How to Pick the Healthiest Snacks for Your Family, According to RDs
Everything you need to know to get past the marketing jargon and tell if the packaged snacks are as good for you as they imply.
Strolling through the snack aisle at the grocery store can be a lot of fun, but if you're there to find snacks that are healthful and offer more than just a few calories and a bit of good flavor, the snack aisle can be challenging. Indeed, everything about the packaging you see has been specifically designed to capture your attention with bright colors, buzzwords, and bold, glossy photos. Almost any item can sound like it's good for you with the right design. But it's essential to know that not all snacks are created in the same way.
After all, a snack company's goal is to sell their product, whether it's healthy or not. So how can we find snacks that are tasty and nutritious?
Understanding the marketing jargon is a first step. This will help you be aware that a lot of catchy words don't always mean what you think they do. In fact, some may be ultimately meaningless but might make you believe what you're purchasing is a good choice.
"The front of the label packaging can carry promises that lead one to believe the product will promote health, when in fact it's just a way to tout a few health attributes of an unhealthy product," says Pam Cureton, RD, LDN, celiac disease expert and member of the Grain Foods Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board.
Thankfully, there is an ultimate arbiter of a food's nutrition: the nutrition labels. Reading and understanding a nutrition label can help us decipher what we really are buying and allow us to make an informed choice, regardless of the marketing and fancy packaging. Here's what that label and what a snack package can tell you about your snack choices.
What Makes a Good Snack?
Importantly, a "good" snack for you may encompass very different elements than someone else's "good" snack. That's why it's important you understand what you need out of a snack so that you're not buying blindly. And truly, there are a variety of factors to consider to determine if a packaged snack is "good" or "healthy." It's not just one number or ingredient.
"It is important to look beyond the food marketing part of the label and actually read the ingredient list, plus the nutrient facts per serving to ensure it is a good snack," says Michelle Routhenstein, MS RD CDE, preventive cardiology dietitian, and owner and nutritional consultant.
Marketers and package designers may focus on one aspect or ingredient to make the food seem like a better choice than the ones around it, but it's important to think of the whole picture.
"Another important point is to make sure the snack is well-balanced in both macro and micronutrients. This includes a snack that has adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates (primarily from fiber), and/or heart healthy fat or lean protein," Routhenstein says.
Breaking Down Buzzwords
Packages are often splashed with terminology and nutritional claims that can steer you away from less wholesome aspects, or put a glossy cover on a less-than-spectacular snack. So it's important to know how to "read" what a package is telling you.
Even though we've left behind the fat-phobic '80s ears, reducing fat may still sound like an important factor in having a healthy diet, but it's not as simple or straightforward as eliminating it entirely. In fact, human bodies need fats.
"While fat free may sound enticing, we do need heart healthy fats in our diet and a 'fat-free' stamp does not give it a flag of approval from a heart healthy standpoint," Routhenstein explains.
Snack companies are strategic when finding ways around labeling, so what may make something fat free may not actually be an accurate reflection of what you're eating. Fat free means that the serving size of the label has less than half a gram of fat, but the serving size can be manipulated so that when you consume more than one standard portion, it is not really fat-free, according to Routhenstein.
"The other issue is fat-free products usually require other ingredients that are less than ideal. Fat-free usually means that a product will add unhealthy additives or sugars to it to make it more palatable," Routhenstein says.
Trans fat free
Trans fat is not one of those good fats mentioned above.
"Your heart hates trans fat because it accelerates hardened plaque formation in your arteries, and is a major contributor to heart disease and heart disease-related deaths. That is why the FDA banned it to be in foods above 0.5 gram per serving!" Routhenstein says.
But snack makers get creative to get around limits. "Trans fat-free" means the product contains less than half a gram of trans fat per serving, but many manufacturers will manipulate the serving size to allow for trans fat to be part of the food, according to Routhenstein.
If you want an easy way to check if a product has any trans fat, go directly to the ingredient list and look "for words like "partially hydrogenated," or "hydrogenated," to ensure trans fats are not in the product.
The science is increasingly clear that consuming too much sugar is not good for our bodies. But replacing sugar with an artificial sweetener isn't ideal, either, and most sugar-free products use these sweeteners. When something is sugar free or has "zero" sugar, it still may have a little bit of sugar because FDA requirements allow snack companies to do this.
"The sugar-free label means that the food product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving," says Danielle Gaffen, RDN, owner of her nutritional consulting practice. It can be easy to think that sugar free is inherently better, but that's not always true. "But keep in mind that just because a product is 'sugar free' does not mean it's healthy," Gaffen says. "I typically recommend these products to my clients with diabetes."
Much like fat-free labels, the idea of not having cholesterol in a food may sound like a win and an obvious choice, but there's more to it.
"Cholesterol free means the product contains less than two milligrams of cholesterol per serving, but it might not mean so much when it comes to your [...] heart health; science shows that the cholesterol in food is not what we want to be looking at," Routhenstein says.
There are other ingredients and types of fats that you should be on the lookout for to provide more insight. "A food can be cholesterol free, but still be high in overall saturated fat which is a known artery clogger," Routhenstein adds.
Although our bodies do need some sodium, consuming too much can lead to health issues over time.
"A reduced-sodium product can still be a high-sodium food," Routhenstein says. Serving sizes can be manipulated to make a product seem like it has less of an ingredient than it does.
