Health campaigners said parents who want to do the best for their children are being “tricked” into buying fruit-based snacks that are in fact high in sugar.
Holly Gabriel, a nutritionist at Action on Sugar, told The Telegraph: “It is highly concerning that many people, especially parents, are often tricked into choosing these fruit-based snacks thinking they are choosing healthier products, only to find these items are high in free sugars, and with minimal nutritional value.
“Claims on packs such as ‘No added colours’ and ‘one of your five a day’ mislead parents that these are a suitable snack, with many stating: ‘Great for kids.’ Whilst it should be mandatory for these products to be included in reformulation programmes, it is essential that the upcoming labelling reviews in the UK results in changes to these practises.
“Along with the many other health impacts of excessive free sugar consumption, these snacks are contributing to tooth decay in children and should be classed as confectionary and not healthy snacks.”
As well as Percy Pig sweets, sold by M&S, Action on Sugar and the Dental Wellness Trust also highlighted a number of other supposedly healthy snacks which they described as harmful. These include Graze Super Snackers Strawberry, Fruit Bowl Yogurt Raisins and Bear Pure Fruit Yoyos Strawberry, which they say are high in sugar.
Graze is promoted as “high in fibre. Real fruit. No artificial sweeteners, colours, flavours or preservatives. These bars have 50 per cent less sugar than the average cereal bar and with a recipe made with help from kids. Less sugar, top taste”.
Fruit Bowl’s Yogurt Raisins are marketed as “ideal as a snack. Irresistible, intensely fruity, and incredibly moreish. Fruit made fun. Yummy, yummy yogurt coated raisins”.
June O’Sullivan, the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation, said: “It’s already a struggle for parents to fully understand what is ‘healthy’ without food manufacturers confusing matters further with misleading claims and snacks packed full of sugar which are marketed heavily towards children.
“At a time when nearly 40 per cent of all London’s children are overweight or affected by obesity, and the highest rates occur in the areas of greatest deprivation, this is highly irresponsible behaviour.”
Dr Saul Konviser, of the Dental Wellness Trust, said: “Added sugar has found its way into almost all food, and the use of sugar as a means to calm, entertain, or reward children has become normalised, whereas in fact it does quite the opposite and so sugar should be an occasional treat.
“Aside from the well-known health problems of obesity and diabetes, the widespread availability of sugar leads to much toothache and suffering, not just in children but in adults too.”
Graze defended its Super Snackers range as “delicious wholegrain oat bars that are all under 100 kcals with 50 per cent less sugar than the average cereal bar”.
A spokesman said: “All three recipes contain less than 3g sugar per bar. The reason we add some sugar is not only to create great tasting products but it’s also really important for binding and texture in baked goods.
“As a brand we strongly believe ‘natural’ is the best policy when it comes to health and when it comes to sugar. We would never permit any artificial sweeteners in any of our products to achieve lower sugar levels, like some other brands do.
“Golden syrup and liquid sugar are types of sucrose sugar, much like cane sugar, and help us give our cereal bars a great taste and texture. We also add dried fruit into the mix for natural sweetness. We’ve managed lower sugar content in our kids’ product by replacing sugar with naturally sweet chicory root fibre.
“We also want to be clear that we do not advertise or promote these products to children, in accordance with the Unilever principles on marketing to children.”
Fruit Bowl said: “Fruit Bowl Yogurt Raisins are clearly positioned differently in the market to Fruit Bowl’s wider range, which the brand communicates through the packaging design and the language on pack.
“Yogurt Raisins are clearly marked as a ‘yummy treat’ on front of pack, rather than an everyday snack. While Fruit Bowl Yogurt Raisins contain real fruit and no added colours or flavours, we make no claims such as high fibre or one of a child’s five a day on this range.”
Henry Dimbleby, the founder of the Leon restaurant chain and author of the Government’s National Food Strategy, took particular aim at M&S for its Percy Pig sweets, marketed as containing all natural fruit juice and sold at child- height in stores despite the first four ingredients listed being forms of sugar, such as fructose syrup and glucose-fructose syrup.
Mr Dimbleby said part of the problem was that well-meaning parents were giving children unhealthy snacks such as raisins which were “clothed in a veneer of goodness and actually may be no better for you than a Mars Bar”.
An M&S spokesman said: “All our products have clear labelling so that customers can make informed choices about what they buy. All our Percy Pigs are made with natural fruit juices and no artificial colours or flavourings, and last year we also introduced a range of Percy Pigs with one third less sugar.”