Healthful Snacks for the Chip-and-Dip Crowd

by Ruth Papazian

Any nutritionist worth her salt will recommend eating an apple or carrot sticks if you want a healthy, nutritious snack. But can you imagine serving crudités, tofu kabobs, and rice cakes when "the gang" comes over to watch the big game on television? Even the most health-conscious among us have to admit that there are times when only cookies, chips, crackers, dips, and spreads will do.

"Snack foods are a big issue with my clients," admits Connie Diekman, a St. Louis-based registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "They want to know: 'Can I still eat them?' 'How much can I eat?' and 'What else do I have to give up?'" Of course, if you choose to snack on fruit or low-fat yogurt you'll get fiber, calcium and other important nutrients your body needs. "My advice is to reach for these types of foods first and then to munch on your favorite snack food," says Diekman.

Naomi Kulakow, coordinator of food labeling education in the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, points out that the new food label gives consumers options to find variety, balance and moderation--the cornerstone of a healthy diet--in their snack food choices. "Consumers now have the information they need to make informed choices among the foods they like--they now have a tool to help them control portion sizes, and make dietary tradeoffs or substitutes," she says.

Another option is products containing olestra, a fat-based substitute for conventional fats. (See "Olestra Approved with Special Labeling.")

"When choosing snack foods, I advise my clients to figure out what is more important to them--eating a larger portion of the reduced-fat version or eating a smaller amount of the full-fat version," Diekman says. "For instance, if a serving of potato chips is 1 ounce (28 grams), there may be 16 chips per serving for the full-fat version and 30 for the fat-free version." Diekman adds that many of her clients incorporate their favorite snacks into their diets by giving up other things, such as not putting dressing on their salads.

She finds that "most people are interested in a particular product attribute--the number of calories or sodium content--and may base their snack food choices on that one factor."

Being Upfront About Nutrients

Many well-known brands of snack foods are now available in reduced-fat or reduced-sodium versions so you can steer clear of nutritional land mines without being a party pooper. However, the trick is to find lower calorie, fat or salt versions of your favorite snacks, and to compare the amount that makes up a portion with the amount you normally eat so you can incorporate snack foods into your diet without overdosing on fat and salt.

How many tortilla chips make a serving? Which has less sodium per serving, salsa or bean dip? Does a half cup of "party mix" contain more fat than an equal amount of mixed nuts? Thanks to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, the answers to such questions can be easily found on virtually all packaged and processed foods. Redesigned in 1994 in accordance with regulations developed jointly by FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the food label now provides more consistent and reliable information about:

bullet nutrient claims, such as "reduced sodium" or "low fat"
bullet serving size and number of servings in the package or container
bullet %Daily Values, which show how much of certain nutrients a serving contributes to your daily diet overall
bullet all ingredients, including additives, artificial colors and natural and artificial flavors.

"A quick, easy way to spot healthier varieties of cookies, chips and other snack foods, is to be on the lookout for products that carry the nutrient claims 'fat free,' 'low fat,' 'light,' 'low sodium,' 'lightly' salted, or 'reduced' calorie, fat or sodium on the front of the package," suggests Kulakow. "You can trust these claims because they are among a number of descriptive terms that the government has created precise definitions for, and all foods making such nutrient claims must meet stringent criteria," she adds. (See "Smart and Easy.")

Real-Life Serving Sizes

"Before the new food label regulations went into effect, a serving size was whatever the manufacturer said it was--and many packages did not even list this information," Diekman says. "For instance, people used to assume that a small bag of potato chips contained a single serving. That wasn't always true before, but it's true now. The label also alerts consumers that a bag containing more than 2 ounces (60 g) of chips contains more than one serving." Knowing the number of servings in a package is important because the amount of fat, sodium or calories listed on the label is based on serving size, she adds.

You can find the serving sizes and number of servings per package on the Nutrition Facts panel. Serving sizes are listed in both household and metric units--for example, 14 chips (28 g)--and are more uniform across product lines to enable you to compare the nutrient profiles of, say, baked potato chips and fried potato chips.

