What is a healthy snack?

We are a snacking nation. We sometimes grab a snack on the way to work instead of eating a healthy breakfast. Hand-held snacks permit us to multitask such as drive a vehicle or scan messages as we continue to eat. We are served snacks at mid-day meetings and evening receptions. Many of us need a snack to tide us over between meals, particularly when unexpected events disrupt carefully planned schedules. It has become trendy to abandon the three-meal-a-day habit to have small snacks throughout the day. Few of us avoid snacks completely. Snacks traditionally have been considered to be primarily junk food. Now Big Food is offering us a wide array of healthy snacks which leads me to ask “What is a healthy snack?”

One thing we would like to see in a healthy snack is the presence of vitamins and minerals, particularly if the snack is replacing components of a meal. Fresh fruit provides a ready source of water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C, but fruit tends to be messier than packaged items such as bars or chips. Fruit juices also provide vitamins and minerals but frequently are robbed of their fiber to enhance their appeal. Veggie snacks can provide fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A as well as fiber, but they are not as readily acceptable as fruit products.

Another thing that we would like to see in a healthy snack is that it is reasonably low in calories, salt and sugar. When I was taking nutrition classes in the 1960’s and 70’s, the emphasis was on avoiding undernutrition—eating a diet that provided sufficient vitamins and minerals. Now society is more concerned about overnutrition—consuming excessive calories, salt, and sugar. In looking at nutritional labels of healthy snacks, the emphasis seems to be on avoiding overnutrition rather than preventing undernutrition. Fresh fruits seem to be a way of avoiding both as long as protein is a part of regular meals or some form of snacking. The FDA is struggling with a definition of “heathy” foods and snacks, based on a challenge from the makers of Kind® bars. Kind suggests that the FDA is a victim of outdated nutrition information.

healhy snacks

How healthy are these snacks?

A third attribute of a healthy snack is that it has some way to control portion size. One of the best ways to do this is by offering single-serving packages. One serving may be low in calories, salt and sugar, but five servings are likely to create problems. A big bag of “healthy” snacks may balloon into an “unhealthy” binge episode if not carefully controlled. For example, see the 3 bags of “healthy” snacks I picked up recently. Per serving all three products appear to be healthy.

        Calories  Sodium (%DV)      Sugar (tsp)
serving bag serving bag serving bag
Smart Fries    110  330     9 28     0   0
Kettle Corn    160 1280     9 72     2.5 20
Bean Chips    140   770     5 28     0   1.5

When consumed as a whole package at a single sitting, say in front of a screen at the end of a long day, the Kettle Corn turns into a junk food, the Bean Chips provide more calories than a Big Mac® and the Smart Fries become a major source of salt. Only the Bean Chips contain any significant amounts of protein. All three products could be good sources of calcium, while the fries and chips provide iron. Another problem is that small bags are generally considered to be single-serving packs. At a youth group I attended I picked up a small bag of delicious honey mustard & onion Pretzel Pieces which, unfortunately, turned out to be two servings when looking at the label carefully. Like the Bean Chips, a single serving of the Pretzel Pieces was reasonably healthy, but the bag contains 20% of the DV for sodium. On the plus side, the bag is a significant source of four B vitamins.

The point here is that a series of healthy snacking over the course of the day can turn into a form of unhealthy grazing. The best example of how “eating healthy” can lead to an “unhealthy diet” is the description of all the healthy food Josh consumed over a day in the Introduction of Devoured by Sophie Egan. By focusing on whether a food itself is unhealthy or healthy, we can become a victim of the cumulative effect of too much of a healthy snack turning into a junk food. That is why nutritionists and dietitians prefer to focus on the healthiness of the overall diet (food and drink regularly provided or consumed) rather than individual food items.  Last week I wrote about the danger of becoming overly restrictive in the items we choose to eat. Likewise a reliance on too many snacks at the expense of food at a main meal can lead to extreme diets that on the surface appear to be healthy but end up with unhealthy consequences. What is a healthy snack?




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