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.1
My family is normally in the 2 to 3 snacks a day range. When we are home, a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts are our go-to snacks. Both contain ample nutrients and stay-full-longer fiber. However, it is nice to have a stash of prepackaged healthy snacks that are kid-approved for when we are out and about.
Previous posts have discussed choosing healthier granola bars and flavored yogurt, so this article is focused on choosing healthier, prepackaged savory snacks. I consider chips and cookies as treats and not snacks, so they are not covered in this evaluation.
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 do not contain the bran or germ of the grain (the major source of a grain’s vitamins and fiber). With only the starchy component of the grain remaining, the body quickly digests refined grains. This leads to a rapid increase blood glucose levels (these are known as high Glycemic Index (GI) foods).2,3 Diets made up of predominantly 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 the flavor of a product and make manufacturing easier.4 More than 90% of us consume too much sodium each day according to the Dietary Guidelines of America.5 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
Top selling savory snacks (crackers, popcorn and pretzels) were evaluated using the criteria below.6 Many snacks rich in whole grains could not be rated as “wise” simply because they contained too much sodium. This is a common problem with processed foods. 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, excessive sodium, and often other junky ingredients. These snacks should be considered a rare treat, not a daily staple.
Criteria used to evaluate snacks
Since serving size of the snacks ranged from 16 to 43 grams, all information below is for 30 gram servings. Types of added sugar are listed in red. An asterisk (*) indicates ingredients that are likely genetically engineered (learn more about GMO foods). A check (✓) indicates common allergen-free snacks that are included in Snack Safely’s Safe Snack Guide.7
Choosing Healthier Crackers
Most crackers on the market are made entirely with enriched wheat flour. These crackers provide few nutrients. Especially since they often contain excessive amounts of sodium and sometimes even added sugar. 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.
Examples of healthy crackers:
Ingredients: whole grain wheat, vegetable oil*, sea salt.✓ 8
Mary’s Gone Crackers
Ingredients: whole grain brown rice, whole grain quinoa, brown flax seeds, brown sesame seeds, filtered water, sea salt, wheat free tamari.9
Crunchmaster Multi-Seed Crackers
Ingredients: brown rice flour, sesame seeds, potato starch, quinoa seeds, safflower oil, flax seeds, amaranth seeds, tamari soy sauce powder, salt.10
Crackers that are okay for occasional snacking:
Ingredients: whole grain wheat flour, soybean oil*, sugar*, cornstarch*, malt syrup, salt, refiner’s syrup, leavening, vegetable color.✓ 11
Ingredients: Whole grains (whole wheat flour, wheat meal, purple wheat meal, rye meal, triticale meal, malted wheat meal, barley meal, spelt meal, amaranth, millet, quinoa, wild rice flour), wheat flour, coconut oil, canola oil*, flax seeds, sugar*, salt, barley malt syrup, wheat bran, wheat gluten, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, modified milk ingredients, ammonium bicarbonate, yeast extract, baking soda, soya lecithin*, protease, pentosanase, natural flavor, spices.12
Whole Grain Goldfish
Ingredients: whole wheat flour, enriched wheat flour, cheddar cheese, canola and/or sunflower oil, salt, yeast extract, natural flavor, paprika, spices, celery, baking soda, monocalcium phosphate, onion powder.✓ 13
Crackers to avoid or eat only as a rare treat:
Table Water Crackers
Ingredients: enriched wheat flour, palm oil, salt.14
Reasons to avoid Table Water Crackers: no whole grains.
Ingredients: enriched flour, vegetable oil*, cheese, salt, paprika, yeast, paprika extract (for color), soy lecithin*.15
Reasons to avoid Cheez It crackers: no whole grains.
Ingredients: enriched flour, soybean oil*, sugar*, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil*, salt, leavening, high fructose corn syrup*, soy lecithin*, malted barley flour, natural flavor.16
Reasons to avoid Ritz crackers: no whole grains, small amount of trans fat (hydrogenated cottonseed oil).
Ritz Bits, Peanut Butter
Ingredients: enriched flour, peanut butter (contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil), vegetable oil*, sugar, dextrose, leavening, salt, soy lecithin*, malted barley flour. 17
Reasons to avoid Ritz Bits Peanut Butter crackers: no whole grains, small amount of trans fat (in the peanut butter).
Ingredients: enriched flour, peanut butter, vegetable oil*, dextrose, sugar*, salt, leavening, corn syrup*, deproteinized dairy whey, cheddar cheese, yellow 6, soy lecithin*.18
Reasons to avoid Toast Cheez crackers: no whole grains, artificial food coloring.
Ingredients: enriched flour, cheddar cheese, canola and/or sunflower oils*, salt, yeast, sugar, autolyzed yeast, baking soda, monocalcium phosphate, paprika, spices, celery and onions. ✓ 19 Note: companies are allowed to state “0 grams” for an ingredient on the nutrition facts label if the product contains less than 0.5 grams of that ingredient.
