Many of my clients think they eat pretty healthfully in general. So they’re often surprised when I recommend nixing snacks they believed were smart choices. But once they hear why their go-tos aren’t ideal, they’re all for making the switch to options that actually are nutritious and energizing. Maybe your snack list could use an overhaul too? Take a look at these six packaged bites that you might consider “health foods”—plus the alternatives that offer more overall nutrients, and help you avoid unwanted additives.
Veggie chips or puffs
The fresh veggies on the packaging can be deceiving. Be sure to check the ingredients on those veggie chips and puffs before you add them to your cart. You’ll often find potato flour and/or potato starch, cornmeal, or rice flour as the main ingredients—not veggies. Because of the starchy add-ins, these snacks can pack far more calories than plain vegetables.
One popular brand provides 120 calories per one ounce serving, with 7 grams of fat, 16 grams of carb (1 gram as fiber), and 1 gram of protein. That’s only 40 fewer calories and 3 grams less fat than an ounce of regular potato chips, which provide 1 gram fewer carbs and 1 extra gram of protein.
Simply being vegan doesn’t automatically make a food healthy, or better for you. Vegan cookies are a perfect example: Many are made with loads of sugar and refined flour, and lack fiber and nutrients.
And a vegan label doesn’t negate the importance of portion control. One brand that makes 4.25-ounce vegan cookies (about the size of your palm) considers one cookie to be two servings. Eat the whole thing, and you’ll have racked up 480 calories, 78 grams of carb, including 57 grams as sugar, with just 2 grams of fiber.
If you’re craving something sweet, make your own no-bake vegan “cookies” using a combo of nutrient-rich whole foods, like almond butter, rolled oats, and chia seeds, with a little bit of maple syrup and vanilla. (Check out this recipe.) And needless to say, get your fix with just a few (not the entire batch).
Not all gluten-free crackers are created equal, so reading the ingredient list is key. But, it’s important to note that “gluten-free” is not synonymous with “healthy.” In some brands of gluten-free crackers, for example, the first two ingredients are white rice flour and vegetable oil—a refined grain paired with an oil heavy in omega-6 fatty acids, which have been linked to inflammation. The calories and carbs can also add up quick, rivaling the amounts in potato chips.
For a crunchy gluten-free snack made from a whole grain, reach for olive oil popcorn instead. Trader Joe’s makes one with just three simple ingredients: organic popcorn, organic extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt. For 130 calories, 6 grams of fat, 18 grams of carb (3 grams as fiber), and 3 grams of protein, you get to eat a pretty generous portion of two cups, which is about the size of two baseballs.
The word fruit may be in the name, but the ingredients of one popular brand of fruit snacks include fruit puree combined with corn syrup, sugar, cornstarch, artificial flavors, and artificial colors. Fruit snacks made with these ingredients can easily pack about 20 grams of carb in a serving the size of a ping pong ball. You could get the same amount of carbs from eating a baseball-size serving (one cup) of fresh blueberries, a medium apple, or two kiwis, all of which come bundled with filling fluid and fiber, along with antioxidants and more overall nutrients.
If you like fruit leather made with 100% fruit, that’s fine. But remember that fruit leather is more concentrated than fresh fruit, so sticking with the portion size stated on the label is key.
The healthfulness of trail mix really depends on how it’s made. Many brands contain dried fruit that’s been sweetened with sugar and treated with artificial preservatives, in addition to sugar-laden add-ins, like candy coated milk chocolate. Per quarter cup (which is a serving about the size of a golf ball), these varieties can pack close to 200 calories and not much nutritional value.
Instead, make your own. Include tree nuts, like almonds, walnuts, pecans, or pistachios; as well as seeds, like pumpkin or sunflower, as the primary ingredients. Add a smaller amount of unsweetened, preservative-free dried fruit, like a few finely chopped dried figs, plums, or a sprinkling of dried cherries. And if you need to add a little sweetness, chop a square or two of 70% dark chocolate to add to the mix. Pre-portion in snack-sized bags you can eat on the go. At home, leave a quarter cup scoop in the jar, so you won’t overdo it by grabbing big handfuls.
They may seem like a healthier alternative to potato chips, but the main ingredient in most varieties is refined white flour (think white bread in a chip form). A one-ounce serving, about 10 chips, contains around 130 calories, including 5 grams of fat, 19 grams of carb, with only 1 gram as fiber, and no significant nutrients.
That’s not far off from kettle chips, which contain 130 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 17 grams of carb per 13 chips. Go for the latter instead, but choose a brand made with just whole potatoes, avocado oil (which is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids), and natural salt, like Kettle’s Himalayan variety.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.