Snack Scheming: Popular Snack Foods With Terrible Secrets

These foods aren't favorites by accident. We learned their secrets from registered dietitians...and found out what delicious alternatives are out there.

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“I always had an extreme sweet tooth,” confesses Kari Hamilton, a mom of four who has transformed her eating habits from the inside out. “I would bake a ridiculous amount of cookies and eat a dozen.” Difficult pregnancies due to hyperemesis gravidarum spurred Hamilton to restructure her diet with the help of a wise nutritionist, and she eliminated inflammatory foods altogether. Since turning her diet around, Hamilton happily says, “I feel sustained and energized because my body is getting the fuel it needs to take care of my husband and four kids.” What a concept—trading treats for energy! It’s easy to invite popular snack foods and treats into our daily food selection, and it takes a daunting amount of commitment to seek out healthier, more natural options. These snack foods are undeniably enticing—they’re delicious! But it isn’t just the taste that keeps us coming back for more. In fact, there is quite the scheme propelling popular snack foods into—and keeping them in—our daily lives. Most popular snack foods come from large brands with giant advertising budgets. Their goal is to get their product into the hands and hearts of consumers. Teams of marketing experts lead this cause and, with their ample funds, have catapulted many not-so-healthy foods into society’s diet. Their task has science on its side—these snacks draw us in from first bite, addicting us with sugar and carbs that provide short-term highs. Jeanette Kimszal, a registered dietitian nutritionist shares exactly how this happens: “[Popular snacks] are engineered with just the right sweet and salty tastes to trigger pleasure areas in the brain. Liking these sensations, the brain wants to experience them over and over, so you become hooked on these foods.” Although addicting might sound like a strong word, it’s definitely accurate. The New York Times described the situation in a 2014 article: “In animal studies, animals experience sugar like a drug and can become sugar-addicted. One study has shown that if given the choice, rats will choose sugar over [coke] in lab settings because the reward is greater; the ‘high’ is more pleasurable.” So there you have it, the proof is in, dare I say, the sugar-filled pudding. Has your brain been taught to reach for these addictive foods? Is one in particular coming to mind? Below you’ll find a line up of popular snack foods that are hiding terrible secrets, whether that’s sugar content, chemical-coated bags, or “vanishing caloric density.” Brace yourself—you might be a bit alarmed by what we’ve uncovered. But the good news is, if you’re willing to break your addiction, we’ve rounded up some amazing and healthy alternatives that your body will learn to love.

Plain is best.

Greek yogurt is all the rage. And rightly so: It’s so tasty, it’s practically dessert! But this “health food,” depending on the type, is full of sugar. “Flavored Greek yogurts have 12–15 grams of sugar per small portion,” says Paul Salter, a registered dietitian and former nutrition editor of Salter proposes a much better alternative than the pre-sweetened yogurts filling grocery store shelves: “Plain, low-fat Greek yogurt plus properly portioned additives of your choosing to enhance the taste, such as dark cocoa powder, oats, honey, fresh fruit, cinnamon.” Honestly, a “yogurt bar” of sorts with all those natural additions sounds like a smorgasbord I can get on board with.

Don’t drench your veggies with this.

Choosing veggies as a snack or side dish is fabulous, but there is one way to spoil those good intentions: salad dressing, especially low-fat, low-calorie ones. According to Salter, they’re “loaded with sugars and trans fats to compensate for the reduction in fat.” “Embrace the healthy fats found in oil-based dressings!” says Salter. “These fats support a healthy heart, possess anti-inflammatory properties, and may support optimal cognitive functioning; you may also look into lower-calorie Greek yogurt-based dressings.” Again with that Greek yogurt. Best get that on my shopping list!

Get your crunch on!

