Monday, March 07, 2016
Quite a while ago I wrote about healthy snacks for kids, but it’s time to revisit the pantry because new options are showing up all the time. Most snack options fall in the empty calorie category — delicious but not nutritious. You throw in allergies and you find your selections even more limited. Manufacturers have cleverly made so many of these conveniently accessible and enticingly tasty. However, a quick look at the nutrition label shows them to be devoid of anything beneficial and chock full of salt, sugar, preservatives, and colorings. Exercise requires kids to stock up on or replenish those electrolytes and nutrients their body uses up. A bag of chips won’t help. I’ve learned to be nearly obsessive about reading labels due to my own dietary restrictions. The internet is my friend in these instances, letting me peruse labels in the comfort of my family room instead of in the crowded, hectic aisles of the local grocery. I’ve ended up categorizing snacks in three ways: Purely natural, meaning coming directly from the earth; naturally created with limited processing and additives; and manufactured, yet healthy nonetheless.
In the purely natural group, I include all fruits and vegetables with a limit on the amount of sugar even if those sugars are naturally occurring. A navel orange, that staple of after-game team snacks, packs 23 grams of sugar in one orange. Guidelines tell us we should try to limit our sugars to 50 grams per day. However, no more than 25-to-30 grams a day should come from “added sugars,” which as the name implies are sugars that don’t occur naturally in the food we’re eating such as those found in cakes, candy bars, flavored yogurt and cereals. That means one orange is equal to 50 percent of recommended daily allowances. Fruits with lower sugar contents are pineapple, strawberries and cantaloupe, which are all under 15 grams per serving. Even tomatoes are lower in sugar than oranges and apples. Vegetables are actually a better choice for natural snacks as they provide more fiber, less sugar, and several essential vitamins. Even sweet carrots have only around 6 grams of sugar, and celery, cucumbers, and green peppers have less than 4 grams of sugar per serving. Kids will often turn their noses up at vegetables, but adding a dip from the next group of snacks might heighten their interest and still not overdo the sugar. Nuts are excellent sources of fiber, essential oils, and energy, although many kids do have nut allergies. The best options are raw nuts that don’t have salt and oil added. Sunflower seeds are a great snack but messy with all the shells. Nevertheless, even kids with nut allergies can eat these. Supplying some bags of seeds for noshing on the bench is always welcome. Avoid the flavored seeds which pack on salts and sugars. Popcorn makes a great snack so long as we air pop it and don’t overdo the salt. You can make popcorn in the microwave with a covered heat-resistant glass container which can then be the serving bowl.
Foods that are naturally created can be both convenient and tasty. You can start with something as simple as unsweetened applesauce. These usefully come in snack size containers but be sure the list of ingredients reads simply apples and vitamin C (to keep sauce from browning). There are usually only 11 grams of sugar in each serving. Unsweetened peanut butter is generally ground with salt and perhaps a small amount of additional oil. Jif actually sells a natural peanut butter, which does contain a small amount of sugar along with nuts, and palm oil. You get 7 grams of protein per a two tablespoon serving, which is excellent. You can even grind your own peanut butter in a food processor. Create some “ants on a log” by filling celery with peanut butter and sprinkling on raisins. Dried fruit is very high in sugar, so use sparingly as an add-on rather than a main snack. Plain yogurt is low in sugars and is naturally produced using only milk and the fermenting bacteria. Once you move to flavors you begin to get the artificial ingredients and to greatly increase the sugar levels. Your best bet for flavored yogurt is vanilla, which has the least amount of added sugars. Those convenient yogurt smoothies have a whopping 23 grams of added sugar. Plain yogurt can be combined with various spices to create dips: garlic, pepper, shallots, chives, dill, and lemon. Condiments, such as olives and pickles, can make good snacks, but they have tons of salt so should be used in limited amounts. Chopping up some of these to put in the dip can give it substance and extra flavor. Hummus comes in several flavors and most brands are generally fairly free of additives. Just be sure to keep hummus chilled as it can collect bacteria if it sits warm too long. Any blocks of cultured cheese have limited processing. You can even get “snack packs” from Sabra and Boar’s Head that include hummus and pretzels (more about them later) which have around 7 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of sugar. These are an example of the best snacks - where there are more grams of protein than sugar. Rather than buying string cheese (high in salt) or cheese sticks (generally processed cheese rather than cultured cheese) create your own snack size treats by cutting up a block of cultured cheese. It’s cheaper, you have a greater variety of flavors, and it’s healthier. If I am going to serve them up within a few hours I just put what I want to distribute in some aluminum foil, seal it tightly, and store in a cool spot. There’s the extra advantage that the foil is recyclable. You can make the treats long like sticks or in bite-size chunks. They provide an excellent source of protein low in sugars (lactose from the milk).
