To many dietitians and nutritionists, "packaged" may as well be a four-letter word. That's because it usually equates to "processed," which is pretty much code for unhealthy. In an ideal world, all of us would choose fresh, whole foods without added preservatives, sugars, fats or sodium—but here in the real world, where time is short and to-do lists are long, most of us will end up settling for a packaged snack now and then to keep our "hangriness" at bay.
Whether you're packing kids' lunches, replenishing your office snack stash or making a midday run to the office vending machine, keep in mind that not all packaged foods are created equal. Although nothing is as good as food in its pure, unadulterated state, some bagged snacks are healthier than others.
Whatever your snack of choice, Liza Baker, health coach with Simply: Health Coaching, offers one overarching piece of advice: Avoid the "health halo."
"Just because it says 'gluten-free' or 'dairy free' or 'organic' or 'non-GMO' does not give it a higher nutritional value,” says Baker. "Many of these options contain highly processed ingredients—for example, if you don't have a health reason to avoid gluten, the gluten-free breads often contain such a high percentage of processed, white flours and starches that I would steer you toward a minimally processed whole-wheat bread instead."
We asked some experts to recommend their favorite packaged snacks, so you can grab-and-go without (so much) guilt.
Instead of: Potato Chips
Reach for: Pistachios
According to registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey, pistachios give you 49 nuts per serving, compared to just 15 potato chips per serving—and who eats just 15 potato chips? The higher volume means you'll get more bites for your calorie buck.
"Pistachios are full of fiber, healthy fats and plant-based protein, all of which help keep you feeling full and satiated for longer," says Rumsey. "The pre-portioned packs are great for on-the-go snacking, and come in flavors like sweet chili, roasted and salted, and salt and pepper. In-shell pistachios naturally slow down your eating speed while providing a visual cue for how many you ate, which can help to keep the portion size in check."
Instead of: Jar Peanut ButterIf you love peanut butter but tend to overdo it, weight loss therapist Dr. Candice Seti suggests these as a way to indulge in moderation. "Several companies now make nut butters in individual packets, which makes them a terrific option as a quick hunger buster," she says. "Grab one to add to fruit or veggies, or just enjoy it on its own as an instant source of healthy fat and protein when you're on the go."
Reach for: Nut Butter Packs
Instead of: Juice
Reach for: Drinkable Veggies
When you're tempted to reach for a sugary, high-calorie soda, hydrate while boosting your veggie intake with Bonafide Provisions' Drinkable Veggies.
Created by nutritionists who wanted to offer a nutrient-dense alternative to "healthy" juices that are actually loaded with sugar, Drinkable Veggies packs collagen protein and the nutrition of whole, organic vegetables to create a nourishing travel option.
"Drinkable veggies are a great way to replace bland vegetable juices loaded with sugar, concentrates and other bad-for-you ingredients," says Sharon Brown, one of the clinical nutritionists who created the product.
Instead of: Potato Chips
Reach for: Seaweed Chips
"Roasted seaweed is such an incredible swap for traditional greasy potato chips, because you still get that salty crunch, but for a lot less calories and starch," says registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein.
SeaSnax Chomperz are made with a touch of rice flour to give the seaweed a little more of a bite, making them incredibly satisfying for when a chip craving strikes. The best part is that you can eat twice the serving size for the same calories as potato chips. Plus, they have many more grams of filling, plant-based protein.
Instead of: Sugary Fruit Snacks
Reach for: KIND Fruit Bites
Julie Harrington, a registered dietitian and culinary nutrition consultant for RDelicious Kitchen, recommends replacing sugar-packed fruit snacks with KIND fruit bites.
"KIND fruit-bite snacks are made with only real fruit—no juices, purees, concentrates or preservatives," she says. "With no added sugar and a full serving of fruit in each pouch, these are the perfect on-the-go fruit snack."
Instead of: Potato Chips
Reach for: Roasted Plantain Chips
When she craves something crunchy, health coach Kristen Battistelli reaches for these Trader Joe's Plantain Chips. "Sometimes the suggestion of chomping on cut-up veggies instead of chips just doesn't do the trick," she says. "When I first transitioned to a healthy lifestyle, I replaced all chips with plantain chips. This Trader Joe's brand literally only has three ingredients— plantains, sunflower oil and salt. Plus, they taste just like potato chips, so I really didn't feel like this was a sacrifice."
