When I was growing up, a “snack”—according to my mother the holistic health coach—could very well have been a slab of baked squash. My own children aren’t so lucky when it comes to snacks (or unlucky, if you had asked 12-year-old me!).
I often lament that organic snacks have ruined my family’s diet. With so many packaged options now sold in health food stores, it would be easy to allow kids to subsist on cheddar crackers, heavily-sweetened yogurts, and organic gummy fruits–and on some days, my boys do!
Why Organic Snacks Aren’t Health Food
While cane-juice sweetened, zero-trans fat choices are obviously better than artificially flavored cheese curls or cookies full of hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup, sometimes I feel that if I didn’t have the convenience of so many packaged “healthy” options, I would be forced to slice up an apple or bake some muffins when snack time rolled around (because, like most of you reading this, I certainly wouldn’t be purchasing Snickers Bars or Doritos, no matter how much my kids whined).
Bottom line: The snack aisle at the health food store is full of highly processed products loaded with sugar, salt, and white flour–in other words, really not health food at all! (And while it might seem hyperbolic to call these snacks toxic, sugar is one ingredient that probably qualifies as such.)
The Trouble with Extruded Grains
One big issue with many baby/kid snacks (cereals, crackers, etc.) is that they are produced through a process called extrusion, which involves mixing grains with water and—with the help of high temperatures and pressure—sending the mixture through a tiny hole to give it the desired shape (like a Cheerio or Goldfish). Unfortunately, extrusion compromises the integrity of the grains’ nutrients, breaks the bonds of fatty acids, inactivates enzymes, increases the glycemic index of the food, and often lowers the vitamin and mineral content.
A Closer Look at Four “Healthy” Snacks
Let’s look at what’s wrong with some of the snack foods that I often find myself buying for my own children:
- Cheddar Crackers (be they shaped bunnies, ducks, rocket ships, or Big Bird’s head!). As I mentioned above, these snacks are often the result of highly processed white grains being sent through an extruder. While the organic varieties tend to be marginally better than conventional Goldfish crackers in that they contain sunflower instead of soybean oil and usually don’t have added sugar, it would be a stretch to call them nutritious, particularly considering the high sodium content.
Easy Upgrade: There are some higher quality crackers in the health food store, such as Mary’s Gone Crackers. Even better? Make your own whole grain crackers or muffins. If your kids are old enough, popcorn is a great healthy snack (but poses a choking hazard to kids under the age of 5).
- Yogurt. Organic yogurt, especially if it comes from grass-fed cows, is a nutrient-rich snack. Unfortunately, every single brand of yogurt marketed to babies and kids has added white sugar or cane syrup!
Easy Upgrade: Most babies will accept full-fat plain yogurt, without any sweetener at all. I add chia seeds to my toddler’s yogurt and he loves it. If, like my 5-year-old, your child insists on sweetener, try stirring in some applesauce, unsweetened jam, or even a touch of honey or maple syrup.
- “Puffs”. While an upgrade from Cheerios, the baby snack commonly known as puffs aren’t really a health food. They usually contain white rice, extruded to produce the puff shape, and some brands contain evaporated cane syrup.
Easy Upgrade: If you really want to give your baby puffs, Happy Baby’s don’t have added white sugar. In search of another convenient, non-messy snack? Just Tomatoes makes organic freeze-dried fruits that are easy and healthful, although you should ask your pediatrician before giving them to a baby as they may present a choking risk.
- Fruit Leathers. While these don’t have added white sugar, they do have fruit juice concentrate, which is highly processed and probably not much better. They are a step up from candy, but a definite step down from pureed fruits like applesauce (which are a step down from whole fruits!).
Easy Upgrade: Dried fruit, which is high in natural sugar but doesn’t contain fruit juice concentrate, is much less processed than fruit leathers. My kids love dried mango in particular.
Another Downside to Packaged Foods: Leaching Plastic
Packaged food has many opportunities to come in contact with plastic throughout its manufacturing process, and we now know that hormone-disrupting phthalates and BPA are found in a lot of what we eat.
Organic produce has the least amount of chemical contamination, and the less processed the food, the purer it will be. This is just one more reason that an apple makes a better snack than applesauce in a plastic cup.
So What Can You Do?
I consider it unrealistic to cut out packaged snacks, and am grateful that we companies are now producing organic options. What I try to remember is that these snacks aren’t really a health food, but rather the lesser evil.
Snacks from the health food store will continue to have their place in our lives (I literally cannot force my toddler into his stroller these days without handing him some Trader Joe’s veggie sticks—which aren’t even organic and are definitely extruded!). But they should not replace the actual good stuff that my kids eat, and I aim for 80 to 90 percent whole foods, which is harder than it sounds!
If you’re looking to upgrade what your children snack on, my mom shares ten awesome ideas in this blog post. Lately, I’ve been trying to plan ahead and be more organized—both important steps in making sure that we have fruit salad around when both of my kids are whining for Cheddar Bunnies!
I would love to hear your own healthy (or at least healthier) snack ideas, so please share them below.