Did you know such a magical thing as “healthier” junk food exists? I stumbled upon it last summer in what I think of as my home Whole Foods, in Gowanus, Brooklyn. I was navigating my toddler’s stroller around all the other toddlers’ strollers when I encountered a bag of Hippeas Vegan White Cheddar Organic Chickpea Puffs. The label advertised three grams of fiber and four grams of protein and contents that were USDA organic, kosher, soy-free, dairy-free, nut-free, and non-GMO. I gathered a small collection in my basket and perused the rest of the aisle. The whole snacking landscape had changed! There were Beanitos (tortilla chips made of beans), pastured paleo pork rinds, green-pea snack crisps, and various chips, all of which seemed to be made of cassava. Back home, still abuzz with discovery, I went on a mail-order binge, clicking away on flax-and-almond cheddar crackers, einkorn cookies, quinoa puffs, bites and bars of fruit-juice pulp, chocolate wafers made from coconut flour and cage-free eggs, lentil chips, edamame puffs, chocolate-covered cracked quinoa, and the entire line of pea-and-lentil-based puffs called Peatos.
I had filled our dining-room table with boxes and bags of snacks, and there was hardly a genetically modified ingredient in sight. A great number of the treats were “free of the big eight”—the eight ingredients responsible for 90 percent of the country’s food allergies: wheat, soy, milk, tree nuts, eggs, peanuts, shellfish, fish. None had “artificial flavors.” Many contained fiber, whose absence in most processed foods has been starving our microbiomes for decades. The packages almost universally advertised that they were “plant-based.”
A cynic might quibble that potatoes, soy, and corn—on which packaged snacks since the invention of the potato chip (by a devious genius in 1853, according to Saratoga Springs legend) have relied—are also plants. But there was no cynic present, only a former junk-food lover preparing to subject all of these healthy nibbles to a rigorous taste test.
I first chose a most discriminating and candid group—my two-year-old son and his friends—and served them Bohana puffed water-lily seeds in both pink-salt and cheddar flavors, beet vegan goat-cheese chips, Peatos, and “cauliflower pretzels.” I tiptoed away to observe the results from behind a door frame.
I had expected at least one tear at the discovery of puffed pea protein instead of fried processed corn. But everyone munched happily away…
The theory that all children are geniuses came from the marketing team at Baby Einstein or deluded parents. The toddlers rushed to the alternative-snacks bowls just as they would have to cookie dough or a singing dinosaur. I had expected at least one tear at the discovery of puffed pea protein instead of fried processed corn. But everyone munched happily away, stuffing down beet and cassava and then stealing one another’s water bottles. The Bohana puffs were a particular favorite—though all the parents, including me, found them to have a disconcerting, livery tang.
Speaking of adults, when the older generation began showing signs of hunger, I added more substantial offerings to the table. There rang out, for a few moments, the sounds of snacking success. “I’m genuinely excited about the Core + Rind Cashew Cheesy Sauce,” said one guest; “I like this sea-salt cassava chip,” said another. Lime-flavored Siete chips seemed a hit. Then, without warning, the mood turned. “I don’t like the grain-free fuego chip,” someone mumbled. Cassava faux-cheese bread was scorned as sub-par. There was flat-out refusal to taste candidates from a new company called Peckish that packages boiled eggs with powdered dips like “fried rice,” “rancheros,” and “maple waffles.” (I tasted them. The eggs were high quality and perfectly cooked. The dips were ghoulish.) Final mutiny came in the form of a universal complaint that all the cassava was making everyone’s mouths feel coated and sticky.
And yet there were undeniable successes. Everyone liked Peatos and Simple Mills cheddar and sea salt crackers. Whisps—little snaps made simply of Parmesan cheese in an imitation of Italian frico—were irreproachable. Urban Remedy’s kale chips and zucchini chips were light and crisp. Hippeas never made an appearance, because I had finished my whole supply mindlessly at my desk. A product called Undercover Quinoa was held back from consideration because it was so good—imagine a Nestlé’s Crunch bar that’s a tiny bit saltier and made with better chocolate—that neither my husband nor I wanted to share it. And who could possibly find fault with sustainably raised pork rinds? It’s early yet for healthy snack foods. Some flops are to be expected. In time, the best products will rise to the top.
A more interesting question is whether any of these foods are actually “healthy.” And when does “healthy” lose its quotation marks? I have reviewed the available medical and scientific literature. I have talked to snack-company executives, the nutritionists they employ, unaffiliated nutritionists, metabolic scientists, behavioral ecologists and one neuroendocrinologist. What I have learned is that there is no single answer. This is an area hazier than gray and more nebulous than fog. And the more research I did, the less I knew.
