Can I have a snack?
It’s a phrase that most parents hear again and again throughout any given day. Even on those rare mornings when your children scarf up their steel-cut oats at breakfast, their excelled metabolism handily burns through even the heartiest food, creating between-meal tummy rumblings. Luckily, there are more convenient ready-made snack options than ever before, easily tossed into a diaper bag or backpack and procured when and wherever the hunger-induced whining begins.
But, as with any processed foods, it’s important for you to read the label and be aware of what’s actually inside the snack. Food marketing companies would have us believe that even the emptiest of calories are “healthy,” simply because they’re low in fat, or so-called “all natural.” There’s really much more to it than that. Here are some tips for deciphering and demystifying snack food labels, so you can look past the dancing vegetables or well-known cartoon characters on the packaging, and feel confident that you’re feeding your kids the right stuff.
Ingredients are key
Ideally, choose foods that are higher in fiber, vitamins and protein while being lower in fat and sugar. Of course, not all fat is bad, as popular nutritional wisdom once believed, and the inclusion of some fat is helpful for keeping bellies fuller for longer. Nonfat and low-fat foods often replace the fat with sugar, which isn’t any healthier. Trans fats are to be avoided, but most companies now exclude them from their food products.
Snacks in which whole grains, fruits or vegetables, or dairy is the first ingredient are a good place to start. If sugar or another sweetener leads the ingredient list, put that snack back.
Be sure to check the serving size. So many snacks seem reasonable in their levels of fat, sugar and salt until you realize that the serving size is much smaller than the realistic portion your children are likely to eat.
Look for organic and natural
When possible, choose organic snacks. There is no shortage of organic baby food pouches, crackers, yogurts, fruit gummies, granola bars and other such convenience snacks at chain grocery stores, and even rest stops and drugstores. There are relatively firm standards around organic certification, so you can be sure that no potentially harmful pesticides or chemicals were used in the growing or processing of the ingredients. However, you still need use a careful and critical eye with processed organic foods, as some sketchy stabilizers and additives can still sneak in.
Know your stabilizers
Almost every shelf-stable product requires some type of stabilizer to keep it fresh for the duration of its journey from factory to market to your child’s lunch box. Even snacks with a few, simple ingredients, which are usually the best choices, usually include at least one kind of stabilizing ingredient. While it’s easy to be wary of any “additive,” not all stabilizers are created equal. For starters, some are synthetic, specifically gellan gum, which uses corn syrup in processing. Corn byproducts may not meet future GMO regulations set by the federal government, and may contain traces of genetically modified materials, even if the product is labeled organic.
A natural stabilizer such as carrageenan, a type of soluble fiber sourced from red seaweed, is a much preferable option, as far as stabilizers go. Carrageenan, a common ingredient in health foods such as soy milk and lowfat yogurt, is vegan, kosher and halal, and is often used as a thickener in place of petrochemical and animal-based products. It’s also the only stabilizer currently approved for use in the U.S. in organic infant formula. Gellan gum is not approved for use in baby formula by the World Health Organization.
We hope these tips help you become a savvier shopper in the snack aisle. What are your favorite grab-and-go packaged snacks for your kids or yourself? Let us know in the comments!