9 Snack Foods: Healthy or Not?
Healthy eating is often a challenge, particularly when we're surrounded by so many foods that seem to disguise themselves as good for us. We know some fats are necessary, whole grains are good, and getting adequate amounts of fruits and veggies is paramount, but sometimes the grocery store can still feel like a nutritional maze.
The problem with assessing the health-value of many foods is that consumers are "led by the advertisement on the front of the package, and that becomes a selling point," said Constance Brown-Riggs, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The best thing to do is to pick up a package and turn it around. For example, healthy snacks should be no more than 200 calories, and should have plenty of fiber, little sugar and almost no fat, Brown-Riggs said. Reading the list of ingredients, along with the nutrition label, is a good way to understand what you're really eating, she said.
"Snacks absolutely can be included in a healthy meal plan, it just requires a little bit of thought and planning," Brown-Riggs said.
Here are some commonly advertised "healthy" snack choices, and where they fall on the health-o-meter.
With its high protein and calcium content, cheese is often assumed to be a healthy part of diet, in moderation. But according to Brown-Riggs, American cheese is "processed it's not cheese."
Not only can it have a lot of fat, American cheese also contains sugar and carbohydrates which most cheeses do not have. Low-fat cheddar cheese not only has less saturated fat than American cheese, it has twice the protein of the processed product.
For a healthier snack, opt for low-fat cheddar or other unprocessed cheese, and remember that a healthy diet should be based around whole foods, not processed foods.
Exactly how healthy a yogurt parfait is really depends on what's in it. A parfait made of fat-free yogurt and fresh fruit is a great snack that can easily be prepared at home.
But prepackaged parfaits often have added sugar , fat and calories in the form of fruit compotes or added granola, not to mention that the yogurt is often the full-fat type. In some parfaits, Brown-Riggs said, it's not even real yogurt.
Purchasing a "vanilla Greek yogurt and adding your own fruit on top is going to be a much better snack," she said.
Sweets enriched with nutrients
There are sweets that are marketed as healthier because they include important vitamins and minerals, for example, the aptly named Who Nu Cookies. But such claims of healthiness are nothing more an advertising gimmick, Brown-Riggs said.
"People don't eat cookies for these nutritional benefits," she said. Indulging in a cookie should be reserved for that occasional sweet treat, not as a means for getting essential vitamins and minerals."
In fact, it's often better to not even indulge in these kinds of a cookie and snacks, because they send such a mixed message about their health value that people use it justify a bad snacking habit.
Instead, Brown-Riggs said, by indulging in a couple of your favorite treats every once in a while, you can leave your sweet tooth feeling satiated and under control.
Whole grain corn chips
The most important thing to do with a bag of corn chips advertised as "whole grain" is to make sure the first ingredient listed in the ingredient list on the back is also whole grain, Brown-Riggs said.
While you're back there, check to make sure the chips also have a bit of fiber , and make sure the sodium level, which can range from 5 milligrams (mg) per serving to 150 mg per serving, is at the lower end of that range.
If the chips meet all these criteria, they could actually be a somewhat healthy snack or at least, a healthy alternative to a standard potato chip, Brown-Riggs said.
"There is no redeeming quality to fruit leather," Brown-Riggs said. Even if it the product is labeled as organic and full of vitamin C, the added sugar and lack of fiber makes it a tough sell to a nutritionist.
Instead of processed fruit leather, a piece of fresh fruit, with natural vitamins and plenty of fiber, will yield much more satisfaction, Brown-Riggs said. For people attracted to the convenience factor of the leather, try prunes or small boxes of raisins, Brown-Riggs suggested. They're both sweet options that are much more healthful than processed products, and still carry the fun factor associated with one-serving items.
High protein content is generally a good thing in a snack choice, but there are many better options besides beef jerky, which is highly processed and loaded with sodium and sugar, Brown-Riggs said.
Instead of going for the jerky, try a high-protein snack such as tuna, which now comes in portable pouches, or a handful of mixed nuts or almonds. Even string cheese is a better option than beef jerky, and tends to be just as convenient, Brown-Riggs said, but watch out for the fat content of such cheeses.
While these tasty snacks are perhaps lower in fat than potato chips, they still contain unhealthy amounts of sodium and fat. Additionally, they tend not to be whole grain, instead using enriched flour, which doesn't carry the same benefits, Brown-Riggs said.
It's important to not limit your snacks to only foods labeled as snack foods, Brown-Riggs said. In fact, it's better to think about snacks as the "healthy foods that you decide to eat between meals.
Whole grain crackers are a much better choice than cheese-flavored crackers, she said. Even topping a whole grain cracker with a slice of low-fat cheese is a better option than indulging in this snack food.
Vitamin-C enriched fruit snacks
These little morsels can seem like a good way to get kids to consume their daily dose of vitamin C, and they often tout fruit juice as an ingredient, but this is just a selling point, according to Brown-Riggs.
The second ingredient in the ingredient list is almost invariably sugar or corn syrup, making them nothing more than a sweet with a little bit of vitamin C.
If you want to get vitamin C, get it from an orange, Brown-Riggs said.
Popsicles made from "real fruit" or "real fruit juice
Even popsicles that are made with actual fruit juice probably contain added sugars, Brown-Riggs said. Additionally, if they're made from fruit juices, rather than fruit, they likely have very little fiber .
In looking for a better frozen treat, it's possible to find ones that contain some whole fruit, and as a result, likely also contain a little bit of fiber, Brown-Riggs said.
But the best option is pureeing your own frozen or fresh fruit and then freezing it, which will give your snack a bit more fiber while keeping out added sugars.