How to Snack Responsibly in the New World of Health Food Marketing

How to Snack Responsibly in the New World of Health Food Marketing in lineThe growth of the Primal movement has not gone unnoticed. Food producers have latched on because, as much as we emphasize foraging the perimeter of the grocery store—the produce, the meats, the bulk goods—and eschewing processed foods, we remain creatures of convenience. Not everyone has the time or inclination to personally prepare every single morsel that enters their mouths. Sometimes we just need something quick and easy to snack on. And the food industry has risen to the occasion, offering ostensibly healthy Primal-friendly snack foods.

But are they really healthy?

It’s certainly better than previous incarnations of “healthy snack food.”

I’m thinking of the low-fat craze of the 90s, which spawned such obesogenic fare as non-fat Snackwells and yogurts, which made up for the missing fat with extra sugar, and the unholy chips cooked in artificial fat your body couldn’t even absorb—but that your underwear certainly could. This era saw obesity and diabetes rates skyrocket.

Then there are the “100% real juice” products (as opposed to what? I gotta ask). You’d hope the juice is “real.”

And don’t forget about the “healthy whole grains” emblazoned across anything with even a hint of bran and germ. It should just read “soon-to-be sugar, plus some gut irritants.”

The “no high fructose corn syrup” labels that gloss over the fact that they’ve simply replaced HFCS with an equal (and equally damaging) amount of sugar.

The fancy names for sugar: “Evaporated cane juice” (mined from natural sugar springs, no doubt), “crystalline fructose” (ooh, it must be breathtaking under a microscope!), “agave nectar” (hand milked from heritage agave plants on ancestral Hohokam tribal lands, no doubt), “brown rice syrup” (hey, that’s a healthywholegrain!), “raw sugar” (it’s kinda brown so it must be good for you), and all the others.

It’s easy to poke holes in conventionally-healthy snack foods. That’s what we do around here.

But what about the growing number of snack foods marketed to Primal, paleo, and “real food” consumers—are they good for us?

Some are, some aren’t. As I said, we like convenience. Often, we require it just to stay sane and make life go smoothly. Snack food will be on the menu, so we need to understand how to navigate the sordid world of Primal-friendly snack food. How can we do it? What should we watch out for?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Primal (or paleo) doesn’t mean healthy.

Is honey Primal? Sure. Are dates? Yep. How about cacao? Of course. And tapioca starch? I’ll give it to you. Coconut oil? Hell yes. Combining excessive amounts of them all into an amorphous blob doesn’t make the healthiest thing you can eat, though. It gives you a subpar brownie if not done correctly.

We all agree that nuts can be a beneficial part of a healthy Primal eating plan, but that doesn’t mean you should grind up a cup of them, throw in some coconut milk, coconut syrup, and eggs and make pancakes every morning.

So here are a few things you should do when picking out your next Primal-friendly snack food.

Heed the labels

They’re the first things you’ll see. And while they can be informative, they’re also misleading.

“Paleo-approved.” People are beginning to stick “paleo-approved” or “paleo” on just about everything. I like it. Helps you separate the (gluten-free) wheat from the chaff. But it can also be misleading if you don’t do some extra investigating.

  • Grain-free granola clusters with honey as the first ingredient.
  • Dark chocolate coconut-butter cups. I bet these are great. And they’re fine as an indulgence. But it’s ultimately candy and should be treated as such.
  • Plain old roasted almonds. Technically correct, as roasted almonds are “paleo-approved.” But the presence of “paleo-approved” on the label just increased the price by 30%; you’d be better off grabbing some almonds from the bulk bin or farmer’s market.

“Gluten-free.” Gluten-free crackers, cookies, cakes, and muffins are still crackers, cookies, cakes, and muffins. I’m not opposed to gluten-free crackers (see below), but let’s be honest with ourselves.

Organic is nice but not sufficient. All else being equal, I’ll take the organic snack over the non-organic snack. But things are rarely equal. Read the rest of the label.

Scrutinize the ingredients

Watch for sugar. Remember all the synonyms listed above.

