What makes a healthy snack? A good-for-you snack is one that's high in nutritional value (protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber) but relatively low in calories, total fat, saturated fat (no trans fat), sugar, and sodium. And the most important part of that equation is "high in nutritional value." Nuts, for example, are high in fat and calories, but they are also loaded with nutrients we need, which makes them a healthy choice.
While fresh veggies and fruits make super-healthy snacks, those items aren't always convenient (or the most popular choices in a typical family). So here are some of the worst – in terms of healthfulness -- snack choices I found in my local supermarket along with healthy alternatives that can be put together in minutes.
You might see different products in your part of the country. But the way to get a good idea of what's in a food product is by looking at the first three to five ingredients listed on the package. On the Nutrition Facts label, keep an eye out for the calories, total fat, saturated and trans fat, grams of sugar, and milligrams of sodium and then compare them to other products in that category.
7 Not-So-Healthy Snacks
1. Chocolate-Coated Doughnuts, Mini Doughnuts, and Snack Cakes
This is not to say that powdered-sugar doughnuts are good snack choices. But chocolate-coated doughnuts and snack cakes have even more saturated fat than other types.
- Entenmann's Pop'ems Frosted Donuts, 4 pieces: 320 calories, 23 grams (g) total fat, 14 g saturated fat, 16 g sugar, 180 milligrams (mg) sodium
- Little Debbie Zebra Cakes, 1 cake: 190 calories, 9 g total fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 182 g sugar, 150 mg sodium
- Sunnyside Farms Mini Chocolate Frosted Donuts, 3 donuts: 220 calories, 13 g total fat, 9 g saturated fat, 13 g sugar, 160 mg sodium
2. Snack Pies
The Safeway fruit pies I found say "great snack!" on the package. This makes sense only if by "great snack" they mean high in calories, total fat, saturated fat, and sugar and low in protein, fiber, and other healthy nutrients.
- Safeway Berry Fruit Pie, 1 pie: 450 calories, 24 g total fat, 13 g saturated fat, 13 g sugar, 370 mg sodium
- Cutie Pie Real Fruit Pie, Cherry, 1 mini individual pie (3 ounces): 270 calories, 11 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 18 g sugars, 350 mg sodium
3. Mega-Butter or "Movie Theatre" Microwave Popcorn
This is one of the few products that still contain trans fat. Just 3 tablespoons of unpopped popcorn (which ends up being about 3.5 cups popped) contains 4 to 5 grams of trans fat. It's easy to end up eating twice that amount, which can be 8 to 10 grams of trans fat and 24 grams of total fat.
- Pop-Secret Extra Butter, 3T unpopped: 180 calories, 13 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 6 g trans fat, 360 mg sodium
- Jolly Time Blast O Butter, 2T unpopped: 160 calories, 12 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 4 g trans fat, 330 mg sodium
- Orville Redenbacher’s Butter, 2 T unpopped: 170 calories, 12 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 380 mg sodium
4.Regular Chips and Cheetos
Although the serving size listed on the package is 1 ounce, most of us snack on twice this amount. So that's what I'm using as the portion size.
- Cheetos Puffs, 2 ounces: 300 calories, 20 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 600 mg sodium
- Ruffles Cheddar & Sour Cream, 2 ounces: 320 calories, 20 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 460 mg sodium
- Cheetos Flamin Hot Crunchy, 2 ounces: 320 calories, 22 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 500 mg sodium
- Barbara’s Baked Cheese Puffs, 2 ounces: 300 calories, 20 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 320 mg sodium
- Lay’s Classic Potato Chips, 2 ounces: 320 calories, 20 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 340 mg sodium
- Kettle Potato Chips, Sea Salt, 2 ounces: 300 calories, 18 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 230 mg sodium
- Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips, 2 ounces: 320 calories, 16 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 420 mg sodium
5. Packaged Frozen Snacks
They sure seem convenient, but the calorie and saturated fat cost is high. You'd be hard-pressed to find packaged frozen products that are low in sodium and made with whole grains and smart fats. In this product category, it's buyer beware!
