The 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 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?
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.