Avoid weird oils and fats. The healthiest-sounding snack can be derailed by a big whack of “organic free-range soybean oil.”

Placement determines predominance. Food producers must list ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight. If there’s more honey than anything else, honey gets top billing. Use this to determine the relative proportion of problematic ingredients.

Look past the ingredients

Taking each ingredient on its own can make a product look impressive and nutritious. Consider the almond pancake I mentioned earlier. Yes, all those things are “good” for us. But in the end, it’s still a pancake (or a brownie, or a cookie, or whatever it is you’re contemplating eating).

Beware the sub par bars

“Wow, this bar has dark chocolate, figs, and blueberries! Those are all healthy foods that I enjoy on the regular. This bar must be the healthiest thing ever!”

Actually, it’s just a dense brick of dates, nuts, and other fruits. Very little protein, a ton of sugar, and more calories than you think. It’s real food, it’s nothing our bodies aren’t expecting, but the dense structure and high calorie content make it easy to put away a ton of food without realizing it. I’ve seen people eat three or four Lara Bars in a single sitting—close to 800 calories chock full of sugar—as a snack.

Beware fruit snacks (leathers, strips, etc)

I have nothing against fruit. Far more than just a “bag of sugar,” it’s a great source of polyphenols and fiber. If you’re looking for carbs or something sweet, fruit is probably a good option. But just eat the fruit. The vast majority of “all-fruit” strips achieve their status by using “fruit juice concentrates.” Sure, that banana blueberry fruit strip you gobbled as you stalked the aisles of Trader Joe’s didn’t have any refined sugar, but it did receive infusions of grape syrup.

Use crackers wisely

I won’t tell you to never eat those gluten-free chia seed-festooned sprouted wild rice flour crackers (partly because I know you’re going to get them regardless). Just don’t eat an entire box of them by themselves. Instead, throw some aged gouda on top and have fewer crackers. Spread some lamb liver paté on top. Have them with cream cheese and smoked salmon. This applies to any type of paleo-approved version of otherwise forbidden edible vehicles (bread, chips, wraps, etc).

There’s nothing wrong with convenience

Hell, one of my favorite pastimes is going into Costco, beelining for the organic section at the front of the store, and browsing all the snacks and treats. There’s always something new. Most of it is candy and other types of junk masquerading as healthy food—organic fruit snacks, trail mixes, high-cacao dark chocolate-covered pomegranate gummies—but occasionally you’ll find a gem. Like the time my local Costco had something called “Grok Chips.”

These things were the real deal. Grana padano cheese, oven-baked into crackers. They were crunchy and filling and rich in protein and calcium. And that name—what are the chances? I still wish I’d bought a case of them when I had the opportunity. Alas, I’ve never seen them since.

But there are some great products out there that both cater to a growing market and provide excellent nutrition. How about that: a company profiting by providing goods that truly serve a need and desire.

For Primal Kitchen, I’ve focused almost exclusively on real-food products that either replace a hard-to-make food or offer a hard-to-find nutrient. Everyone loves to eat it but hates making mayo, so I came up with some using avocado oil. Everyone knows they should be eating more gelatin/collagen but making bone broth is a pain, so I came up with a delicious chocolate almond bar (and now, coconut cashew bar) full of it.

If you’re having the classics, might I recommend:

As well as some newcomers:

If you’re still floundering in the sea of snacks, check out my “Essential Paleo Pantry Foods” post. It’s got a section for Sisson-approved snacks.

Again, I’m all about personal agency. You have to make your own choices. You can eat whatever you want. Just know that not every food producer trying to capitalize on the ancestral health movement is producing nutrient-dense foods. Hopefully after reading today’s post, you feel better equipped to determine which ones deserve your dollars.

Thanks for reading, everyone. How do you scrutinize snacks? What criteria do you follow?


TAGS:  Hype

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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63 thoughts on “How to Snack Responsibly in the New World of Health Food Marketing”

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  1. Great article on common sense and reaponsibility when picking out your snacks.

  2. All good points. Just because something is marked “paleo” doesn’t all of a sudden make it healthy. It COULD be, but the label is not a sufficient condition.