Nacho Cheese, Cool Ranch, Spicy Sweet Chili: Do those varieties ring a bell? I’m sure they do, because Doritos have become a cultural icon and a snack that many of us love. Kimszal has some sad news about these chips though. Not only does the Nacho Cheese flavor boast 140 calories per ounce (that’s just 11 chips!), they also list maltodextrin as the third ingredient. What’s maltodextrin, you ask? “Maltodextrin is corn sugar,” Kimszal says. “As we know, sugar is very addicting, so you cannot just eat one chip. This is also true of any other chips with sugar.” So learn those hidden sugar words and watch out! For reference, Kimszal notes that sugar “is known as everything from maltodextrin to dextrose, corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrate.” “The consumers are defenseless and have no idea there could be three types of sugar in one product. For example, [some kinds of] Ritz crackers have three types of sugar—sugar, maltodextrin, and high fructose corn syrup—but to the untrained eye, it only looks like one.” Are there any healthier choices for the chip lover to embrace? First, Kimszal encourages us to wean ourselves off sugar slowly. Then, find better options to fill both the crunch and the sugar rush. For crunch, try nuts, seeds, and higher fiber crackers (three or four grams per serving) with no additives. “If you are craving sugar,” she continues, “have a piece of fruit instead so you are getting fiber. Berries, pomegranates, apples, and oranges can be a good alternative to get natural sugar.”

For granola, it’s best to DIY.

Who doesn’t love granola? I, for one, am quite the fan of a bowl for breakfast and in bar form as a snack on the go, but Salter warns that some granola is “heavily processed and loaded with sugar.” Although convenient, it’s best to do it yourself when it comes to granola. Buy your own ingredients and mix your heart out! Salter encourages making your own granola with a “focus on oats and portion control.” Here, we provide a recipe for low(er) sugar granola bars.

Pop away from this kind of popcorn.

Popcorn itself isn’t bad, but the microwave kind is holding on to a terrible secret. Well, maybe not so much of a secret, now that the FDA has exposed that perfluorinated grease-proofing agent, which often coat the bags, can have toxic effects on humans. Luckily, there is an easy alternative to microwaving popcorn—the homemade, plain variety! This recipe from Baked Bree shows how quick and easy it is to make popcorn on your stovetop; or you can always purchase an air popper. Kimszal makes plain popcorn a real treat by tossing it with natural additives like “garlic or onion powder, cinnamon, or your own raw honey for a little sweetness and flavor.”

Orange and Addicting

Have you heard of the Cheeto effect? Food scientist Steven Witherly, PhD, believes these cheese puffs are one of the most addicting junk food options out there due to their “vanishing caloric density.” He went into this in detail in a New York Times interview, saying, “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it … You can just keep eating it forever.” Avoid mindless, empty calories by intentionally choosing the foods you want to enjoy. Portion them out, and be satisfied with a realistic snack.

The deception is in the name.

When you think fruit snacks, you think fruit, of course! And while fruit is healthy, fruit snacks are most definitely not. Many varieties have a touch of fruit, but Salter says they often have an “overstated vitamin/mineral content [and are] high in sugar.” Don’t be fooled: Gummy fruit snacks are a dessert, and a sugary one at that. Rather than making them a favorite, turn to the real deal. Real fruit has true vitamins, minerals, and natural sugar your body can grow to love—and even crave!

Beware of these breakfast options.

“Most breakfast cereals,” Kimszal says, “even the ‘healthy’ ones, have a lot of chemical preservatives and are enriched with synthetic vitamins. They are not truly whole grains.” Rather, she encourages steel cut oats or a chia bowl. She shares a quick, easy recipe for chia bowls: “Take one cup chia seeds and add one cup water, a fourth cup pumpkin seeds, and a little bit of unprocessed cacao and coconut flakes. Mix well and serve.”

Should you completely cut these popular snack foods from your diet?

Probably. But any step in the right direction is a good idea. Aiming for balance in your diet is a realistic goal. In a 2016 HealthyWay article, fitness instructor Shaun T recommended that you treat, not cheat. He did this by following the “85/15 rule.” “I eat 85 percent foods that are healthy and 15 percent foods that are fun,” the fitness instructor of Insanity and Hip Hop Abs fame wrote. “Start by getting out a piece of paper and drawing a line straight down the middle. On the left hand side write down all the healthy foods that you like. On the right hand side write down some of the fun foods that you love. Make sure you are eating more from the left than you are the right, and don’t beat yourself up when you choose food from the fun category.” Hallelujah and happy day. You don’t have to give up your precious chips or favorite sweet treat! Instead, you just need to temper their role in your life—an occasional snack versus a daily essential.

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