In a perfect world, everyone (kids included) would snack on carrots and kale chips. For those who do, hats off. But for everyone else, once you step away from the produce aisle, the choice of snacks can run the gamut from nutritionally vapid to downright deleterious. And sadly, consumers are often at the mercy of the processed food industry with its seductive yet unhealthy ingredients and powerful marketing machines. It’s all too easy to be swayed by items marketed specifically to children and parents — with enticing prices, misleading labels and the promise of convenience.
But when consumers start to dig a bit, they'll get a better picture of what’s going on inside the snacks they devour. Following is a snapshot of some of the worst offenders. The list is by no means exhaustive, but these examples provide some clues about what to look out for in the snack aisle.
1. Pop-Secret Homestyle Popcorn
Popcorn should be a great snack. It is a whole grain, naturally low in calories, and recent research has found that popped kernels are surprisingly high in antioxidants, even higher than many fruits and vegetables. So where did this super-snack go super-wrong? In the hands of food manufacturers, that’s where. How does this version compare to an order of McDonald's Kids Fries? A serving of Pop-Secret has 70 more calories, 7 grams more total fat, 2 grams more saturated fat, 4.5 grams more trans fat, and 310 milligrams more sodium than the fried spuds.
Serving size: 2 tablespoons unpopped
Total fat: 12 grams
Saturated fat: 2.5 grams
Trans fat: 4.5 grams
Sodium: 380 milligrams
2. Cheetos Puffs
Nobody ever said that oddly textured cheese snacks were exactly healthy, but something about the non-greasiness and airy quality of Cheetos Puffs (vibrant hue aside) seems like this product might more benign than, let’s say, super salty fried potato chips. But … look at that total fat! That sodium! That’s half the daily fat and sodium limit for many children, right there in 2 ounces of snack.
Serving size: 2 ounces (56 grams)
Total fat: 20 grams
Saturated fat: 4 grams
Sodium: 700 milligrams
3. Yoplait Original 99% Fat Free (various fruit flavors)
Yogurt is another should-be healthy snack that has been hijacked by the food industry. Many yogurts are made to be low- or non-fat but are loaded with added sugar and other ingredients that are completely superfluous.
Whereas a product like Fage 0% is made of only “Grade A Pasteurized Skimmed Milk, and Live Active Yogurt Cultures,” Yoplait Original includes sugar, modified corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, kosher gelatin, and tricalcium phosphate — yet no live and active cultures, which is one of the main reasons to be eating yogurt in the first place!
Serving Size: 1 container (170 grams)
Total fat: 1.5 grams
Saturated fat: 1 gram
Sodium: 85 milligrams<</p>
Sugars: 26 grams
4. Ritz Bits Cracker Sandwiches
Cheese and crackers sounds innocuous enough, but a single serving of these guys has more sodium and more than twice the saturated fat, as a small order of Chicken McNuggets — and more sugar than two Hershey’s Kisses.
Serving size: 1 single serve package (42 grams)
Total fat: 13 grams
Saturated fat 4.5 grams
Sodium: 480 milligrams
Sugars: 6 grams
5. Auntie Anne's Pepperoni Pretzel Pocket
Whole-wheat low-sodium pretzels are a good snack. Pepperoni Pretzel Pockets are a disaster. With more sodium, saturated fat and calories than a Big Mac, this one snack comes close to serving up the daily sodium and total fat limits for a child, not to mention the equivalent of nearly 3 teaspoons of granulated sugar.
Serving size: 1 pocket
Total fat: 27 grams
Saturated fat 12 grams
Sodium: 1,120 milligrams
Sugars: 11 grams
6. Mott's Original Apple Sauce
This applesauce might just as well be called "high fructose corn syrup sauce," given that HFCS is the second ingredient after apples. Why do that to perfectly good apples? Apples aren't sweet enough?
Serving size: 1/2 cup (128g)
Total fat: 0
Sugars: 25 grams
Instead, opt for the Mott's Natural Apple Sauce (No Sugar Added) version, which has only 50 calories and 12 grams of sugar.
7. Hostess Chocolate Pudding Pie
With the right spin, some could argue that a piece of pie isn’t the worst snack in the world. A small homemade slice filled with fruit and a light crust has some redeeming qualities. But the Hostess Chocolate Pudding Pie may, in fact, be the worst snack in the world! Why? In addition to its high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, beef fat and artificial colors, it has almost twice the sugar and fat of a similarly sized slice of homemade blueberry pie. And with its cheap price and easy portability, it’s all too easy to scarf down much of your daily calorie requirement in a few bites before you’ve even left the store.
Serving size: 1 pie (128g)
Total fat: 24 grams
Saturated fat 12 grams
Sugars: 40 grams
8. Winchell’s Cranberry Nut Muffin
What has the same amount of calories as four Winchell’s Chocolate Cake Doughnuts and nearly the same amount of fat as three hot dogs? One Winchell’s Cranberry Nut Muffin! To its credit, this muffin is not nutritionally void (5 grams of fiber and 14 grams of protein) but just beware: the calories, fat and sugar lodge this item more in the cupcake category than healthy snack family.
Serving size: 1 muffin
Total fat: 37 grams
Saturated fat: 6 grams
Sodium: 640 milligrams
Sugars: 43 grams
How can you make better choices?
Look for snacks that are high in protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, but relatively lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat (no trans fat), sugar and sodium.
Look at the ingredients on the label. Most of us know that ingredients are listed in order from most to least, and we may look to see where something like sugars or fats are listed in the order. But ingredient groups aren't required to be listed together. So something could contain corn syrup, cane sugar, and malt syrup in seemingly minor quantities toward the bottom of the list — but if you combine them together in a general group of "sugar," they quickly move to the top.
If a label boasts a product was made with whole grains, check to see where on the ingredient list the word "whole" is. If the first ingredient is "whole" wheat flour (or other grain), that's good. Sometimes whole grains make up only a tiny fragment of the item, and that's not good.
Also, it helps to know recommended nutritional limits. Many adults know what their numbers are, and here's what Mayo Clinic recommends for kids:
Boys and girls 4-8: 1,200-2,000 calories depending on activity, 25-35 percent calories from fat, 1,200 milligrams sodium.
Boys and girls 9-13: 1,400-2,600 calories depending on activity, 25-35 percent calories from fat, 1,300 milligrams sodium.
Boys and girls 14-18: 1,800-3,200 calories depending on activity, 25-35 percent calories from fat, 1,500 milligrams sodium.
Total fat for the categories above: 33 to 47 grams for 1,200 daily calories; 39 to 54 grams for 1,400 daily calories; 44 to 62 grams for 1,600 daily calories; 50 to 70 grams for 1,800 daily calories; 56 to 78 grams for 2,000 daily calories.