To begin with, the elimination of grains and corn from snacks: Wheat is, as I mentioned, one of the eight big allergens. Corn is not, but most of the corn in the United States is genetically modified—which may or may not prove to be of concern in the long run. If you want to avoid genetically modified corn and you want to avoid wheat, snacks made of cassava are an entirely reasonable substitute. (Though Kristin Lawless, nutritionist and author of a terrifying book called Formerly Known as Food, pointed out to me that if you don’t have an allergy to one of the eight common allergens, avoiding them isn’t necessarily a good idea. “Early introduction of common allergens has been proven to lower allergies,” she wrote me. “Hence the new advice to try peanuts early.”)
If you avoid wheat and corn to avoid carbohydrates, cassava is probably a bad idea. Cassava flour contains many more carbohydrates—over 20 grams more per serving—than whole-wheat flour. It is also far less nutrient dense. And then there’s maltodextrin, which is on almost everything with a “flavor” and is a starch-derived carbohydrate with zero nutritional value.
From here, the dangers multiply. A number of the healthier snacks suggest that you can eat them with impunity. “Eat freely!” declare Enjoy Life’s Lentil Chips—even though they contain potato starch, canola oil, cane sugar, and maltodextrin. I Heart Keenwah Puffs (of which I loved the chocolate-covered ones) call themselves “the mindful munchie” and bear the encouragement “Go ahead—dig in, lick your fingers, eat those crumbs off your shirt. You just opened a crunchy, munchy snack that’s as good as it is good for you.”
For all history, processed snacks have encouraged binge-eating—“Betcha Can’t Eat Just One” may be the catchiest slogan in advertising. But these new snacks use a “health halo,” says Matthew Dalby, Ph.D., who studies the microbiome at the Quadram Institute in the U.K. “If you eat something that you think is healthy, it can actually change other things in your diet,” he says.
And worse: A 2016 study found that when chronic dieters were given the choice of a “Fitness Trail Mix” or “Trail Mix” (which were secretly identical), they ate more of the former—and were less inclined to exercise after. This is what health-halo research has shown, according to Rachel Herz’s engaging recent book Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship with Food: “If you believe you’ve done something healthful in one aspect of your life,” she writes, “you give yourself a pass in others.”
Beanitos call themselves “a lean, mean nutrition machine” and a “good source of fiber.” This drove Robert Lustig, M.D., UCSF neuroendocrinologist and author of The Hacking of the American Mind, to start shouting over the phone. “No processed food can ever be a good source of both kinds of fiber!” He used an unseemly analogy having to do with hair in a shower drain to explain that unless a food has soluble and insoluble fiber, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to.
And yet there were undeniable successes. Everyone liked Peatos and Simple Mills cheddar and sea salt crackers.
I learned, via press release, that Peatos are sold in the produce section of grocery stores. Their bags announce, “For the first time, you can get all the ‘junk food’ taste you crave AND the nutrition you have been looking for.” So I called Nick Desai, the founder and CEO of Peatos—which do have more protein and fiber than Cheetos—to ask him whether he thought this was actually true. He was steadfast. “If you ate two pounds of Cheetos a day and you replaced it with two pounds of Peatos, you just put two times more protein in your body.” He went on: “We wanted to build in that salty, fatty cravability,” but he insisted that his company hadn’t engineered Peatos to short-circuit the satiety system and addict you the way snacks from the big food companies do.
Peatos use real cheese—not chemical agents—for flavoring. This put me in mind of Mark Schatzker’s alarming 2015 book, The Dorito Effect, which argued that it isn’t so much salty processed snacks as the ascent of fake flavorings that’s responsible for obesity. A number of studies have since backed up this claim. As Schatzker himself put it to me: “I don’t really have a problem with sea-salt flavors or with potato chips or pork rinds. But when you get into spicy flavors that don’t contribute the benefits of real chiles or cheese flavor that isn’t cheese, I think you’re just creating more people with messed-up feedback systems.”
Speaking of cheese, there are a number of questions about whether any product containing dried cheese can be good for you. First, The New York Timesreported that a study testing 30 products with dried cheese found that all but one contained the dangerous chemical phthalate, used to soften cardboard and plastic. Second, research by the late biochemist Fred Kummerow, who called out the dangers of trans fats as early as the 1950s and was shunned for it, has shown that when fats like those in dairy or eggs are heated and dried, they have a high likelihood of oxidizing. And while dietary cholesterol like that in dairy and eggs has not been shown to cause clogged arteries or heart disease, oxidized fats have been.
So, to snack or not to snack? And on what? As of this writing, Upton’s Naturals was within weeks of stocking Whole Foods shelves with “100% vegan Ch’eesy Mac and Ch’eesy Bacon Mac,” a “plant-based take on a classic comfort” food that is shelf-stable and ready in one minute. I haven’t had a chance to taste it so can only confirm that it is, according to the company, “completely free of nuts, dairy, oil, trans fat, cholesterol, GMOs, and artificial flavors.” I can’t help notice that it is also free of any residue of the last decade’s ample evidence that cooking one’s food from scratch, buying from small, local producers, and eating in communal arrangements once called “family meals” is healthy for body and society.