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Supermarket Buying Guide

How to Buy Snack Foods

by Edward R. Blonz, Ph.D.

Snack foods you munch on between meals can run the gamut from sugary "empty" calories to worthwhile mini-meals, depending on what you buy at the supermarket. Frequent, mindless snacking on high-calorie foods can lead to weight gain; but if you make smarter choices at the grocery store, keep portions small and know when to stop, snacks can certainly have a place in a healthful diet.

Snack foods and your health

By helping keep your blood sugar on an even keel, the right little bite can fuel you, both physically and mentally, until the next meal. And snacks are an opportunity to boost your intake of fruit, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. They can also help you meet your daily fiber goal, especially if you choose a whole-grain snack, such as popcorn or a healthful granola bar.

If you’re snacking on something processed and packaged, don’t be misled by advertising and flashy label claims. Read the nutrition label. For example, “vegetable chips” may sound healthful, but they’re not necessarily better for you than other chips (potatoes are vegetables, too, after all), and most are high in fat and calories because they are fried.

Picking a Popcorn

Yearning for a crunchy, but healthy, snack? Popcorn can fill the bill. But you have to choose wisely to avoid too much fat, sugar and sodium.

Understanding snack foods

The snack food aisle is rife with products that are high in fat, calories and sodium. Take the traditional potato chip. A standard serving has about 10 grams of fat and 160 calories, with 200 milligrams of sodium. And that’s for just one ounce. If you’re eating chips out of a big bag, there’s no telling how many ounces you’ll have eaten before you stop. In addition, there are seemingly endless flavor variations to entice you. If you can’t resist, don’t go down the snack food aisle. It also helps to not go shopping on an empty stomach.

If you do venture among the shelves of chips and snaps and puffs and pops, do check out the more healthful options. Baked chips are better than fried, for example; they generally have about 1 or 2 grams of fat and 110 calories per ounce. Also, compare brands. You may be surprised at how much the sodium content can differ; even the fat content of traditional chips varies a bit.

Single-serving snack options may seem like a good bet if your self-control is low, but you’ll pay more per ounce (not to mention all that excessive packaging). And they won’t do you much good if you end up eating two or three little bags at a time. Instead, when you’re ready to snack at home, pour an ounce or so of chips from a big bag into a small bowl, close up the bag and don’t go back for seconds. Or you can divvy up a big bag into one-ounce portions ahead of time, packing them in sandwich bags or small food containers.

Some chips, crackers and other snack foods are labeled “multigrain.” But that doesn’t mean they are necessarily good sources of whole grains. “Multigrain” simply means the food contains more than one type of grain, not that it is made up of whole grains. The key is to check the ingredients list to be sure at least some of those multiple grains are actually whole grain. Multigrain Pringles is a good example. The newest variety may sound healthful—or at least healthier than regular Pringles—but its top ingredients are rice flour, vegetable oil, dried potatoes and corn flour; wheat bran and dried black beans make up less than 2 percent of the ingredients. A one-ounce serving of Multigrain Pringles has just 1 gram of fiber—no more than regular Pringles.

Relatively new to the supermarket are chips made from beans. The calories, fat and sodium aren’t much different than other chips—but at least you get about 5 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein in a one-ounce serving.

What about pretzels? They were the go-to nonfat snack of the 1980s and 1990s. But they’re usually just refined flour, with little nutrition to speak of— and lots of sodium. You can now find whole-wheat (and other whole-grain) pretzels and unsalted or low-sodium versions, in many stores. Pretzel nuggets filled with cheese and peanut butter cease to be nonfat.

Some granola bars and trail mixes are good snack choices. They may keep you satisfied longer than other snacks. But many are not the nutrition powerhouses they’re often cracked up to be and may have more fat than protein and fiber. Again, read the nutrition labels. Check the serving size first, then the calories, fat, sugar and fiber. In the ingredients list, look for whole grains (like oatmeal or brown rice); nuts, seeds and dried fruit are healthful additions, though they add calories. Steer clear of “breakfast bars” made from sugary cereals, and be wary of snack bars dotted with chocolate chips or cookie chunks and topped with icing. Similarly, some trail mixes are more like candy than health food.

Finally, don’t overlook popcorn. You may be surprised to know that it’s a whole grain. But compare brands, avoiding the high-fat, high-calorie options like “movie theater butter” varieties.

Snack foods: good-to-know facts

Think outside the snack aisle and you’ll likely come up with much more healthful choices. Yogurt can be a pretty perfect snack, especially if it’s low-fat or nonfat and not too laden with sugary fruit (jam); moreover, the protein in the yogurt will help keep you satisfied. Fresh fruit is always a good option—a banana, an apple, a pear, an orange or a baggie full of grapes is the ultimate grab-and-go-snack. Or eat a few rolled-up slices of turkey breast, a handful of nuts or a hardboiled egg. Veggies (like baby carrots or sliced bell peppers) dipped in hummus or peanut butter are other healthful snack ideas.

Healthy grocery shopping tips for snack foods

  • Buy baked (not fried) potato or tortilla chips to save fat and calories. Otherwise, compare nutrition labels to find chips that are lower in fat (less than 8 grams) and sodium (less than 150 milligrams) and higher in fiber (more than 2 grams).
  • Consider bean chips as an alternative. You may not save much on fat, calories or sodium, but you’ll get more fiber and protein.
  • Look for whole-wheat pretzels (there are even whole-grain varieties made from spelt and other interesting grains) that are fat-free and lower in sodium; some pretzels are unsalted. Whole-grain pretzels provide about 4 grams of fiber per serving.
  • Choose healthful snack bars. Nuts add to the fat and calorie count, but they can help keep you full longer. Look for bars with at least 2 grams of fiber and 2 grams of protein and no more than 8 grams of sugar. Avoid those that contain partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Snack bars that have added calcium and vitamin D can be a bonus, but there’s no need to eat one that is fortified with a long list of vitamins and minerals, especially if you already eat a healthful diet.
  • Check the ingredients list for partially hydrogenated oils, an indication that unhealthful trans fat is present. Foods that claim to have “0 trans fat” are not necessarily 100 percent trans-fat-free. (Under a label loophole, nutrition labels may list 0 grams of trans fat if the food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. This might not sound like much, but it can add up fast.)
  • Single-serve snack packages can be good for portion control, but they cost far more per ounce and have wasteful packaging. There’s nothing healthier about them, either, except that because they contain less product, they have fewer calories.

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