The influence of snacking on the development and maintenance of obesity is likely.
‘Snack’ does not have a unique definition.
One definition centers on when and how the food is eaten, i.e., if it’s eaten in between meals, it’s a snack, or if it’s eaten quickly, it’s a snack.
The other definition centers on what you eat: A snack is a small portion, can be high quality (apple) or low quality (chips)
What's clear is that more and more of us are snackers. A snacker is someone who consumes more than 20% of his calories as snacks. Reports show that most of our school age kids are snackers, and consume more than 30% of their calories from snacks, though since there's no clear definition of what it means to snack I’m not sure what this means.
I will try to be specific and clear despite the ambiguity.
Eating in between meals, on the go, eating something fast: Eating this way is so much our way of life, that I don’t know how much we can change it. Provided the food itself is nutritious, when you eat it should matter little. The problem with this kind of eating is that it’s mostly mindless, and provides relatively little eating pleasure, so we tend to eat more. I try to eat less in between meals, and limit it to good food- fruits, vegetables and nuts. A good start is “no snacks after dinner”. Late day snacking is the time when lots of junk calories are consumed. The other rule I would recommend, especially for kids, is no eating in front of the TV. The combination of food and TV is so sweet, making the duo so seductive, that we consume way too much of both.
Going back to the second definition, a snack is something small. I wish it were so innocent. Since we know that less than 11% of Americans meet their daily requirement in fruit, I don’t think the ‘something small’ eaten is fruit. The word snack is most associated nowadays with individually wrapped processed foods, coming out of a vending machine, or bought in a bigger pack in the supermarket. The snack food industry has invented so many of them, and to further confuse us about what these things are, all kinds of nutrients (vitamins, fiber, minerals) have been added to some of them. If 30% of what school age kids eat is that, this is cause for worry.
The rising obesity rates had everyone rethinking the school lunch and vending machines in schools. You see, even if the school lunch is improved, the snacks sold compete with the cafeteria food. Some of the schools never had vending machines, which is really the way it should be. Some schools removed the machines for the lower grades, and others have had a revision on what’s sold in school vending machines.
Schools now need to decide what a ‘healthier snack’ is. Due to the widespread confusion about all issues of nutrition, this is not that easy.
One of the tools developed for just this purpose is Snackwise (http://www.snackwise.org). It was developed by the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. It’s an internet based program that color codes snacks to three categories, “green- best choice, yellow- choose occasionally, red- choose rarely”. The subscription fee is $25/year. Their algorithm takes into consideration calories, sugar, sodium and fat (higher rating if these are low), and protein, fiber, calcium, vitamins A and C, Iron and folate (higher ratings if these high). The user types in the information from the nutrition panel and the calculator gives the rating.
Just a few examples of snacks by snackwise categories:
Baked Cheetos w/Calcium, Crunchy, Frito Lay (0.875oz/24.8g)
Baked Veggie Crisps, Farmland Cheddar, Flat Earth by Frito Lay (1oz/28.3g)
Cereal Clusters, Snickers, Generation Max (1.1oz/30.1g)
Milk & Cereal Bar, Cocoa Puffs, General Mills (1.4oz)
Special K Snack Bites, Vanilla, Kellogg's (0.81oz/23g)
Stacy's Soy Crisps, Sticky Bun, Stacy's Pita Chip Company (1oz/28.3g)
Teddy Graham Snacks, Cinnamon, Nabisco by Kraft Foods (0.75oz)
TLC Chewy Granola Bar, Peanut Butter, Kashi (1.2oz/35g)
100 Calorie Pack, Oreo, Nabisco (0.81oz)
Bagel Chips, Cinnamon Raisin, NY Style Brand (1.25oz/35g)
Beef Jerky, Hickory Smoked, Oberto (0.9oz/25.5g)
Candy Bar, Chocolate w/Almond 1g sugar, Hershey's (1.1oz/31g)
Candy, Skittles, Smoothie Mix, Mars (2.17oz/61.5g)
Chee-tos, Crunchy Reduced Fat, Frito Lay (0.875oz)
Cookies, Mini Chocolate Chip, Chortles (1oz/28g)
Doritos, Cool Ranch, Reduced Fat, Frito Lay (1oz)
Fruit Roll, Fruit Punch, Fruit Parade (0.75oz/21g)
Lays Potato Chips, KCM BBQ, Frito Lay (1oz/28.3g)
Candy Bar, 100 Grand, Nestle (1.5oz/42.5g)
Candy Bar, Milk Chocolate w/Almonds, Hershey's (1.45oz/41g)
Candy, Tootsie Roll, Twin Pack, Tootsie Roll Industries (2oz/56g)
Candy, York Peppermint Pattie, Hershey's (1.4oz/39g)
Cookies, Chocolate Chip, Darlington Farms (1.4oz)
Famous Amos Cookies, Chocolate Chip, Kellogg's (3oz/85g)
Ice Cream Cookie Sandwich, Original, Country Fresh (4.5oz)
Pop-Tarts, Frosted Cherry, Kellogg's (3.67oz/104g)
Snack Mix, Granola Berry Crunch, King Nut Co. (1.75oz/49.6g)
And their recommendation-
“Vendors establish a ratio for each of the categories as: 30% Green, 55% Yellow, 15% Red.”
I don’t care if a hospital came up with this. To suggest that one needs a computer program to assess snacks is ridiculous. To color code snacks as green is going too far (a logical color code range of these snacks would be orange, red and black). To recommend that after you deemed some snacks red, they should still be in the school vending machine, just because kids need choices is beyond.
It matters not one bit if the manufacturer added some vitamin A or C to his cookie. It’s still highly processed food, and there’s no proof that adding vitamins does any good. If a fast food restaurant gave its customers a multivitamin pill with the combo meal, would it make the meal nutritious? By devising these criteria food companies are better able to design just the snack to fool us; add some cheap nutrients to the mix, and you get a ‘healthy snack’. Another concern is that the healthier choices (nutrition and power bars) are often more expensive than the junkier choices.
So here’s my take on this. You don’t need to subscribe. This is free and simple.
All of these single serving snack foods in the vending machine are to be eaten infrequently; the best of them should be viewed as dessert. The worst aren’t really food.
In the old pyramid the very top portion was dedicated to fats oils and sweets, and the best of vended snacks fit that definition, and to be eaten sparingly.
Now that we lumped the snack machine’s contents in the dessert category which one to choose?
If you’re eating it infrequently, it shouldn’t matter all that much and I’m sure everyone knows what’s dessert and what’s pure junk. The time honored occasion for dessert is after a meal, when you’re not very hungry and don’t need all that much of it to feel the indulgence of the treat. Therefore, eating these snacks to relieve hunger isn’t a very good idea.
A real healthy snack is made from real food. Examples would be fruits, vegetables and nuts. By the way, a small bag of nuts, one of my favorite snack foods for a hungry active child that needs more energy, scored ‘red’ when I put its nutritional information in the snackwise calculator. One ounce of cashews has 160 calories (their goal is under 150), 82% of them from fat (their goal is no more than 35% fat), and it’s not a good source of vitamin A, C or calcium. On the other hand, every fortified cereal bar or cookie I put through the calculator, no matter how much corn syrup, hydrogenated fat, artificial color and junk in it, scored ‘green’ provided the serving size was small enough. Looking at food from the narrow view of nutrients is sometimes really misleading.
To read more about vending machines in schools I recommend the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s report: "Dispensing junk".