What Makes a Snack Good or Bad?

Editor David Feder, R.D., wrestles with the question of what makes a snack -- and snacking in general -- "good" or "bad."

By David Feder, R.D., Editor

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I practically live on snacks; that is, I graze throughout the day. This is hardly uncommon, as is borne out by the multibillion-dollar snack food industry. But for those of us who grew up in the 1960s, there was a stigma attached to the word “snack” that’s hard to shake. We were told by experts (Mom, teachers and the family doctor), not to eat between meals, to “avoid snacks,” to “not fill up on junk” and other such caveats.

By the time I was studying nutrition and dietetics, the drift went the other way. Health experts were recommending dividing calories across six small daily meals as a way to maintain level blood sugar and avoid obesity.

What changed? It wasn’t the nutrition knowledge. Although the science has seen an extraordinary quantity of growth and change in the past decades, snack foods loaded with sugar or salt were never associated with health and fitness. The pivotal change was to snacks themselves. They just plain got healthier. Yes, we Americans still love our sugary candy and our salty potato chips — they continue to rack up billions in sales per year — but granola bars and trail mix and soy nuts are also mega sellers.

And even within the so-called “junk” snack categories, manufacturers are making efforts to let us have our chips and eat them too. It’s getting harder and harder to find a cracker or a chip that doesn’t proudly proclaim itself free of trans-fatty acids, implicated in heart disease.

Other crispy favorites are “baked, not fried” to reduce the overall saturated fat content. Vitamins and minerals are added, sugar is taken out and those classic standards of health, fruit and vegetables, are given unprecedented attention in the food business, whether as ingredients within a snack food or in unique preparation or packaging to encourage their being snapped off the shelf.

These changes are happening across the spectrum of packaged foods. It was once the mission of niche marketers to provide healthier “alternatives” to mainstream snacks. But recently two of the biggest manufacturers of snack foods, Frito-Lay and Kraft, made across-the-board changes, taking giant, proactive steps toward “unjunking” junk food.

So put this in your back pocket: There’s nothing wrong with noshing on a healthy snack (or even the occasional “empty” calorie). Better you should eat when you’re hungry so that you don’t overeat when you’re not.

Eat Well!

Note: As we go to press, the USDA releases the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans. To find out what’s changed and what the experts have to say about the guidelines, see “New Dietary Guidelines Released.”

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