Reasons to avoid Goldfish crackers: no whole grains, 250 mg of sodium per serving.
Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies
Ingredients: wheat flour, sunflower oil, salt, cheddar cheese, yeast, paprika, cultured whole milk, nonfat milk, annatto extract, ground celery seed, onion powder, natural vitamin E.20
Reasons to avoid Cheddar Bunnies crackers: no whole grains, 250 mg of sodium per serving.
Stacy’s Pita Chips
Ingredients: enriched wheat flour, sunflower and / or canola oil, sea salt, whole wheat flour, sugar, oat fiber, yeast, malted barley flour, rosemary extract, and ascorbic acid.21
Reasons to avoid Stacy’s Pita Chips: no whole grains, 289 mg of sodium per serving.
Choosing Healthier Packaged Popcorn
Popcorn is a naturally fiber rich whole grain snack. However, packaged popcorn often contains excess sodium and processed 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. Also, Pirate’s Booty is not popcorn. It contains highly processed refined corn with minimal whole grains. Cheese flavored popcorn is a healthier option.
Examples of healthy popcorn snacks:
Ingredients: popcorn, sunflower oil and salt. ✓ 22
Popcorn snacks to avoid or eat only as a rare treat:
Ingredients: popcorn, vegetable oil*, cheddar cheese, whey, buttermilk, and salt. ✓ 23
Reason to avoid Smartfood popcorn: 311 mg of sodium per serving.
Ingredients: corn meal*, rice flour, sunflower oil and or canola oil*, cheddar cheese, whey, buttermilk, salt, natural flavor, sea salt, lactic acid, citric acid, organic black pepper. ✓ 24
Reason to avoid Pirate’s Booty popcorn: no whole grains.
Choosing Healthier Pretzels
Pretzels are not a healthy snack. Made with predominantly refined flour and coated in salt, pretzels 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 pretzels made with some whole grains and have them in the snack rotation less frequently.
Pretzels to avoid or eat only as a rare treat:
Whole Grain Goldfish Pretzels
Ingredients: whole wheat flour, enriched flour, vegetable oils*, salt, baking powder, baking soda, malted barley flour, nonfat milk. ✓ 25
Reason to avoid Whole Grain Goldfish pretzels: 260 mg of sodium per serving.
Snyder’s of Hanover Pretzels
Ingredients: enriched flour, water, salt, malt, dextrose, canola oil*, yeast, soda. 26
Reason to avoid Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels: no whole grains, 250 mg of sodium per serving.
Snack Factory Pretzel Crisps
Ingredients: enriched wheat flour, sugar*, salt, malt syrup, soda. 27
Reason to avoid Pretzel Crisps: no whole grains, 354 mg of sodium per serving.
Conclusions about healthier snacks
What prepackaged savory snacks do I keep stocked in my pantry? Popcorn (both packaged popcorn and the unpopped kernels – my boys love watching them pop in the air popper), whole grain or seed-based crackers, nuts, and no-added-sugar dried fruit.
I try to mix the more processed snacks (like whole grain goldfish or pretzels) with roasted nuts and dried fruit in healthier snack mix combinations to provide some hunger-fighting protein and fiber.
- 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)
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, Eighth Ed. (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).
- Safe Snack Guide: A list of allergy friendly snacks, Snack Safely Website (link)
- Triscuit Nutrition Information, Nabisco Snack Works Website (link)
- Mary’s Gone Crackers Original Nutrition Information, Mary’s Gone Crackers Website (link)
- Crunchmaster Multi-Seed Crackers Nutrition Information, Crunchmaster Website (link)
- Wheat Thins Nutrition Information, Nabisco Snack Works Website (link)
- Breton Crackers Nutrition Information, Dare Foods Website (link)
- Whole Grain Goldfish Cracker Nutrition Information, Pepperidge Farm Website (link)
- Carr’s Table Water Crackers Nutrition Information, Carr’s Website (link)
- Cheez-It Nutrition Information, Cheez It Website (link)
- Ritz Crackers Nutrition Information, Nabisco Snack Works Website (link)
- Ritz Bitz Peanut Butter Nutrition Information, Nabisco Snack Works Website (link)
- Toast Chee Nutrition Information, Lance Website (link)
- Goldfish Cracker Nutrition Information, Pepperidge Farm Website (link)
- Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies Nutrition Information, Annie’s Website (link)
- Stacy’s Pita Chips Simply Naked, Stacy’s Snacks 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)
- Whole Grain Goldfish Pretzel Nutrition Information, Pepperidge Farm Website (link)
- Snyder’s of Hanover Mini Pretzels Nutrition Information, Snyder’s of Hanover Website (link)
- Snack Factory Pretzel Crips Nutrition Information, Snack Factory Website (link)
This article was originally published in May, 2017. This current version has been updated to improve readability and include the latest ingredients of the snacks evaluated.