Healthier Snacking: Scientists Identify Best Fruit Snack
Akshay Naik 28 March 2024
When preparing a child’s lunch or choosing a nutritious afternoon snack, one only needs to look at three varieties of fruit snacks - dried fruit, fruit puree and canned fruit with juice. These align with the most recent recommendations for high-nutrition snacks established by US federal dietary guidelines, as revealed by research conducted by food scientists at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). 
 
This food comparison study was led by food scientists Prof Amanda Kinchla and Prof Alissa Nolden and was published in the journal Nutrients. The findings shed light on the nutritional profiles of various commercially available fruit snacks and highlight the need for healthier options in the market. 
 
Among the fruit snacks analysed, including dried fruit, fruit puree, canned fruit with juice, gummies and others, dried fruit emerged as the top performer in terms of overall nutritional value. These were snacks identified by the United States department of agriculture (US DA) as “products made with fruit and fruit juices, which may or may not contain added sugar, artificial colours and flavours, and preservatives.” Dried fruit was identified to have the best overall nutritional profile, with the highest nutrient density and fibre content and lowest added sugar.
 
On the other hand, fruit-flavoured snacks, like gummies, ranked the lowest in nutrient density and fibre content but had the highest added sugar content. Other fruit snack options with low nutrient density include canned fruit packed in something other than juice and dried flavoured fruit, both of which contain higher amounts of added sugar. 
 
Eating a piece of fresh fruit is undoubtedly the healthiest option, but the study noted that 80% of the US population does not consume the daily amount of fruit servings (five) which is recommended by federal dietary guidelines. Hence, one possible strategy for consumers to increase fruit in their diet is to choose nutrient-dense fruit snacks. 
 
“It’s not fresh fruit but the snacking products that people are more customarily consuming,” Prof Kinchla remarked. 
 
The study analysed 1,497 fruit snacks using the Mintel Global New Products Database and the Nutrient Rich Foods (NRF) Index which calculates an overall nutrition quality score based on the nutrient profile of foods. The NRF Index considers nutrients that are desirable—protein, dietary fibre, potassium, vitamin D, calcium, iron, as well as those that are recommended to be limited in the diet -- saturated fat, cholesterol, added sugar and sodium, to assess the overall nutrient quality of each fruit snack. For the purposes of the study, researchers defined fruit snacks as “non-frozen, non-beverage food products mainly made with fruit ingredients.”
 
Analysis of this collected data highlighted the need for reformulation in certain fruit snack categories. Researchers have suggested that formed fruit and fruit-based bars could reduce added sugar to improve their nutritional profile. Similarly, canned fruit with added sugar and fruit-flavoured snacks require more significant reformulation to enhance their nutrient density and fibre content. 
 
“We were trying to connect the dots between all the nutrients, which is the advantage of the NRF—to be able to look at multiple nutrients at the same time,” explained Prof Nolden. 
 
The researchers not only looked at the nutritional value per serving size but also calculated added sugar and fibre content based on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) per eating occasion, to balance the serving variability among different fruit snack categories. The goal was to determine the healthfulness of fruit snacks and see where improvements could be made. 
 
“With Alissa’s consumer insight and understanding of perceptions and sensory analysis, we can try to understand consumers’ acceptance and limitations and then design foods that would better cater to that, so that we can then bolster health and wellness platforms,” suggested Prof Kinchla.
 
The published research concludes that reformulation of fruit snacks is desperately required; with formed fruit and fruit-based bars having lower amounts of added sugar, thus becoming a more nutritious fruit snack option. Similarly canned fruit (with added sugar) and fruit-flavoured snacks need more reformulation, as they are low in nutrient density and fibre content and high in added sugar. 
 
Researchers believe that improving the nutritional quality of fruit snacks can facilitate smart snacking choices. According to them, future direction for fruit snack category should consider decreasing added sugar content, increasing fibre content and enhancing sensory profile to improve the overall nutrient density. 
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