from the packet. Portion control is the killer here – a 27 gram serve of potato chips is one-sixth of the packet and simply isn't going to feel satisfying. Even that amount is high in fat and saturated fat and as Hourigan points out this snack is high in sodium, low in fibre and has too many kilojoules. Scraping around for a plus side? These chips are relatively good on the sugar count, but for a salted snack that probably shouldn't be considered a major win.

5. Corn chips

We tried Doritos, Nacho Cheese

$3.20 for a 170g packet; recommended serving size 27g (approximately 11 chips)

Nutritionist rating: C – D5

Flammability aside, there's not much to cheer about with corn chips either. Doritos are high in fat, saturated fat and overall kilojoules. Hourigan says they've got more carbs than you'd probably like to see in an afternoon snack and are low in protein. Portion control is again an issue with the recommended serve a measly 11 chips. Hourigan says the fibre count is decent, but the added "nacho" flavouring (which will probably turn your fingers a bit orange) could cause issues for people with food allergies or intolerances.

6. Wholegrain chips

We tried Grain Waves Sour Cream and Chives

$3.70 for a 175g packet; recommended serving size 28g (approximately 12 chips)

Nutritionist rating: C – D

The ads for wholegrain products like these Grain Waves spruik a genuinely healthy choice. The truth is they're still high in kilojoules and fat – though lower in saturated fat than the corn chips and potato chips. On the upside, sodium levels aren't too bad and there's more fibre than in the Smith's chips. Hourigan says while portion control will again be problematic, wholegrain chips require more chewing which could help you feel more sated after your designated 12 chips.

7. Muesli bar

We tried Uncle Tobys Crunchy Choc Chip

$5 for a 240g packet of 12 individual bars; recommended serving size is 20g (one bar)

Nutritionist rating: B

Office desk drawer favourite, the muesli bar scores highly on a number of fronts. It has an "appropriate" amount of kilojoules per serve and because it comes individually wrapped, it's difficult to overindulge. Sodium levels are low, the amount of carbohydrates isn't too bad and while the fibre (two grams) is below recommended levels, it's not terrible. This particular muesli bar is quite high in fat and saturated fat. Hourigan says choosing a non-crunchy, non-chocolate product would score better.

8. Sweet biscuits

We tried Arnott's Milk Coffee

$2 for a 250g packet; recommended serving size is 25.8g (3 biscuits)

Nutritionist rating: D

There aren't many Australian offices without a pack of bikkies lying around for workers to have with their afternoon cuppa. The best thing our nutritionist could find about this snack choice is that it's low in sodium and cheap. Protein and fibre levels are low, the biscuits are high fat and once again, portion control is an issue. Hourigan says just two or three more biscuits and you're in trouble. You should also remember that Milk Coffee biscuits are fairly plain – snacking on chocolate coated or iced biscuits would markedly ramp up the kilojoule count.

Supermarket products that are accidentally vegan. The Age/Food and Wine website

Barbecue Shapes. Photo: Michael Clayton Jones

9. Savoury biscuits

We tried Arnott's Shapes Barbecue

$3 for a 175g box; serving size is 25g (approximately 1/7 of the pack)

Nutritionist rating: D

Hourigan says Shapes have little to offer nutritionally – protein and fibre levels are low, while sodium and carbohydrates are high. Saturated fat isn't too bad though, and if you stick exactly to the recommended serving size your kilojoules count (520 kilojoules) comes in under the 600 kilojoules mark advised by Australian Dietary guidelines.

10. Rice crackers

We tried: Sakata, Plain

$2.33 for 100g packet; recommended serving size 25g (approximately 14 crackers)

Nutritionist rating: C

Hugely popular with people who have wheat or gluten intolerances, rice crackers are often perceived as a healthy snack choice. Unfortunately, each serving has virtually no fibre (0.2 grams) and little protein either. Points are gained for being low in kilojoules, fat and saturated fat and this brand is also low in salt. Hourigan recommends having fewer rice crackers but adding a small amount of a high-protein dip like hummus.

11. Trail mix

We tried Coles Fruit, Nuts and Seeds

$5 for a 400g bag; recommended serving size 30g (approximately 1/13th of the bag)

Nutritionist rating: A

There's a lot to like about trail mix as a snack option. Protein (a whopping 5.1 grams) and fibre are high, meaning you'll stay fuller for longer. It also involves a fair amount of chewing, which helps convince the body it's not hungry. Sodium is low and, though sugar is high, Hourigan says because it's naturally occurring from dried fruit, it's OK. Once again it's all about portion control because a small handful is all you need – so divide that bag up and get ready to conquer your afternoon.

OVERALL SNACK TIPS

Aloysa Hourigan says ensuring packets are out of sight will help control cravings. A good, nourishing lunch, as well as drinking plenty of water throughout the day keeps energy levels high. If you must snack, stay mindful of portion size and put away the rest of the bag or packet.