When you hear the word “snack,” do images of cookies and potato chips come to mind?
Those are treats, not snacks.
Most Americans snack every single day, and these between-meal choices make up a quarter of our daily calories. That’s a pretty big chunk of the diet, so it makes sense to choose snacks that boost wellness, rather than treats that simply add calories, sugar and salt.
Now, we’re not doing too badly. Nutritious options such as fruit, peanut butter and vegetables are among the top 10 most-consumed snacks. But chips and chocolate still take first and second place.
It’s easy to confuse snacks with treats because of how they are marketed. Last week, the FDA announced that it is reevaluating the use of term “healthy” on packaged foods, because the current definition leads to consumer confusion. Here’s your cheat sheet on how to ignore marketing buzzwords that give treats a health halo and choose more nutritious snacks instead.
The word “healthy” is allowed on snack foods that limit fat, cholesterol and sodium, but sugar is not part of the equation. So low-fat cookies can be declared “healthy,” even though they might be loaded with sugar. Aren’t those treats? It’s hard to tell.
Words like “natural” and “organic” are also suspect. More than 60 percent of consumers buy foods labeled as “natural,” even though it has no clear definition from the FDA. The term “organic” describes a method of farming, not the nutritional value of a food.
So, that box of healthy, natural, organic cookies contains just, well, cookies. They probably have the same amount of sugar and calories as any other baked goods, despite the buzzwords.
There are better ways to choose snacks beyond relying on marketing terminology. Start by dividing snacks into three groups:
1. Nutritious snacks (choose these most often): Your best snack options are fresh, real, unprocessed foods, such as a peach, a handful of pistachios or celery filled with natural peanut butter (meaning the only ingredient is peanut butter). The only “processing” these foods undergo is shelling the pistachios or grinding peanuts into peanut butter.
Nutritious snacks such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and yogurt help boost mood and energy levels, stabilize blood sugar, and sustain fullness to prevent overeating at your next meal. They are mini-meals that help nourish your body, and can fill in nutritional gaps. For example, if you fall short of vegetables at meals, you can make up the deficit by snacking on carrot sticks or sweet peppers between meals.
Do these wholesome snacks seem too ho-hum for you? They don’t need to be! Consider creative mashups. Try sweet Medjool dates slathered with almond butter, mashed avocado on grainy rye toast with a pinch of cayenne, or air-popped popcorn topped with Parmesan and garlic. Yum.
2. Healthy-ish convenient snacks (choose these sometimes): You may not always have time for homemade nutritious snacks, and that’s okay. Lucky for you, there are many on-the-go packaged options that are healthy-ish. That means they have some redeeming nutritional value — perhaps protein, fiber or calcium — even though they also contain a bit of added sugar or salt.
Healthy-ish snacks found at most convenience stores include:
•Luna, Kind or Rx bars
•Single-serve Greek or Icelandic yogurt
•Seasoned kale chips
•Wasabi or tamari-flavored almonds
•Roasted seasoned chickpeas
•Chips and crackers made from whole grains, seeds and beans, such as Mary’s, Beanitos, Way Better and Luke’s
These snacks are made from nutritious ingredients, so you do get some health benefits from them. In a pinch, they are your second-best snack option after fresh foods.
When selecting these snacks, skip the buzzwords and read the ingredient list and nutrition panel instead. Choose snacks with fewer than 200 calories per serving, and at least four grams of protein or fiber. They should also have no more than 200 milligrams of sodium or 15 grams of sugar. A little added salt or sugar is okay.
3. Treats (limit these): When nutritionists recommend between-meal snacks, we’re not talking about chips and cookies washed down with soda. Small quantities of treats can be part of a healthy diet, but they should not be confused with nourishing snacks.
Chocolate bars, chips, ice cream, cookies and candy are obvious treats. Soda and sugary coffee drinks account for half of our daily snack calories, so those count as treats, too.
Sometimes it’s harder to tell, so just remember this:
Fruit-flavored candies like Skittles and gummy bears don’t count as fruit.
Chips with a dusting of spinach and carrot powder are not vegetables.
Muffins are cupcakes without icing.
And those chocolate-dipped granola bars and antioxidant-rich chocolate-covered blueberries? Those are candy.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”