- Jimmy Dean Biscuit Bacon, Egg, & Cheese, 1 sandwich: 330 calories, 19 g total fat, 7 g saturated fat, 2.5 g trans fat, 940 mg sodium
- Hot Pockets – Pizzeria Pepperoni Pizza, 1 piece: 340 calories, 17 g total fat, 8 g saturated fat,< 0.5 g trans fat, 740 mg sodium
- Ore-Ida Easy Fries Golden Crinkles, 12 pieces: 120 calories, 4.5 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 290 mg sodium
- Toaster Strudel, Strawberry, 2 pastries: 340 calories, 14 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 340 mg sodium
- T.G.I. Friday’s Loaded Potato Skins (1/2 order): 1280 calories, 83 g total fat, 38 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 1300 mg sodium
- DiGiorno Crispy Flatbread Pizza Pepperoni and Fire-Roasted Bell Peppers (1 serving or 1/3 of a pizza): 340 calories, 20 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 1 g trans fat, 920 mg sodium
- White Castle Microwaveable Cheeseburgers (2 mini burgers): 310 calories, 17 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 1 g trans fat, 600 mg sodium
6. Chicken Nuggets
They may seem like a good snack choice because they're high in protein (14 grams). But there are ways to get your protein without all the extra fat, saturated fat, and sodium.
- Tyson Fun Nuggets, 4 pieces: 230 calories, 15 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 410 mg sodium
- Banquet Chicken Nuggets, 5 pieces: 210 calories, 12 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 490 mg sodium
- Fast Fixin’ Chicken Breast Nuggets, 6 pieces: 200 calories, 11 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 670 mg sodium
7. Cheese and Club Crackers
One serving probably won't fill you up since these crackers are low in water, volume, protein, and fiber. So you’ll probably double the serving -- which means your snack now contains double the calories, grams of fat, saturated fat, and milligrams of sodium.
- Ritz Bits made with cheese, 1.5 oz single serving: 220 calories, 13 g total fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 480 mg sodium
- Cheez-It Baked Snack Crackers, 27 crackers, about 1 oz: 150 calories, 8 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 230 mg sodium
- Dare Breton Original, 5 crackers: 110 calories, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 190 mg sodium
- Keebler Club Crackers, 1 ounce: 140 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 250 mg sodium
- Pepperidge Farm Baked Naturals Cheese Crisps Four Cheese Medley, 20 pieces: 140 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 270 mg sodium
8 Healthy Snacks to Try Instead
1. Toasted 100% Whole Wheat English Muffin With Peanut Butter
You'll find at least two brands of 100% whole wheat English muffin (Oroweat and Thomas) in most supermarkets. Toasted and spread with some natural-style peanut butter (the type that just contains peanuts and a little salt), these make a satisfying snack with 10 grams protein and 5 grams of fiber.
- 100% whole wheat English muffin with1 tablespoon natural-style peanut butter: 240 calories, 9.5 g total fat, 1.2 g saturated fat, 5 g fiber, 325 mg sodium
2. Nut Mixes
Don’t let the grams of fat per serving fool you. Most of the fat grams in mixed nut products are from beneficial monounsaturated fats (8 to 9 grams) and polyunsaturated fats (3 to 5 grams). Each ounce also contains approximately 5 grams of protein and plenty of healthful phytochemicals, such as phytosterols and lignans.
- Planters Nut*rition Wholesome Nut Mix, 1 ounce: 170 calories, 15 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 50 mg sodium
- Planters Nut*rition Heart Healthy Mix, 1 ounce: 170 calories, 15 g total fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 3 g fiber, 50 mg sodium
- Blue Diamond Almonds Lightly Salted, 1 ounce: 170 calories, 16 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 3 g fiber, 40 mg sodium
- Emerald Deluxe Mixed Nuts, 1 ounce: 170 calories, 16 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 95 mg sodium
- Raley’s Fine Foods Lightly Salted Mixed Nuts, 1 ounce: 170 calories, 15 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 45 mg sodium
- Emerald Cinnamon Roast Almonds (contains sucralose and acesulfame potassium), 1 ounce: 150 calories, 13 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 3 g fiber, 40 mg sodium
3. Light Microwave Popcorn
When you're craving something crunchy, microwave popcorn can be a quick and easy snack solution. There are some lighter options on the shelves.
- Orville Redenbacher's Smart Pop 94% Fat Free Butter, 7.5 cups popped: 120 calories, 2 g total fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 4 g fiber, 240 mg sodium
- Jolly Time 100 Calorie, 2 tablespoons unpopped: 100 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 7 g fiber, 280 mg sodium
- Healthy Pop Butter, 5 cups popped: 110 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 5 g fiber, 210 mg sodium
- Smart Balance Smart’N Healthy, 5 cups popped: 120 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 5 g fiber, 85 mg sodium
4. Quick Microwave Nachos (Baked chips with beans and cheese)
This high-protein snack (about 14 grams protein) is easy to put together. Just put an ounce of baked tortilla chips in a microwave-safe bowl and dot the top with small spoonfuls of refried beans right out of the can. Sprinkle some hot sauce or salsa over the top along with a little shredded cheese. Pop in microwave for 30 seconds or so to heat the beans and melt the cheese. Jazz it up if you like by adding chopped tomato, green onions, and a dollop of fat-free sour cream.
