Whether eating a between-meal snack or a snack as a meal, snacks are a major component of our daily diet. In fact, a recent consumer survey found that we eat, on average, 2.6 snacks a day with 41% of us snacking at least three times a day, on average.1
My family is definitely in the 2 to 3 snacks per day range. If we are at home, my favorite snacks are a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts or some veggie sticks and hummus because these are packed with nutrients and stay-fuller-longer fiber. However, when we are out and about it is nice to have a stash of prepackaged healthy snacks that are kid approved and not too messy.
Previous posts have discussed choosing healthier granola bars and flavored yogurt, so this article is focused on choosing healthier portable (read: prepackaged) savory snacks. Chips and cookies are not covered in this evaluation because I consider them treats rather than snacks (more on these soon).
What to look for when choosing healthier snacks:
1. Look for fiber and whole grains. Foods and snacks rich in whole grains contain more fiber, which slows down the rate the body digests carbohydrates keeping you fuller longer. The American Heart Association states that eating foods containing “dietary fiber from whole grains, as part of an overall healthy diet, may help improve blood cholesterol levels, and lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes.”2
2. Minimize refined grains. Refined grains typically have the bran and germ removed (the major source of a grain’s vitamins and fiber), allowing the body to digest them extremely quickly which can rapidly increase blood glucose levels (these are known as high Glycemic Index (GI) foods, more on Glycemic Index soon).2,3 Diets comprised predominantly of high-GI foods are associated with chronic disease and strongly associated with heart disease.3
3. Reduce sodium intake. Sodium, from salt and other food additives, can be found in almost any processed food. Salt is added to enhance a food’s flavor or even to aid in manufacturing.4 More than 90% of us consume too much sodium each day according to the Dietary Guidelines of America.6 Read more on the recommended daily intake of sodium and why you want to reduce your daily sodium intake.
4. Minimize added sugar. Though you would think salty snacks would not typically contain added sugar, it is often a common ingredient in some savory processed foods. In crackers and other snack foods, typical added sugars listed in the ingredients include sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup and dextrose. Read more on recommended daily intake of added sugar and why you want to minimize added sugar consumption.
5. Avoid Artificial Food Coloring. Artificial food coloring is most widely used in sodas, candy, and baked goods including crackers and other salty snacks. I have discuss why it is best to avoid artificial food coloring and caramel coloring in previous posts on choosing a breakfast cereal and choosing a granola bar.
Bottom line: When selecting snacks for yourself and your family, look for foods that are rich in whole grains and fiber, do not contain excessive amounts of sodium, have minimal added sugar, and do not contain artificial preservatives or colors.
Evaluation of popular savory snacks:
Below are the criteria used to evaluate some top selling savory snacks (crackers, popcorn and pretzels).5 The snacks were ranked into three categories: Wise (), Acceptable (), and Avoid (). Many predominantly whole grain snacks could not be rated as “wise” simply because they contained too much sodium (which is a common problem with processed foods), so they were rated as “acceptable.” It is worth noting that “avoid” does not mean never eat. It simply means that these are snacks that contain mostly, if not all, refined gains and excessive sodium and should be considered an occasional treat, not a daily staple.
Evaluations of three categories of savory snacks (crackers, popcorn and pretzels) can be found in the below tables. The serving size of the evaluated snack foods ranged from 16 to 43 grams. For comparison purposes, information contained in the below tables is for 30 gram servings (the average of the snack serving sizes). All nutritional information came from manufacturers websites or current product packaging.6-22 Ingredients colored red are considered added sugar. An * indicates ingredients that are likely genetically engineered ingredients that are likely produced using genetically engineered crops (learn more about GMO foods). A ✓ indicates common allergen-free snacks that are included in Snack Safely’s Safe Snack Guide.23
Choosing Healthier Crackers
The majority of cracker products on the market are made with entirely with enriched wheat flour. Combined with excessive amounts of sodium and sometimes even added sugar, there are few nutrients being supplied by these snacks. When you choose crackers for your family, try to select some that contain predominantly whole grains. How do you know if a snack is rich in whole grains? Look to see if “whole grain wheat” is the first ingredient on the ingredient list or if the snack contains roughly 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrates listed on the Nutrition Facts label.
Choosing Healthier Packaged Popcorn
Popcorn is a naturally fiber rich whole grain snack. However, it can be loaded with excess sodium and other ingredients. So, if you are choosing a packaged popcorn, make sure you read the Nutrition Facts label to ensure it isn’t providing an excessive amount of sodium. It is worth noting that Pirate’s Booty is highly processed and contains minimal whole grains (read the ingredient label below). A healthier option would be a cheese flavored popcorn.
Choosing Healthier Pretzels
Pretzels are not a healthy snack. They are coated in salt and traditionally made with refined flour, so they are nutritionally empty and contribute only empty calories and excess salt to your diet. This is why I have yet to find a “wise” option for pretzels. However, if you love pretzels (like my boys do), try to buy whole grain or spelt pretzels and have them in the snack rotation less frequently.
What prepackaged savory snacks do I keep stocked in my pantry? Lots of popcorn (both packaged popcorn and the unpopped kernels – my boys love watching them pop in the air popper), spelt pretzels, whole grain crackers, nuts, and no-added-sugar dried fruit. I try to mix the more processed snacks (like pretzels and whole grain goldfish) with other unsalted foods for various trail mix combinations that are a little bit sweet, a little bit salty, and with some seeds or nuts that provide some hunger fighting protein and additional fiber.
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- State of the Snack Food Industry, 2015, IRi Website (link)
- Whole Grains and Fiber, American Heart Association Website (link)
- Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells & Lose Weight Permanently, David Ludwig, MD, PhD (link)
- Salt, Sugar, Fat. Michael Moss, 2013 (link)
- Sales of the leading cracker brands of the United States in 2016, Statistica Website (link) as well as prominent snacks for sale at Costco, Target, and my local grocery store (Harris Teeter).
- Triscuit Nutrition Information, Nabisco Snack Works Website (link)
- Wheat Thins Nutrition Information, Nabisco Snack Works Website (link)
- Goldfish Cracker Nutrition Information, Pepperidge Farm Website (link)
- Cheddar Bunnies Nutrition Information, Annie’s Website (link)
- Cheez It Nutrition Information, Cheez It Website (link)
- Ritz Crackers Nutrition Information, Nabisco Snack Works Website (link)
- Toast Chee Nutrition Information, Lance Website (link)
- Skinny Pop Original Nutrition Information, Skinny Pop Website (link)
- Smartfood White Cheddar Nutrition Information, Smartfood Website (link)
- Pirate’s Booty Aged White Cheddar Nutrition Information, Pirate Brands Website (link)
- Newman’s Own Spelt Pretzels Nutrition Information, Newman’s Own Website (link)
- Snyders of Hanover Mini Pretzels Nutrition Information, Snyders of Hanover Website (link)
- Pretzel Crips Nutrition Information, Snack Factory Website (link)
- Multi-Seed Crackers Nutrition Information, Crunchmaster Website (link)
- Mary’s Gone Crackers Original Nutrition Information, Mary’s Gone Crackers Website (link)
- Carr’s Table Water Crackers Nutrition Information, Carr’s Website (link)
- Breton Crackers Nutrition Information, Dare Foods Website (link)
- Safe Snack Guide: A list of allergy friendly snacks, Snack Safely Website (link)