Can a Healthy Snack Be Tasty?

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Finding time to sit down and eat a meal can be challenging. But snacking is a different story.

"Grabbing something on the go has become acceptable as a time-saving mechanism," notes Bethany Thayer, a registered dietitian at the Health Alliance Plan in Detroit and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetics Association.

In 2005, consumers spent $24 billion on snack foods, according to the Snack Foods Association, a trade group. Snackers tend to favor salty, savory fare -- potato, corn and tortilla chips, microwave popcorn and pretzels -- over the sweeter cookies, cake and snack bars.

Many snacks used to fall short nutritionally. But since last year, when the Food and Drug Administration began requiring food companies to list grams of unhealthy trans fat on labels, a good number have been reformulated to include healthier fats. A growing number also contain whole grains, which provide added fiber and other nutrients.

Question is: How do the fairly-good-for-you items taste?

To find out, we recently tested 24 healthier snacks made by Dr. Krackle, Flat Earth, Hostess, Kettle Foods and Snyder's. They ranged from the familiar -- pretzels, cheese puffs and chocolate cake -- to the newfangled, including peach mango fruit chips, honey mustard and onion pretzel nibbles, flaxseed tortilla strips and Southwest cheddar sunflower chips.

All had 100 to 140 calories per one-ounce serving, considered a reasonable amount for a healthy snack. None had trans fat or contained more than 1.5 grams of saturated fat per serving. (Like trans fat, this unhealthy fat is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Current recommendations are to keep saturated fat at less than 7 percent of total calories, or about 16 grams per day for the average adult consuming 2,000 calories daily.)

Our testers were Washington Post reporters, editors and other newsroom staff -- in short, voracious snackers who sampled as much, or as little, as they wanted. We offered the snacks at 3 p.m. when afternoon appetites begin to surge and kept them available into the early evening when deadlines loom and stress and hunger rise. More than 50 snackers participated. We asked them to rate products on a flavor scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best.

It's one thing to taste a free product, another to buy it. So we also asked snackers to rate their willingness to pay for snacks with their own cash. The possible responses ranged from 0 ("not a chance") to 3 ("in a heartbeat").

Every product in our decidedly unscientific study found at least a few enthusiastic fans who rated its flavor a perfect 5, suggesting that all these healthier products appeal to some.

But when the scores were tallied by product, most garnered only a 3, an average rating for flavor. The top two favorites were Snyder's MultiGrain Aged Cheddar Cheese Puffs, which earned a 3.9 score, and Snyder's Honey Mustard and Onion Pretzel Nibblers, which averaged 3.7.

The least favorite was Dr. Kracker's Muesli Kribbons Made with Spelt, which averaged 2.0. Many found these too crunchy and dry.

When it comes to sweet snacks, our tasters liked all three traditional flavors of the Hostess 100-calorie cake snack packs -- carrot cake with cream cheese icing, golden cake with creamy filling and chocolate cake with creamy filling. About a third of those who tried them said they'd buy either the golden cake or the chocolate cake.

But many of our snackers didn't like the sweet fruit combination found in Flat Earth's Wild Berry Patch Baked Fruit Crisps. Nor did they favor the Peach Mango Paradise Baked Fruit Crisps, also by Flat Earth.

Whether you try some of these new, healthier products or stick with your favorites, you can improve the nutritional quality of snacks "by making them mini-meals," Thayer notes.

Consider washing down your snack with skim milk or low-fat calcium-fortified soy milk, which will provide protein. Or serve it with a side of fruit or a couple of slices of low-fat cheese or a handful of nuts.

And think outside the snack box or bag. Other healthy nontraditional snacks include a cup of soup, a bowl of whole-grain cereal with fruit and milk, and whole-grain pita bread with bean dip.

Staff writer Kathleen Hom contributed to this column.

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