    1. I found some pre-made foods called Paleo something and they were not even close to real food LOL.

  3. like you said, Mark, the labels are a great guidepost. But you need to investigate a bit more to know if what you’re really eating is a healthy snack or an indulgence

  4. If I had a penny every time someone at a granola bar, Larabar, etc. and proclaimed it was healthy…

  5. It gets more complicated because there really ARE some snacks out there that are, unbelievably, pretty healthy. They may contain similar labels to another snack. But it’s only by reading the ingredients that you’ll get the full picture.

  6. This all makes perfect sense!!! I always check the sugar content. An almond butter cup is still candy, even if it can be called paleo. Personally I don’t have much time to make paleo “treats” and rarely buy them. I have no problem keeping a high quality bar in my purse for a hunger emergency (just ordered the coconut cashew) but I try to stick to real food as much as possible. An almond flour muffin is just way too much almond flour! And sorry, just can’t do the bug bars. No matter how primal they are!

  7. I can’t lay off the dried cranberries mixed with almonds. Also Pink Lady apples thin sliced with cheddar. And the classic salami and Swiss on (half) water crackers. Over 4 years primal and I never get tired of these snacks. There are some good crackers made from baked Parmesan cheese or you can make your own. Oberto jerky products are the least processed I have found with no preservatives, most other brands are full of horror show ingredients.

    1. Hi bayrider – would you be willing to share a recipe for the baked Parmesan crackers?

      1. Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (not foil) and place small (about a teaspoon) mounds of shredded Parm three inches apart (these little guys spread out!) Bake for 5-10 minutes; they are done when they are thin, bubbling, and starting to brown. Let cool completely or as long as you can – they’ll get crisper as they cool.

        You can do this with pretty much any firm cheese – I’ve done it with the sliced “party” assortments and broken the cheese into roughly 1×1″ squares. Delicious!

        I’ve heard that adding seasonings like Ranch mix or curry powder is good but haven’t tried it yet.

        1. Thank you, Susan! I would like to have some form of cracker, for when we have company or I need to provide an appetizer, but I really don’t want to buy regular crackers. This fits the bill, and seems really simple!
          And while there are some decent paleo crackers out there, they are pricey and I have to keep drying them out, as they gather any humidity like crazy, no matter how well I seal them up.

        1. I never really liked apples until I tried a Honeycrisp. They are expensive but very much worth the extra money.

          1. Same here! I always thought I hated apples until I tried a honeycrisp! So delicious. Then I tried local pink lady apples and fell in love! My two favorites, with fuji being in third. My 19 month old will take any apple though, even with bitter skins, don’t know how he does it!

  8. Good info for all the munchers out there
    For me it is simple: I-do-not-snack-at-all
    (unless the expresso machine coffee at work can be considered a snack dispenser)

    1. I rarely ever snack. If I do, it’s a small piece of fruit or a few nuts.

      BTW, what’s with the “I’m not a robot” box? Scrutinizing a bunch of tiny pictures for what they do or don’t contain makes commenting a bit of a pain. Does everyone get this when trying to post a comment, or is it limited to just a few of us?

      1. It’s a way to prevent internet programs from spamming messageboards with robo-comments. Only a human can scrutizine the pictures. It is a bit of a pain, but understandable.

  9. In the snack/chips aisle, Costco still carries Parmesan Crisps. I think they are the same thing you described only with a name change?!? They’re very good!

    1. Apparently Grok Chips are now called GrokSi! and are imported by a company in Venice, Ca.

    2. My Costco must be lame. No snack foods worth eating. We might get some good stuff in a couple years. It generally takes that much longer for stuff to catch on here in flyover territory.

  10. Great article! Sometimes I will take a celery stalk and dip it into some homemade almond butter. Or spoon some almond butter into the hole of an avocado I just split open.

    1. I like the avocado idea, will give that a try today, thanks 🙂

    2. I’ve found whipped cream cheese also fits the same bill as your nut butter, and used in exactly the same ways.

    3. I have to use the peanut butter as a dip because almond butter burns the inside of my mouth. I like to dip celery and carrots in it but not all the time, I get the store brand because it’s fresh and there are only two ingredients, peanuts and salt.