In addition, serving sizes must be based on values from government food consumption surveys, so they bear a closer resemblance to amounts that people typically eat. "But keep in mind that if you eat more or less of a snack food than the serving size listed on the label, you'll have to adjust the fat, sodium and caloric content accordingly," Diekman cautions. That means if the serving size is 14 potato chips and you eat 28, you'll have to take into account that you've munched and crunched twice as much fat, sodium and calories as the amounts listed on the label.

Although it seems counterintuitive, keeping track of portion size may be especially important when a food is low- or no-fat. Two recent studies indicated that people who know a food is low in fat tend to either eat more of it, or to eat more throughout the day to compensate.

"Fat-free is not calorie-free," warns Diekman. "For some reason, people seem to think they can eat as much as they want of a food that is low in fat or fat-free." She points out that if you cut out every ounce of fat from your diet, but consume three times the calories, you will gain weight.

Kulakow agrees, and points out that fat-free or low-fat versions of snack foods often contain high amounts of added sugars or sodium to compensate for the loss of flavor that occurs when fat is removed. So she cautions consumers to examine the amounts of these nutrients on fat-free and low-fat products, and to pay close attention to the calories in a single serving to avoid concluding that fat-free is synonymous with low in calories.

Some Valuable Information

If you zero in on the Amount Per Serving section of the Nutrition Facts panel, you'll be able to tell at a glance whether a snack food is high in calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. "The top part of the food label makes it easy to compare chip A to chip B," says Diekman.

The first line lists the number of calories in the food, and the number of calories from fat. For instance, when choosing a dip, the number of calories from fat is a clue that salsa is much lower in fat than sour cream-and-onion. If you need to watch your sodium intake, you can also compare the sodium content of a serving of baked tortilla chips and baked potato chips before deciding which one to toss into your shopping cart.

In addition to listing the amounts of fat and other nutrients by weight, the Nutrition Facts panel also gives this information as a percentage of the Daily Value. The %Daily Value is based in part on the government's Dietary Guidelines and is meant to show how a serving of a food fits in with current recommendations for a healthful diet. "Many people only look at the number of grams of fat in an individual food, but have no sense of how it fits into the daily diet. The %Daily Value quickly lets you know this as well as whether a food is high or low in a nutrient, such as fat," says Kulakow.

Thus, the %Daily Value enables consumers to go beyond making individual food choices to determine how a particular food affects the overall diet. "For example, if you want a low- or fat-free snack, pretzels are a great choice. But if you eat two servings, you can get as much as 54 percent of the recommended daily sodium intake. Although you're avoiding fat, you're getting a double whammy of salt," Kulakow explains.

Diekman comments, "If you've tried baked tortilla chips and find that you don't like them, you may decide instead to limit the amount of fat you get by dipping your fried tortilla chips into salsa instead of guacamole. The %Daily Value portion of the food label allows you to make choices that meet your dietary needs while still eating the foods you enjoy."

At the bottom of the Nutrition Facts panel, you'll see that %Daily Values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Even if you eat more or less than 2,000 calories, the %Daily Value can serve as a useful reference to determine whether a food is high or low in a particular nutrient. "People know they should limit the amount of fat in their diets, but they don't always remember the recommendation to keep fat below 30 percent of caloric intake for the day or, if they do remember, don't know how to calculate the amount of fat they should eat in a day to stay within this limit. With the %Daily Value, however, the label does the math for you," Kulakow says.

The %Daily Value can also help you distinguish between two similar products, particularly when it involves a comparative nutritional claim, such as reduced fat. "You don't need to know the precise definition of 'low' or 'reduced.' Just look at the %Daily Value and see which is higher or lower in the nutrient you are interested in," Kulakow advises.

"You don't have to go to extremes--cutting out all snack foods from your diet or eating only products that are fat-free," she says. "The new food label helps you to eat what you like and still meet nutritional recommendations if you balance your food choices. The key is to use the label to help you make informed choices that fit into your total daily diet. That way education, not deprivation, can help you achieve your dietary goals."

Ruth Papazian is a writer in New York City.



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