Instead of: Sugar-flavored Yogurt
Reach for: Greek Yogurt
Instead of opting for sugar- or chemical-filled yogurts, Dr. Seti suggests stocking up on plain Greek yogurt as a healthy foundation for a protein- and probiotic-packed meal or snack. Make it even better by throwing on some sliced fruit and chopped nuts.
Instead of: Cola
Reach for: Zevia Soda
"Traditional sodas have up to 160 calories per can, coming from high-fructose corn syrups and artificial flavors and colorings," says Muhlstein. "Even traditional diet sodas are packed with addictive artificial sweeteners and ingredients." Instead, when Muhlstein craves a carbonated beverage, she chooses Zevia sodas.
"They are essentially sparkling waters with natural flavors,” she says. “They're naturally zero calories without having to make a diet statement on the label, and don't include any weird colors or dyes that can stain your teeth. They're so pure and clean, and taste exactly like all your favorite soda flavors."
Instead of: Bottomless Guacamole
Reach for: Guacamole Packs
Guacamole is often grouped in with other unhealthy party foods, but when prepared well and served with plenty of raw veggies, it can actually qualify as a superfood. Dr. Seti recommends using it as a smarter replacement for ranch dressing or other unhealthy dips.
"When you don't have time make your own, you can find ready-made guacamole in single-serve portions," says Dr. Seti. "Check labels to make sure the only ingredients are avocados and possibly onions and/or tomatoes and spices."
Instead of: Chocolate Chip Cookies
Reach for: Emmy's Organics Coconut Cookies
Next time you're craving a cookie, indulge without the guilt. Unlike most shelf-stable or processed cookies (like Oreos or Chips Ahoy!), Emmy's Organics Coconut Cookies contain zero artificial ingredients and are certified USDA organic, gluten-free, vegan and paleo-friendly. Made with premium organic ingredients like freshly ground ginger, cold pressed coconut oil and fair-trade cocoa powder, these superfood snacks have only six grams of sugar or less per serving.
Instead of: Goldfish Crackers
Reach for: Annie's Organic Cheddar Bunnies
Instead of reaching for Goldfish crackers, nutrition coach Janis Isaman recommends Annie's Organic Cheddar Bunnies. Although she admits that both products would score relatively low on actual nutrition evaluations, Isaman points out that the Annie's crackers have a healthier edge over the Pepperidge Farm version.
"The sunflower oil in Annie's beats the canola and soybean oil in Goldfish—and although Goldfish are low in sugar, Annie's has none," she says. "Goldfish contains autolyzed yeast, which is usually another name for MSG, whereas Annie's contains plain old yeast. Oil, sugar and MSG may seem like small differences, but this type of cracker is the most common snack found in child-friendly pantries and worth the money to sidestep."
Instead of: Sugary Granola Bars
Reach for: Healthy Snack Bars
As the demand for convenience snacks increases, the market is filled with a bevy of bars—but not all are created equal. Many may seem healthy, but are actually loaded with sugars or artificial flavors and sweeteners.
"Snack and energy bars can be hit-or-miss when it comes to being a healthy option," says Dr. Seti. "Check labels and select an option that contains only fruit, nuts and (optional) spices, like Larabars and RXBARS."
Registered dietitian Susan Stalte prefers petite-sized Perfect Bars as a healthier alternative to Fiber One bars and brownies. "The Perfect Bars are portion-controlled, filled with whole ingredients and taste absolutely delicious," she says. "Enjoy up to two as a snack. They'll pack a punch nutritionally by including some protein and healthy fat, which will help you feel full longer."
Instead of: Chocolate Bars
Reach for: UnReal Chocolates
Love peanut M&Ms but don't like what they do to your waistline or wellness? Certified nutritional chef Melissa Eboli sings the praises of UnReal Chocolates. "They have a product called Dark Chocolate Peanut Gems that is a direct healthy replacement for peanut M&Ms," she says. "They're more nutritious, as they're made of mostly organic ingredients. And they are colored with beets and turmeric instead of artificial coloring."
Instead of: Candy
Reach for: Dried Fruit
When you can't get your hands on fresh fruit, dried fruit can be a healthier way to enjoy its sweetness without settling for candy or other sugary snacks. Dr. Seti says it's important to make sure your dried fruit doesn't contain any added sugar.
"Add dried fruit to Greek yogurt for a simple parfait, or toss it with nuts for a ready-to-go trail mix," she suggests.