By in Nutrition

Are ‘Healthy’ Crisps Really the Answer to Your Prayers?

We all want to be healthy, have more energy, maybe shift some weight. But we also want our little treats, something crunchy, salty, more-ish, every now and then. Luckily for us, the food industry is here to help. They are listening, they have understood that people want healthier snacks and set to work to make products that are good for us. Yes, those bad fatty crisps we used to eat are of course still available, but look more closely and you’ll see vegetable chips, lentil chips, low-fat popcorn, baked potato chips … The possibilities are endless. So much to choose from for the health conscious snacker!

“Only 94 calories per pack” – “baked, not fried” – “50% less fat” – “real food ingredients” – “we only use sunflower oil” – “naturally lower in saturates”

Those are the messages written on the little snack bags – many of which now come in a more papery than plasticky feel, no doubt to further emphasise the naturalness of the contents.

But I would recommend remaining suspicious, because at the end of the day the industry is looking after Number One. It’s the bottom line that counts, not the health and wellbeing of consumers, but over the last 50 years or so, the official nutrition guidelines – not just in the UK, but in the entire developed world – have been playing into the hands of the industry. We were told to cut back on cholesterol and fat – particularly saturated fat – to stay slim and keep our hearts healthy. Moreover, everybody knows that you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. Low-fat means lower in calories.

This was great news for the food industry, because they can sell us anything: As long as we don’t exceed our daily calorie allowance, it doesn’t matter what we eat, and the easiest way to cut back on calories is by cutting back on fat, a no-brainer. The food industry was told that it had to use less saturated fat. It listened and switched to polyunsaturated vegetable oils. They’re cheaper, and if hydrogenated, actually easier to manipulate to achieve the required results than butter or other saturated fats ever were. Since fat is an important carrier for flavour, however, low-fat products don’t taste all that good. Solution: Added sugar. This came with the added bonus that sugar is cheap and a natural preservative. Together, hydrogenated fats and sugar increased the shelf-life of food products no end.

But now we know better. Over the last 10 years or so new research – or indeed reviews of old research – has come to the conclusion that:

  • the role of cholesterol in the development of heart disease has been widely exaggerated and blood cholesterol levels are not a particularly valuable risk indicator – there are better ones;
  • saturated fats do not raise blood cholesterol (even if that mattered), but sugars and starches do
  • it is not fat that makes us fat, but sugars and starches do, particularly if they are processed and isolated (i. e. aren’t eaten as part of the whole plant, such as a fruit, root vegetable or a whole grain)
  • the relevance of calories in weight loss or gain is vastly overrated, what matters is what our metabolism does with the food, not how many calories it has.

So I recommend reading the nutrition information on those so-called healthy snacks, not the large-print messages manufacturers want us to read. We have been trained to look at calorie and fat content and to worry about saturated fats. Here’s a list of snacks, starting with the ‘unhealthiest’ to ‘healthiest’ based on that information:

Vegetable Chips (highest in fat) – Sweet Potato Crisps – Potato Crisps (highest in kcal) – Skinny Popcorn – Baked Chips – Lentil Chips

Any surprises? Maybe that vegetable chips – which sounds so healthy – appear to be worse than ordinary crisps. But that’s just in terms of fat, not overall calories. Potato crisps are the highest in calories, but frankly, the differences are tiny anyway. There is quite a big jump in the fat content between potato crisps and skinny popcorn: from 32.5g/100g to just 17.8g/100g.

But now let’s look at the labels again with the knowledge we have today. Remember fat doesn’t matter as much as sugar and starches. Both sugar and starches are carbohydrates, which is why sugar is always indented underneath ‘carbohydrates’ as ‘of which sugars’. Fibre, too, is carbohydrate but that is listed individually as we cannot digest it, but our gut bacteria can. All carbs other than fibre become sugar sooner or later and raise blood sugar levels. Bearing this in mind, let’s re-sort the snacks from ‘unhealthiest’ to ‘healthiest’:

Lentil Chips – Baked Chips – Skinny Popcorn – Potato Crisps – Sweet Potato Crisps – Vegetable Chips.

It’s the exact opposite! This time the gap between Skinny Popcorn and Potato Crisps is not quite so pronounced, but there is a huge difference in total carbohydrates between the lentil chips (67.3g/100g) and the vegetable chips (44.1g/100g).

Before buying a ‘healthy’ snack – or any processed food, if you must – ignore the big print on the front of the package and take a look at the nutrition information on the back. Anything with 5g or less of sugar per 100g is low-sugar. Anything above 20g of sugar per 100g is high in sugar. Next look at total carbohydrates, as I did above, and go for the lowest.

Also of interest: the ingredients list. The snacks I chose for this example varied from 5 ingredients (Vegetable Chips, Skinny Popcorn) to 28 ingredients (Lentil Chips). Which one would you rather eat?

So, if you are going to buy snacks, read the label. Better still: Don’t buy them.

For more advice on nutritional therapy, please call The Body Matters on 01702 714968 to book an appointment. 

Melanie

Melanie trained as a nutritional therapist at the renowned Institute for Optimum Nutrition in London, graduating in 2009. She specialises in the management of stress and anxiety, weight management and hormone health.

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