For a lot of us, four o'clock in the afternoon is the most dangerous time of the day when it comes to our waistlines. That's when we're most vulnerable to a snack attack. Lunch was hours ago, dinner is hours away, and all we can think about is our craving for something sugary or salty. It's moments like this when the candy bar or Cheetos in the vending machine seem to be singing an irresistible siren's song. But like you, we try to be good. We watch our weight, try to eat a balanced diet and cut back on junk food. So we were intrigued by the explosion of 100-calorie snacks we've noticed in the grocery stores. The trend started a few years ago with a couple of manufacturers and has now spread to many more items. On a recent trip to a Target store in Maryland, Pat counted more than 80 different 100-calorie items in the snack section. A trip to the grocery store and drug store revealed additional choices. A distributor told us that it probably won't be long before you're pushing your shopping cart down a 100-calorie aisle.
At first glance, this growing selection of cookies, crackers, candy, granola bars, nuts and chips seems like a good thing, a possible antidote to the supersizing of American snack habits. Nutritionists have become increasingly impressed with the power of portion control in helping people lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Virtually none of these snack items has any trans fat and most are low in saturated fat. Few contain high-fructose corn syrup, and most are relatively low in sugar and salt. They're being marketed as smarter choices, but does that mean they're actually good for you, or simply less bad than eating a bigger bag of the same thing?
Suzanne Farrell, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, has been studying these products and sees some merit in them. After all, she says, how we snack "can absolutely make or break" a healthy diet. Substituting a 100-calorie snack for a 240-calorie candy bar each day, for example, could lead to a 16-pound weight loss in a year, she says. But to make truly smart choices, "you need to look beyond the 100 calories." That's because most prepackaged 100-calorie snacks don't pack the nutritional punch of alternatives like a cup of yogurt, a handful of nuts, a bag of cherry tomatoes or a piece of fresh fruit, and they tend to be much more expensive per serving than buying the same product in regular-size packages. Farrell's calculator tells her that "a snack pack of potato chips comes to 84 cents an ounce, whereas a serving from a regular bag that you could portion out yourself is 30 cents an ounce."
The advantage of the 100-calorie packs is that they're convenient and don't need refrigeration, so you can keep them in a purse, backpack or desk drawer. Some also have redeeming qualities like whole grain, calcium, vitamins and minerals. To be sure you're making a good choice, Farrell says, you'll need to check the nutritional information (look closely at the first ingredient, levels of fat, sugar, salt and fiber, as well as whether there's 10 percent or more of any vitamins and minerals). Comparison shopping will reveal that some 100-calorie snacks are much healthier than others. But even among the less healthful offerings, she found some consolation in the fact that a little bag of junk is better than a big bag. While Farrell didn't comment on taste, our colleagues in NEWSWEEK's Washington bureau generously agreed to weigh in with their thoughts.
Farrell's favorite from a nutritional point of view among the 29 items we purchased was Quaker's Chewy Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola Bar with 25 percent less sugar. It got extra points because its main ingredient is whole grain, it contains 10 percent of the daily requirement of calcium, has 3 grams of fiber (10 percent of the daily value) and only 3 grams of fat. Our tasters also thought it was tasty, if you like granola bars.
Another contender for the top spot was the Curves Chocolate Peanut Granola Bar, because it meets the 10-percent requirement for calcium and has an impressive 5 grams of fiber, and is low-fat and low-sugar. However, Farrell was perplexed by its main ingredient: chicory root extract, and our tasters complained that it had an odd, chemical aftertaste.
The two South Beach brand items we tried, the oatmeal chocolate chip cookie and the whole wheat snack crackers, also boasted whole grain as their first ingredient and had a respectable 3 grams of fiber. But our tasters thought the crackers were bland, and one reviewer simply described the cookie with the comment, "Oh, dear."
Both the Special K offerings (Vanilla Snack Bites and 90-calorie Chocolatey Drizzle Bar) included the biggest doses of vitamins and minerals, and Farrell was impressed that the snack bites had 15 percent of the daily requirement of iron and folic acid. Our tasters thought they were crisp and light, but also a little too sweet. Pat's 11-year-old son Jack liked these as well, and went out of his way to say he did not think they were too sweet.
Another sweet snack that got a special mention from Farrell and our tasters was Hershey's 100 Calorie Dark Chocolate Bar, a good alternative for chocolate lovers because dark chocolate contains more healthful flavonols (which relax blood vessels, improve blood flow, decrease blood clotting and reduce inflammation) than milk chocolate. The individual packaging may be helpful to those chocoholics who have trouble limiting themselves to a few pieces. (Farrell's personal strategy for limiting chocolate intake: keep the bag in the freezer and take out only one or two pieces at a time.) Farrell and our tasters also liked Quaker Crunchy Chocolate Granola Bites and Quaker Cinnamon Streusel Mini Delights, both of which consist primarily of whole grains and offer the bonus of a little calcium. Cookies that passed muster with our tasters were Oreo Thin Crisps, the Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chunk Dark Chocolate Cookies, and the Keebler Fudge Shoppe Grasshopper Cookies. Farrell conceded that they were at least low in fat. The Oreos have zero saturated and trans fat, but its sodium level (160 mg) is higher than the other two.
Among the salty snacks, Farrell especially liked SunChips Harvest Cheddar Mini Bites, because their primary ingredient is whole-grain wheat flour and they have only 110 milligrams of sodium, compared with Chex Cheddar, which has 320mg (13 percent of the daily limit) of sodium and no whole grain. Both types of Goldfish we tried also listed whole-grain wheat flour as their first ingredient, but their sodium levels were higher than the SunChips and both types tasted bland.
Overall, Farrell saw value in the 100-calorie category, "because they were all portioned and planned, and planning is a key to successful weight management." It's the impulsive choices that often get us into trouble, she says. Many people find it easier to control themselves if they're given an individual pack of something than if they have to count out Cheetos. "If you've got to have a bag of Cheetos," she says, "this is a good option." Just keep in mind that many of these products won't help you reach your ideal nutritional mix. (A 100-calorie bag of Baked Cheetos does not count as a grain in your food pyramid.) If you're taking an opportunity to eat something your body actually needs by eating something that's simply empty calories, that's not smart, even if it is low-fat. While we all need to cheat a little once in a while, try to expand your snacking choices to include some of Farrell's healthy-choice favorites:
100-Calorie Snack Ideas
These snacks taste good, are low-fat and add nutritional essentials to your diet.
* 3 cups popped low-fat popcorn (use an air popper if possible, and add only a little salt and butter spray)
* 10 baked tortilla chips with 1/3 cup salsa
* 3 oz baby carrots (about 20) with 2 tbsp lite ranch dressing
* ¾ cup minestrone soup
* 1 6-oz. container nonfat yogurt
* 1 container nonfat sugar-free pudding
* 4 mini rice cakes with 2 tsp peanut butter
* 6 oz tomato juice, ¾ oz lite cheese, 6 mini wheat crackers
* Apple with 1 oz low-fat cheese
* 30 grapes
* ½ cup edamame
* 14 almonds