A few months ago, I hopped onto social media on my phone. I had to make a few posts for work, and while scrolling a bit, I was amazed at the number of ads I saw for. . . snacks. Bars. Chips. Meat sticks. And so much more. I figured my phone somehow knew I was hungry! But I was also intrigued to see just how many new brands and companies were trying to crack the snack market.
Something else stood out to me in the ads— the immense number of so-called “natural” and “organic” snack foods now available. But are they actually good for you? For this article, I want to discuss some categories and stand-out options, along with things you want to watch out for when perusing store shelves, either in person or virtually.
There have been several favorable changes in the “meat snacks” category over the past few decades, making this category, more than any other, the easiest for finding good-quality, on-the-go options. The first bit of good news is that many brands have cleaned up their ingredients considerably. There is far less “icky” stuff in many brands on store shelves, and there are far more options with better (and shorter) ingredient lists.
Second, meat snacks have expanded to include fish options, such as salmon jerky, and some organ meat options, such as the beef liver crisps made by Carnivore Aurelius. It would be great to see a company also create meat sticks that contain organ meats, but so far, I haven’t found anyone offering such an option.
Third, many local farms now offer good-quality meat snacks. For instance, one of the best jerkies our buying club carries is made by a farm in Ohio that also supplies us with grass-fed cheese. Roam Sticks from Singing Pastures Farm are another option, available nationwide. Nick’s Sticks and Paleovalley offer various types of meat sticks made from free-range and grass-fed animals. The WAPF Shopping Guide lists many more options to consider and farms to support.1 One thing to note, however, is that these farm-made items are unlikely to be shelf-stable in the same way as large-scale industrial options.
Grass-fed beef jerky and snack sticks are even available in stores such as Costco, usually seasonally, but while the beef appears to be of good quality and the ingredients list relatively clean, be careful about the ratio of ingredients! Many have substantial amounts of added sugar. For instance, in two well-known brands I looked at, one had nine grams of protein and four grams of added sugar per serving; the other had ten grams of protein and six grams of added sugar. It is not a problem to add some sweetness to jerky, but given that meat has zero carbs, many brands are using an excessive amount of refined sugar in their products.
When buying meat snacks, opt for products that use grass-fed and finished meat and simple ingredients—no MSG, no unpronounceable added ingredients—and those that contain a reasonable ratio of carbs to protein.
The Snack Bar Craze
Since their introduction in the early 1960s, snack bars have became a major product category in the U.S. food market. Americans spend more than one hundred billion dollars annually on snacks overall2—representing a whopping 51 percent of all food sales—and about a fifth of that (twenty billion dollars) goes to snack bars.3
Many Americans now consume bars not just as snacks, but as partial or full replacements for traditional meals.2 Unfortunately, snack bars are, in my opinion, one of the most misleading products out there in terms of health claims. Most people assume bars are a relatively healthy snack option, adopting a kind of “Hey, at least it isn’t McDonald’s!” attitude. But when you begin to examine the ingredients, you quickly realize that most bars are full of low-quality fillers—pea and soy protein, rice syrup and so much else. Finding bars that are in the range of “decent to good” is a tough proposition.
Take the bars made by “Wild Protein.” Although their super-slick marketing suggests something that might contain elk or venison, the bars contain no meat; instead, their first ingredient is industrially produced and processed soy. If you keep going past the “soy crisp” (soy protein isolate, cocoa and tapioca starch), you will also find they contain an array of other low-quality, processed ingredients—especially sweeteners.
For example, the chocolate-flavored bar includes: dates; maltitol (an artificial sweetener associated with gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, flatulence and cramping);4 whey protein (whey protein concentrate and soy lecithin); chocolate made from cocoa paste, maltitol (again), polydextrose (a newfangled synthetic fiber additive used to “dress up junk food as health food”),5 soy lecithin (again), and polyricinoleate polyglycerol (an emulsifier that allows chocolate manufacturers to use less cocoa butter and lower their costs); the chlorine-containing artificial sweetener sucralose (discovered through the development of an insecticide);6 peanut butter (peanuts); and artificial flavor.
In addition, some of Wild Protein’s bars, marketed with the extra descriptor of “plant-based,” contain pea protein isolate, a denatured protein powder made “by the processes of isolation, homogenization, flash evaporation, sterilization and spray-drying”—three separate applications of high temperature. (See Sally Fallon Morell’s article titled “The Problem with Protein Powders”7 for more information about the problems with soy, pea, whey and other plant protein “isolates” and “concentrates.”)
