Consumers are turning to 100-calorie snack packs -- of crackers, cookies, chips, and more -- in record numbers. Obviously, many see these convenient little bags as a great way to control calories and keep them from polishing off whole bags of less-than-healthy snacks.
But is this new food category -- which has gone from $0 to $150 million in sales in less than two years -- really the best bet for those trying to eat healthy snacks and control weight? WebMD put the question to several dietitians.
How Healthy Are 100-Calorie Snack Packs?
The 100-calorie packs work best when it comes to foods we should enjoy in limited amounts, says health columnist Carolyn O'Neil, RD.
"A snack like nuts is perfect for 100-calorie packs, because lots of folks tend to mindlessly eat larger servings," says O'Neil. "And even though nuts are nutrient-rich, they could contribute too many calories if the packs were not portion-controlled."
That goes as well for sweets, which are a weakness for many dieters. Sweet treats like 100-calorie ice cream bars and cookies are a great way to have your cake and eat it, too -- as long as you can stop at one.
"I support the 100-calorie packaging to help with portion control, but if consumers think it is fine to eat more than one, it negates the benefit," says Milton Stokes, MPH, RD, chief dietitian at St. Barnabus Hospital in Bronx, New York.
Stokes says that packaging items in smaller containers can help control mindless overeating.
"Studies show the larger the container, the more people eat," says Stokes. "So by reducing the size of plates, bags, and containers, it should help us reduce the amount we eat."
American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Marisa Moore, RD, likes 100-calorie products for their portion control, convenience, and ability to satisfy a sweet tooth. But because many of these snacks lack fiber, she says, they won't stave off hunger for long.
"The 100-calorie snacks lack staying power, and as a result can lead to premature hunger and a higher calorie intake in the end," she says.
She'd rather see people choose snacks that provide needed nutrients while taming hunger. For example, she says, "in only 160 calories, a serving of almonds is satisfying and provides heart-healthy fats, fiber, and calcium."
Baylor nutrition professor Suzy Weems, PhD, RD, is concerned that 100-calorie snack packs are just another way to give us license to eat empty-calorie foods we don't need.
"We need to focus on foods that are needed for good health, and while these snacks are controlled in calories, they tend to provide few nutrients," she says.
Author Elisa Zied, RD, recommends planning your snacks based on foods that are missing in your diet. If at the end of the day you have met your quotas for all the food groups, then enjoy a 100-calorie snack pack -- but just one.
Dietitians' Picks for Healthy Snacks
Dietitians agree that the best snacks satisfy hunger while helping meet our daily dietary needs, especially for fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy.
"Look for snacks that contain protein with healthy carbohydrates and fats, and eat your snacks slowly so they fill you up," says Weems.
Here are 22 portable and healthy snacks that make the list of dietitian's favorites:
- Half a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread
- Low-sugar, whole-grain granola bars that have at least 3 grams of fiber
- Whole-grain crackers or whole-wheat tortilla with hummus or nut butter
- A handful of unsalted or lightly salted dry-roasted nuts
- Individual unsweetened applesauce with a few dry-roasted walnuts
- Small apple with 2 teaspoons peanut butter or 1 ounce low-fat cheese
- Ants on a log -- celery with nut butter, topped with raisins or other dried fruit
- Half of a single-serving string cheese with a small piece of fruit or a few whole-grain crackers
- 4-ounces to 6-ounces of low-fat yogurt or yogurt treat
- High-fiber dry cereal with a few nuts or seeds and dried fruit (put this in a baggie for a make-your-own snack pack)
- Individual packs of carrots, celery sticks, or apple slices, with a protein source like a tablespoon of nuts, nut butter, or low-fat cheese
- Pretzels and low-fat cheese
- Whole-wheat cracker sandwiches made with natural nut butters
- 1 ounce of lean meat and a few whole-grain crackers
- 3 ounces low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese and a few whole-grain crackers
- 1 whole graham cracker and 1 teaspoon nut butter
- Raw vegetables with 1/4 cup low-fat ranch dressing
- 100-calorie pack of low-fat popcorn rich in whole grains and fiber
- Handful of tortilla chips and salsa
- 100-calorie ice cream treats
- "Skinny" latte (made with low-fat or skim milk)
- Small bowl of whole-grain cereal with skim milk or low-fat yogurt