  11. If I see one more label on water or cheese, etc. that says gluten free, I’m gonna scream. Really, there isn’t any gluten in water? Gee, thanks for the info. food industry!

    1. Having been “glutened” by cheese I honestly appreciate that label at least on cheese!

      “Why is there wheat in my cheese?”

      1. Grated cheese has something in it to stop it sticking together. Usually its potato flour, but can be wheat flour

  12. I really wish the new flavor of Primal Kitchen bars was some kind of fruit flavor instead of cashews and coconuts, both of which I find disgusting. I’ll try ’em anyway though if I can.

  13. And even if some of the Bars and snacks do qualify as “Paleo”, I don’t think they justify their price; except for those very affluent customers. I knew a few of those in my time. They typically had the most up to date kitchens, except they never set a foot in them 🙂

    For a fraction of the price and quadruple the amount, I can mix an assortment of nuts, cocoa powder, shredded coconut, oil and butter and end up with a killer treat.

  14. I see ads for primal & paleo goods everywhere! I’m always flipping things over to check labels. Sometimes a treat is what you want, so ok then, grab one. But sometimes you’re looking to make a better decision.
    Alas, no matter how primal, or unsweetened an item is, my pocketbook often gets the swing vote. I simply can’t afford most of the goods marketed to the ancestral community.

  15. My gf and I love Warrior Mix by the BeeFree Company which happens to be within “local” range for us. Funny name since they do use honey; and I realize it’s 2nd on the list, but 5g total sugar per serving doesn’t seem too bad to us. And we don’t feel they’re lying about 9 servings per bag– we’re amazed at how quickly we are sated. That also helps in terms of cost– $9 per bag so only a buck per convenient serving! (Note: I have no connection to this company, just trying to promote a small biz so they don’t disappear from our shelves, lol.)

  16. I can’t wait for EXO to come back with their savory bars. The BBQ flavor was great. The sweet bars are also quite tasty, but a little high in sugar for my tastes.

    And I need to start making pate again. I find it difficult to get much organ meat unless it’s convenient.

    1. Go to US Wellness meats and they have great high quality, grass fed and finished Liverwurst, Braunchweiger and Headcheese, ready to cut and enjoy.

  17. “organic free-range soybean oil”. HAHAHAH, I love it. Nest thing you know conventional nutrition will try to sell us ORGANIC partially hydrogenated palm oil. “It’s hydrogenated!”, “yeah but it’s organic”. You know I gotta say I comment on a lot of nutritional blogs but MDA has some of the smartest I’ve seen. Very rarely do I learn something from other commenters but that happens frequently here.

    1. Have you seen the articles about the “new” organic Gatorade?

  18. I saw a new product at Whole Foods Market that would certainly be considered primal. Many here are no doubt familiar with Epic Bars, which are made of grass-fed meat, fruit and nuts. Well, now Epic offers pork rinds and pork crackling.

  19. re: Grok Chips:

    Just remember: Today’s failed Costco product is tomorrow’s deal at Grocery Outlet. The place where failed products go to die. It pays to check Gross Out once every couple of weeks. Of late the place has been rife with coconut everything, gluten-free everything, and chia seeds. When the market is saturated (and so is our fat–hee hee) the excess lands at G.O. And no, they don’t sell expired food.

    1. Yep, I love my Gross Out. They currently have 100% avocado oil mayo by Chosen Foods: 24-oz for $10.00 (Only $9 on senior day!)

  20. I love the concept “organic free-range soybean oil.” I can see people falling for that one!!

  21. Ha ha ha! I just read this article as I finished off a package of seaweed snacks. I’d much rather make my own snacks, in the simplest forms possible (no brownies or cookies) but there are times it’s nice to be able to grab and go.
    Thank you for the Primal Kitchen mayo, which I love, even as a salad dressing! I have made my own olive oil/avocado oil mayo, but there is a “am I poisoning myself with this stuff?” quality to making my own that leaves me squeamish.