- Baked tortilla chips, 1 ounce, with 1/3-cup Fat-Free Refried Beans and 1 ounce Reduced-Fat Cheese: 252 calories, 8.3 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 6 g fiber, 652 mg sodium
A quesadilla is quick to fix in the microwave or on the stove. If you use a whole-wheat or whole-grain tortilla and reduced-fat cheese, you'll get plenty of protein and fiber (12 grams protein; 8 grams fiber) for hunger-satisfying power.
You can customize your quesadilla by adding nutrient-rich vegetables such as tomatoes, chopped green onions, peppers, or avocado.
- 100 Calorie 100% whole-wheat tortilla, 1 oz. Shredded Reduced-Fat Cheddar or Jack Cheese: 172 calories, 6.5 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 8 g fiber, 560 mg sodium
6. Lower-Sugar Snack Bars
There are lots of types of snack bars out there, from bars made with granola or nuts to bars coated in chocolate or yogurt. Most contain plenty of sugar (usually at least 12 grams). But there are a few (with 8 grams of sugar or less per bar) that dare to emphasize nuts or whole grains instead of sweetness. Note that the grams of fat in some bars will be high due to the heart-smart fats found in the nuts.
- Nature Valley Roasted Almond Crunch Bar, 2 bars: 190 calories, 8 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 11 g sugar
- Clif Mo Jo Mixed Nuts, Trail Mix Bar (1.6 ounces): 200 calories, 12 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 190 mg sodium, 8 g sugar
- Cascadian Farm Organic Dark Chocolate Almond Chewy Granola Bars, 1 bar (1.25 ounce): 130 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 5 g fiber, 8 g sugar
- Kashi TLC Peanut Peanut Butter Chew Granola Bars, 1 bar (1.25 ounces): 140 calories, 5 g fat, .5 g saturated fat, 4 g fiber, 5 g sugar
- KIND Plus Almond Walnut Macadamia with Peanuts + Protein, 1 bar (1.4 ounces): 190 calories, 12 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 3 g fiber, 8 g sugar
7. Frozen Vegetables
Vegetables can be fun to eat, like frozen edamame (green soybeans) from the pod. Just heat in the microwave (you can also serve them cold), open up the pods, and snack away at the green soybeans inside. They're low in calories and packed with fiber and protein (8 grams fiber, 10 grams protein). If you're hankering for a potato-based snack, the frozen steak fries and wedge-cut oven fries are usually the lowest in calories, fat, and saturated fat because they have a higher ratio of potato to crispy exterior. I've also listed a couple of products that feature dark green veggies.
- Edamame (in pod), 1 1/8 cup: 90 calories, 2 g total fat, 0 g saturated fat, 8 g fiber, 30 mg sodium
- Ore*Ida Steak Fries, 3 ounces.: 110 calories, 3 g total fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 290 mg sodium
- McCain Steak Cut Fries, 3 ounces: 100 calories, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 1 g fiber, 280 mg sodium
- Cascadian Farm Wedge Cut Oven Fries, 3 ounces: 100 calories, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 10 mg sodium
- Veggie Patch Broccoli Bites with Cheese, 4 bites: 160 calories, 8 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 400 mg sodium
- Dr. Praeger’s Spinach Pancakes, 1 pancake: 70 calories, 4 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 1 g fiber, 160 mg sodium
8. Yogurt and Fruit Smoothie or Parfait
In just a few minutes, you can transform yogurt and fruit into a tasty parfait or smoothie.
For a smoothie, combine 1/2 cup plain or vanilla yogurt with 1/4 cup frozen berries or other fruit, half a banana (if desired), 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract, and a pinch of cinnamon in a blender until smooth. Add crushed ice if you want.
For a parfait, combine the yogurt, vanilla, and cinnamon, and then layer the mixture with some frozen fruit.
- Plain yogurt (1/2 cup) and frozen fruit (1/4 cup) and 1/2 banana: 145 calories, 2 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 3 g fiber, 80 mg sodium
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.