Research and sales data agree: we’re snacking a lot more during the pandemic. At the same time, we want to eat healthy and support our immune systems. One result is the search for healthy snacks.
You might think that it wouldn’t be much of a search. We all know that a sliced apple, celery with peanut butter, or a handful of almonds will make a healthy snack. It’s not much of a challenge to whip up a nice veggie plate or boil an egg for a midday boost.
That’s not really what consumers want. Really, we want something that is as fun to eat as potato chips, while also making us feel like we’re eating something good for us.
Food companies are helping us out by producing fun foods with packages that say things like, “Vegan,” “Gluten-free,” and “16 grams protein.” This lets shoppers buy their goodies with a clear conscience.
But are those goodies really healthy?
Nutrition labels will tell us. The biggest things to look for are macronutrients: how much fat, protein, and carbs are we getting from this food? The number of carbohydrates isn’t the big news, by the way. Instead, check for fiber and sugar under that heading.
To keep things simple, we mostly want more protein and fiber, and less fat and sugar. Healthy fats are fine, but they aren’t likely to show up in that bright foil package of orange puffy things.
So how much protein do chips and puffs provide? We’re comparing two snacks that bill themselves as healthy with two that don’t make that claim.
- Protein Puffs: 16 grams
- Rice Chips: 2 grams
- Fritos: 2 grams
- Doritos: 2 grams
How about fiber?
- Protein Puffs: 0 grams
- Rice Chips: 0 grams
- Fritos: 1 gram
- Doritos: 1 gram
Check for sugar:
- Protein Puffs: 5 grams
- Rice Chips: 4 grams
- Fritos: 0 grams
- Doritos: 0 grams
- Protein Puffs: 6 grams
- Rice Chips: 4 grams
- Fritos: 10 grams
- Doritos: 8 grams
In short, the snacks that are supposed to be healthier have more sugar, less fat, less fiber, and — apart from the protein enriched puffs — the same amount of protein as the regular choices. It’s pretty much a draw.
It’s important to avoid ingredients you’re allergic to. However, the ingredients in these various snack foods are pretty straightforward. Corn chips include corn, oil, and salt. Rice chips are made with rice, oil, and salt. Potato chips have potatoes, oil, and salt.
Once you get past those basics, you run into what some call “the Dorito effect.” Snack food makers engineer addictive flavors to keep you eating their products. So Cheetos contain corn and oil plus Cheese Seasoning (Whey, Cheddar Cheese [Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes], Canola Oil, Maltodextrin, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Salt, Whey Protein Concentrate, Monosodium Glutamate, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Artificial Color, and Salt. Zesty Nacho Kale Chips contain kale plus Sunflower Seeds, Tahini (Ground Sesame Seeds), Onion, Red Bell Pepper, Apple Cider Vinegar, Cane Sugar, Carrot, Sea Salt, Garlic, Lemon Juice, and Chipotle Powder.
Both are highly processed foods with limited nutritional value. We could argue about whether chipotle powder is more benign than monosodium glutamate, but neither of these super-processed foods is much like a nice kale salad or an ear of corn.
Which is better?
While a purchase of Zesty Nacho Kale Chips might make you feel better than a purchase of Cool Ranch Doritos, the truth is that none of the chips and puffs we looked at can compare to celery as a healthy snack.
Popcorn, nuts, fruit, and vegetables are healthy snacks.
So does that mean that you should never eat chips and puffs? If that’s realistic for you, you certainly could give them up. For some of us, switching to popcorn instead of chips is a doable New Year’s habit shift.
But if chips and puffs are important for you, you’re probably better off having an occasional treat that satisfies you than replacing your Fritos with Protein Puffs that you don’t enjoy. Eat your favorite, occasionally, in reasonable amounts.
Read the labels and don’t be fooled.