  22. Uh wait, do you mean to tell me that my all-organic, vegetable-free vegetarian diet isn’t healthy?

  23. As always a very accurate, albeit anecdotal, article. So true that ‘natures way’ or ‘sunvalley’ or ‘healthy bodies’ product from the health-sounding company invariably has a mountain of sugar.
    A recent organic & paleo nut & fruit based bar i found contain 17gms of sugar in a very small serving size.
    Ingredient list great…..sugar & cals not!!

  24. Learned that labeling issue the hard way – Found a great “caveman” bar at Costco – dark choco, almonds, coconut… bought it. Got home – turned the box over, and found Agave on the back… one of the most high fructose sweeteners out there. Some folks may be able to tolerate it, but I cannot. Gave the whole thing to the folks at the office. They’re all happy.

  25. Mark, have you tried Moon Cheese? Sounds like another version of your Grok Chips. Just dehydrated cheese. I’ve seen them at Starbucks. They have three flavors: cheddar, pepper jack, and gouda.

  26. What about the concept that there is no such thing as a healthy snack? Any snack will raise insulin which impedes weight loss. There is no need to snack in between meals. Check out Dr Fungs book The obesity code. He makes several excellent points regarding meal frequency and snacking.

  27. as much as we emphasize foraging the perimeter of the grocery store

    One Food Lion in my area has gotten crafty with this, and moved their chips/soda aisle to one side of that perimeter. Now, no matter how hard you stress for people to only shop in the perimeter of the store, this Food Lion can get away with this “technicality”–that’s all it takes…just a rearrangement of aisles to put the junk food out on the perimeter!

  28. Over the summer I made Larabars a usual morning snack (1 per morning) and gained a few pounds. These have been replaced with nuts, or apple with peanut butter. Sure, Larabars are real food. Real food which went straight to my wasteline.

  29. I just finished a Whole 30 and have learned all about reading the labels. Yes, even “organic” stuff has the misleading “organic cane syrup” — folks, I do know what that means, can’t fool me! [It may be “organic” but it’s still sugar.] Also came to appreciate a Lara Bar for what it is; but I can barely eat a half at a time, let alone 3 or 4! They’re a stopgap measure at best, but when time is short, they’re at least something quick to grab. (A molar problem has me avoiding jerky — shreds get caught in the gum — so I’m trying to find a primal beef stick locally before I go the online route.)

  30. A much needed message! Thank you, Mark!

    I don’t snack or do paleo baked goods. Really, meat, eggs and veggies make up nearly all of my food intake, with an occasional square or three of very dark chocolate.

    But a number of my clients – particularly ones newer to paleo – are drawn to the packaged paleo snack stuff…or homemade paleo pancakes, baked goods and such. In most cases, these are SO not helpful for getting where they want to be with eating patterns, health and wellness.

  31. Yup, a “paleo” cake is still a cake. Ok occasionally but not a staple! I also notice that lots of so-called healthy snacks have “protein” on them. There is not usually much in it on scrutiny, but often quite a bit of sugar!

  32. Where I am, Paleo hasn’t yet caught on enough for food entrepreneurs to be claiming space on supermarket shelves. This means I’m a slave to the kitchen – every morsel, every cracker, every Paleo treat is lovingly homemade… and, yes, I wallow in envy when I see the convenience foods available in the US. But at the same time, I chuckle a little at the paradox: much as they’re convenient, all the fast Paleo foods undermine our message of real food that is real fresh, and which we have time to prepare at home because, re the Paleo Lifestyle, we’re chosing to slow down and destress.

  33. Fruits and Nuts are my goto snack foods. I am pretty lucky that I convinced myself some time ago that anything that hasn’t been alive in it’s edible form isn’t worth eating.

  34. Sound advice about reading labels, and the old saying if you can’t pronounce it you probably shouldn’t be eating it. Sugar, by 10,000 other names is still sugar. They keep changing the names of the bad ingredients to see if anyone is paying attention. Being labeled healthy, natural, and even organic does not necessarily mean it’s true. Just look at canola oil! Now I’m going to be paranoid about organic hydrogenated oils!!