Soy and similar monocrops are indeed common in the snack bar category, and in snack foods more generally. While many companies claim their soy is non-GMO, both the soy and peanut butter are unlikely to be organic, and thus will contain high levels of glyphosate and other industrial agricultural chemicals.
What about “Built Bars,” currently all the rage among YouTubers? Although the protein-to-carb ratio is better, the protein is from conventional, highly processed dairy (whey protein), and again, many other ingredients are suspect, such as the sugar alcohol erythritol. Although often billed as “healthy,” erythritol is usually made from GMO-derived cornstarch—in other words, it is an “ultra-processed food” and “invisible GMO ingredient” that is “very far from a natural sweetening agent.”8
Shanti bars, which boast of containing high amounts of plant-based protein, depend on another common low-quality ingredient—rice. Their protein blend includes organic brown rice, sunflower protein, and further down. . . brown rice syrup. And further down again. . . rice milk. In light of rice’s affinity for arsenic—an affinity that pertains, as I have written for years,9 to organic and non-organic rice alike—this is not a promising ingredient list. (Note: When preparing rice at home, soaking it before cooking will help reduce arsenic levels.10)
I could continue, giving breakdowns of other options like KiZE bars or ZENB Bites or dozens of other options—but none really make the cut. Some are not terrible, but in general, you are not likely to find organic, properly prepared and unprocessed ingredients inside the package.
For bars that contain nuts, note that even “good” bars will, at best, roast the nuts rather than use nuts that have been properly soaked and dehydrated. One exception to this rule is the Go Raw brand, which soaks and dehydrates all nuts, seeds and similar items and also contains all or almost all organic ingredients. My kids enjoy Go Raw’s apple-cinnamon sprouted granola (with sprouted sunflower, sesame and hemp seeds and sprouted buckwheat groats) with raw milk or raw milk yogurt.
Just because a company makes one bar that has “better” to “good” ingredients, don’t assume that all of the company’s products are similarly acceptable! Similarly, just because a bar or other snack product is labeled “keto”—tapping into the resurgence of consumer interest in keto and low-carb options—doesn’t mean it is made with quality ingredients. For example, one “keto-friendly” brand with the tag line “junk-free” offers a brownie mix with erythritol as its second ingredient! (Pea protein powder is fifth.) Although the erythritol is labeled as “organic,” it is neither a natural nor traditional sweetener and certainly shouldn’t be a major component of a “healthy” or “junk-free” product.
Fruit and Vegetable Snacks
Dried fruits and certain dried vegetables can make solid snack options or additions when fresh versions are unavailable. However, the problem with dried options is that many contain added sugars, low-quality oils or both. For instance, a few months ago at Costco, when pressed for time, I grabbed a bag of dried organic blueberries without reading the label. Once at home, I was amazed at how oily the blueberries were, and when I looked over the ingredients, I was shocked by how much extra junk was included with the fruit. It was a reminder—you can never be too careful about checking ingredients, even when a product is “certified organic.”
Generally, dried fruits such as dates, figs and apricots are available in organic versions with no added sugars or other ingredients. Although we do purchase good-quality frozen organic fruits and berries for snacks (checking the labels to make sure nothing is added!), we also make sure to freeze locally available fruits and berries, when in season, for consumption during the winter.
In additional good news, freeze-dried fruits and vegetables are becoming more widely available. Freeze-dried fruit, for example, makes a great addition to yogurt. Freeze-drying has a number of benefits over dehydrating; it generally preserves more nutrients and, if the items are properly packaged and sealed, renders them incredibly shelf-stable. The major brand we often use is Natierra, which offers an array of freeze-dried fruit and vegetable options. Generally speaking, the only freeze-dried item we have found to be inconsistent in quality are their blueberries! Another small drawback is that some freeze-dried fruit items—like blueberries—are quite messy and staining. They don’t always make the best car food for young children, unless you want them looking like a Smurf or Oompa-Loompa at the end of the ride!
In the land of vegetable chips, there is more good news. A number of companies have moved away from the corn, canola, sunflower and safflower oils that dominate many modern snack foods and offer organic chips made with better quality oils. Honest Chips has items made with both coconut and avocado oils, while Siete brand uses avocado oil.