Foods with more processing are also more convenient which is why they sell so well. Some are actually fairly healthy, but be sure once again to read labels. One fall back snack for me is Smucker’s Uncrustables – ready-made crustless PB&J sandwiches. If you buy the reduced sugar ones, which come in either grape or strawberry jelly, you don’t get the high fructose sugars that come in the regular product. There is a small amount of fructose in the bread, but overall they have only 6 grams of sugar and 7 grams of protein. The sandwiches come in packs of four or ten and are sold in the frozen food section. I pull them out about an hour before serving to thaw. You can make your own sandwiches, but the bread, jelly, and peanut butter will probably have all the same ingredients and you’ll spend a lot of time creating them. Pretzels make a great crunchy snack and can be pared with dips, hummus, and peanut butter. They are actually an excellent source of iron and manganese, have less than one gram of sugar per serving while providing 5 grams of protein. It’s one of the least processed snack foods and is naturally low in calories as well. Muffins can be a good source of fiber and protein, but not the usual blueberry ones you buy at the bakery. Quinoa muffins are amazing and you can create them with fruits to add some sweetness although no sugar is added. The recipe is easy to make and these freeze well so you can store them in small batches greatist.com/eat/recipes/quinoa-muffin-bites. Not all granola bars are created equally, but some along with protein bars can be a great snack option. Read those labels because many bars count on sugars and fats to add taste. Kashi has two granola and seed bars that have around 9 grams of sugar and 4 grams of protein which do not have any nuts but do have coconut which a few kids might be allergic to. I swear by Think Thin protein bars which have 0 grams of sugar and 20 grams of protein in full bars and 10 grams of protein in the bites. There are over a dozen varieties.
One way to limit sugars is to use sugar substitutes. There are positives and negatives to this idea. There are now several novel sugar substitutes which are far healthier than artificial sweeteners. Splenda was first on the market followed by Truvia, Stevia, and Monk Fruit. The taste is not exactly like sugar and there are some calories with the novel sweeteners, but far less than with sugar. For example I just bought some cups of Dole Mandarin Orange slices in syrup. The “no added sugar” option uses monk fruit and still had 5 grams of sugar per serving, but compare that to the 23 grams in the regular option you can see there is an advantage. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are cautions with these substitutes. Some manufacturers now use sugar alcohols as a sugar substitute (most common are xylitol and sorbitol). Unfortunately these can cause bloating and diarrhea. You might also look for natural sweeteners such as agave, honey, and molasses. These have calories but because they are less processed than sugar (sucrose) they also provide several essential minerals. Sugar alcohols, novel sweeteners, and natural sweeteners do affect blood sugar levels so aren’t good for diabetics but could be good for weight control and tooth decay.
All in all, snacking is a huge portion of the food industry. In fact, it is estimated that 23 percent of our food budget is spent on processed foods and sweets with an additional 12 percent spent on beverages, which often include sodas. Therefore we spend over 1/3 of our food allowance on stuff that isn’t really food. We can improve on that just by reading the nutrition and ingredient labels and insisting on the purest foods we can find to feed our families. It’s not a question of going “cold turkey” on anything snacky or processed, but finding a better balance where we focus on healthier snack options while still leaving room for those guilty pleasures (mine are Oreos and Cadbury Eggs, both of which I bought yesterday). So I understand we won’t give up everything, but when it comes to providing our kids with the proper nutrients for pre- and post-activity snacking, we can find some really great alternatives. Since sugars are plentiful in sports drinks (up to 23 grams per 8 oz.) and milk (12 grams per 8 oz.), you could infuse water with fruit slices or cucumbers letting it sit in your refrigerator for a few hours before serving. The rinds can eventually make the water bitter, so remove the slices after six hours. We don’t have to be obsessive, but we can be better with just a small amount of diligence. Read the labels and check out nutrition websites, which can provide you with some great products, ideas for controlling sugar and salt, and creating your own healthy snacks. Look at all the options on the shelves as there can be a wide range of nutritional differences in the same item by different producers. The healthier we feed our kids the better they develop good habits when snacking.