Routhenstein explains, "It means that the sodium was reduced by 25 percent per serving compared to its original or competitor's product. And for anybody with cardiovascular risk factors, heart disease, or prior cardiovascular events, it is definitely a mineral that we need to pay attention to on our food labels!"
The best way to know how much sodium a food has is looking at the nutrition label rather than trusting this keyword. Routhenstein adds, "Instead of relying on this tag, read the actual sodium label and aim for about 150 milligrams or less per snack serving."
Some people must avoid gluten for health reasons, such as those with celiac disease or people with gluten intolerances. But gluten free labeling can be misleading because a product can still have gluten.
Yes, you read that correctly. Gaffen explains, "In order to help those with celiac disease, the rule proposed by the FDA is that a product can be labeled as gluten free if it has less than 20 parts per million of gluten per serving. This is the lowest level of gluten that can be reliably detected in food using validated testing methods."
Reading the ingredient list can be helpful as well as knowing which "grains," which are often seeds don't contain gluten. These include quinoa, teff, and buckwheat, among others.
Cureton adds, "I've seen many people assume a gluten-free product is better for weight loss or more nutritious than its regular counterpart and therefore choose it even if they don't have celiac disease or another gluten-related disorder [...] In reality, the gluten-free diet can be low in important nutrients such as fiber, iron, B vitamins and folate…"
A common buzzword that gets used all too frequently, "there's not a scientifically based definition for superfood," Gaffen says. "While it's true that foods may be more or less nutrient dense than one another — like contain more antioxidants or good-for-you nutrients — the word 'superfood' is a bit misleading."
If you see these words on a label, it doesn't mean too much. "Superfoods are often nutritious, but the title alone may blind consumers to other equally nutritious options that aren't hyped," Gaffen explains.
As vegan and plant-based diets become more popular, vegan labels are also more common on packaging. But it's important to know that "the Certified Vegan Logo is not regulated by a government agency. Instead, the label is trademarked and managed by vegan.org," Gaffen says.
Plus it's important to realize that a food or product that is vegan doesn't equate to healthy or nutritious. Gaffen explains, "One example is Oreos. I love Oreos and for sure think they can be a part of a healthful diet. But it could be misleading to say, 'Oh, Oreos are healthy because they're vegan.'
How to Read the Nutrition Label
The nutrition label provides a wealth of information, from the number of calories per serving or per package, to how much fiber you're getting.. Knowing which line items on a nutritional label to pay attention to, and understanding what they mean, will help you get past the pretty packaging and marketing buzzwords.
A serving size lets you know the total calories, fat, carbohydrates, sugar, vitamins, minerals, and more are in each portion.
"Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups, followed by the metric amount, like the number of grams," Gaffen says. It's also helpful to know how many servings are in one package or bag.
"Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package," says Gaffen. Sometimes a serving may be a lot smaller than you expect, which could result in eating multiple servings without realizing it.
This number refers to what percentage a nutrition is of a diet based on 2,000 calories per day. It helps you see how closely this food gets you to (or over) the daily goals or limits for certain nutritions.
Gaffen explains, "Daily Values are average levels of nutrients based on public health experts' recommendations for a person eating 2,000 calories in an entire day… not just one meal or snack." It's important to note, some people's diets may need more than 2,000 calories, and some may need less, so the Daily Value may not be the truest measure of your intake. For example, if your need more than 2,000 calories, the percent Daily Value will be lower than what's on the packaging.
If all this sounds confusing, you can read the Daily Value (DV) percentages to figure out if you're getting enough or too much of certain nutrients. If the product is five percent of the Daily Value, it is considered low, while 20 percent or more of the DV is considered high, according to Cureton.
Plus there are some foods that we want to eat in moderation. "The items that should be five percent or less include saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugar. Look for items with 20 percent or more of dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium," Cureton says.
Reading the DV can be like a guide. "You can use percent Daily Values (DV) to help evaluate how a particular food fits into your daily meal plan, and the % DV makes it easy for you to make comparisons between similar products. Just make sure the serving sizes are similar," Gaffen explains.
Fats (usually) get a bad rap, but it's important to know not all fats are created equally. Although categorizing all fats as the same may be easy to do for the cake of a nutrition label, it doesn't paint an accurate picture of good health.
Instead, it's important to focus on what types of fat you're eating, rather than the quantity of fat. "Current nutrition science research indicates that the type of fat consumed is more important than the total fat consumed. For example, unsaturated fats can reduce the risk of heart disease, while saturated fats and especially trans-fat are linked to an increased risk of heart disease," Gaffen explains. Nutrition labels will include numbers for total, saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat.
Fiber is listed under the Total Carbohydrate section. Some people may choose reduce their intake of carbohydrates (like for the keto diet), but it's important to ensure you eat enough fiber because it serves many functions for our body.
"Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate, meaning that our bodies can't digest or absorb it, but fiber has a host of health benefits, like helping with weight management and reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes," Gaffen says.
Don't Skip the Ingredient List
If your head is still spinning from the numbers and percentages, knowing what the first few ingredients are in a processed food will give you some great intel. Indeed, the ingredient list may give you a better idea of what you're eating if you're comparing two relatively similar foods, especially when looking at the nutrition label.
"For packaged goods with more than one ingredient, the ingredients will be listed in descending order by weight, so those with the largest amounts will be listed first." If you're new to reading ingredient labels or simply aren't sure what the best way to know if something is good for you, Gaffen recommends, "A good rule of thumb for ingredients: Try to stick with ingredients you can pronounce and with the fewest number possible — aim for 10 or fewer ingredients in packaged foods."