Make Your Own
When it comes to meat and protein snacks, there are many homemade possibilities. One tried-and-true and convenient option for growing children and adults alike is cured meats such as salami. Sourdough crackers with pastured, raw milk cheese or raw butter also make a great snack. Although it is certainly doable to make homemade crackers, good-quality sourdough crackers such as those made by Jovial are now also widely available.
In addition, we will often cook up large batches of meatballs, which make great snacks for the kids, along with homemade chicken nuggets. Both freeze well, both are tasty straight from the fridge, and both are a fraction of the cost of store-bought meat snacks. Both also travel well in small insulated lunch bags or pouches with a small ice pack when they are needed on the road or on the go.
In the snack bar category, given that there are few truly good store-bought choices, one option is to rely on crispy nuts and organic dried fruit, which are a fraction of the cost of most bars and just as portable. Alternatively, if you have a good blender or food processor, you can take crispy nuts, dried fruit, coconut oil and other ingredients and make your own bars. We have done this many times with great results. Sourdough muffins with added organic fruit or nuts are another nourishing and less expensive option.
Another great “to go” option are yogurt-based smoothies. We love to make smoothies with our own yogurt (made from our local grass-fed raw milk), a mixture of frozen organic fruit and some added grass-fed collagen or gelatin. Blended to your preferred consistency, you can even freeze smoothies (be sure to use jars that will not break and leave enough head space!). We have often made a dozen smoothies like this to use when traveling, going on hikes or whenever we need an easy, on-the-go snack. Smoothies can also help keep other foods cold, slowly thawing until needed later in the day.
No matter which snack options you go with, it is important to realize that store-bought convenience foods are generally quite costly per ounce. Most good-quality meat snacks, for example, cost about $1.50 to $2 per ounce. And what about bars? They generally run $1.00–$2.50 per ounce. That makes most convenience foods around $24–$32 per pound!
Although our household does take advantage of better-quality store-bought snacks on occasion, this is why we still try to keep a wide variety of good homemade options on hand, both fresh and frozen.
Ingredients To Avoid
SOY: Soy protein, soy isolate, soy crisp, etc.
RICE: Rice protein, rice syrup, rice crisp, etc.
PEA: Pea protein isolate or other processed forms of peas
ISOLATES: Isolates of any kind, including whey
LARGE AMOUNTS OF SUGAR ALCOHOLS: Xylitol, erythritol, manitol and other low-quality sweeteners
Creating Your Own Snacks
Here are some of the most popular snacks in our household:
HOMEMADE CHICKEN NUGGETS: These freeze well, and the kids enjoy them straight out of the freezer or warmed up. They also travel well.
SOURDOUGH SPELT MUFFINS AND BREADS: We make an assortment of sourdough spelt muffins and breads. Banana, blueberry, zucchini—the kids enjoy them all. These also freeze well, so we often make a double or triple batch to have extras stocked in the freezer for busier times.
SOURDOUGH PANCAKES AND WAFFLES: Sourdough pancakes and waffles, too, are an easy option for the freezer. These become an unbeatable snack that kids enjoy with just a bit of butter and maple syrup. You can also add fruit, nuts or other ingredients for variety. In addition, these make a great, easy fill-out for an emergency omelet or other quick meal.
EGGS: For growing kids, remember that a few eggs fried in ghee, butter or another good-quality fat can be a hard-to-beat, filling and truly nutrient-dense snack, one that costs a fraction of the price of even the cheapest bars or meat snacks. Eggs are something that even a child of eight or so can easily make for him- or herself.
- Ohl D. Snack food industry trends: Small is the new big in snack packaging. Viking Masek, May 5, 2020.
- Ruggeri C. Maltitol: Do the side effects outweigh the benefits? Dr. Axe, Apr. 12, 2020.
- Gershman J. Dietary fibber: Don’t be fooled by polydextrose and other fiber additives. Slate, Mar. 11, 2009.
- Ruggeri C. Sucralose: 5 reasons to avoid this artificial sweetener. Dr. Axe, Apr. 19, 2021.
- Morell SF. The problem with protein powders. Wise Traditions. Winter 2016;17(4):29-33.
- Axe J. Erythritol: Is this “healthy” sweetener the real deal? Dr. Axe, Mar. 30, 2021.
- Moody J. Dangers of gluten-free foods. Wise Traditions. Summer 2017;18(2):72-74.
- Moody J. 4 ways to avoid the huge problem of arsenic in rice. The Healthy Home Economist, n.d. https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/arsenic-in-rice