February is National Snack Foods Month, a time when snack food manufacturers go into high gear to up sales and get packaged snacks into shoppers’ grocery carts and homes. According to the Snack Food Association (SFA), “SFA and the National Potato Promotion Board (NPPB) initiated National Snack Food Month in February 1989 to increase consumption and build awareness of snacks during a month when snack food consumption was traditionally low.” But many of the items being marketed as snack foods are highly processed and loaded with sodium and fat, making them just plain bad choices for a healthy diet, especially for kids.
In fact, highly processed snack foods are a key cause of our growing obesity epidemic – even those that claim to be diet-friendly, low in sugar, or fat-free. Many of these products with “low-everything” claims have been engineered to the point that they no longer resemble real food. The packages are covered in claims to make them sound healthy and diet-friendly, but wolfing down a product full of artificial ingredients tends to leave you feeling unsatisfied, and leads you to actually consume much more than if you had snacked on more satisfying non-processed real food with all of its natural fat and calories.
In her book Go UnDiet: 50 Small Actions for Lasting Weight Loss, our editor-in-chief Gloria Tsang says highly processed foods are “the weakest link” in any eating plan, but argues that some processed foods are much worse than others. From Go UnDiet, here’s Gloria’s five-second scan for avoiding the worst offenders when you’re looking for quick snacking products.
How to Avoid the Worst Snack Products with a Five-Second Scan
Just three quick checks of the product’s package can clue you in to whether it’s a highly processed food that you should put back on the shelf:
- Un-cartoon: Avoid snack products that feature colorful characters and cartoons on the packaging. These are aimed at kids, and since manufacturers believe that all kids have a sweet tooth, they tend to be jam-packed with sugar.
- Un-fat-free: Avoid products with “fat-free” claims. Their fat has been replaced with thickeners and other artificial ingredients to simulate the texture of the real thing. This is fake food! Compare the ingredient lists for regular yogurt and fat-free yogurt for an excellent demonstration of this difference.
- Un-panel: Don’t fall into the trap of relying on the Nutrition Facts panel alone to find the best snacks: Healthy snacking is about more than the number of calories per serving. Also look for an ingredient list that’s not too long and includes ingredients you can actually pronounce. Saving a few calories or grams of fat is not worth it if the ingredient list contains a long list of artificial additives.
The Bottom Line
Of course, while this quick test will help you avoid the worst offenders in the snack food aisle, it might be best to skip that aisle altogether. The simplest way to ensure healthy snacking is to keep fresh or dried fruit, or nuts and seeds on hand; reaching for an apple or handful of raisins is a surefire way to avoid highly processed snacks.
Christina Newberry is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in national and local magazines and newspapers. With a Bachelor’s degree in English and Anthropology from the University of Victoria and a Journalism Certificate from Langara College, Christina brings keen curiosity and the love of a good story to her work with HealthCastle.com.
Christina is a passionate traveler and urban gardener with an interest in vegetarian eating and making good, tasty food from scratch. Sharing lessons learned from her own experiences, Christina writes about lifestyle topics for HealthCastle, with a focus on eating well at home and on the road.