"If something is organic, it doesn't mean it's automatically good for you," says registered dietitian Pegah Jalali at the NYU Langone Medical Center. With everything from turkey jerky to Frito-Lays now coming with a USDA organic stamp, you've probably figured this out already. But some junk is a bit harder to distinguish from actually healthy snacks. Here's how to know the difference.
1. Too Much Sugar and Salt, In Any Form, Is No Good
Organic refers to how companies produce food, but the term says little about the actual ingredients and nutrients in a snack. Organic snacks are no healthier for you if they contain high amounts of added sugar and salt, so be sure to look for that content on a nutrition label. One example: A pack of organic gummy bears produced with no chemicals is a great idea, but one serving (11 bears) also contains 21 grams of sugar (about 5 teaspoons) from brown rice syrup — which is just as much sugar as the non-organic, Haribo kind. "If I had to choose between a non-organic banana or organic gummy bears, I would go with the banana," says Jalali. "In an ideal world, I would want all food to be organic, but that's not feasible at this time." Jalali recommends picking snacks with zero added sugar if possible, and keeping the salt from your snacks at least 7 percent below the daily allowance of 2,300 mg (about 160 mg).
2. The "Real Fruit" Claim Is No More Valid with Organic Ingredients
Most organic fruit snacks might also claim to use 'real' fruit juice, but it's important not to be fooled: You should question how much actual fruit there really is, since those fruits (or in some cases, veggies) may be processed to keep the product longer on the supermarket shelf. "Marketers and food companies have caught on that people would like to add more fruits and vegetables to their diets, and they are taking advantage of this by selling foods with small amounts of processed fruits and vegetables," says Jalali. But the amount is so small that you barely get any nutrients at all. You're better off going with fresh, non-starchy actual fruits — preferably organic, but non-organic is still wiser — as these are naturally high in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
3. "Organic" Doesn't Mean "Chemical-Free"
Many snack bars advertised as healthy and organic still contain way too many additives. For example, some popular bar brands contain a crazy amount of ingredients (this one has over 30) and still contain dyes and artificial sweeteners. Look at the ingredients, and if they do have artificial coloring, make sure it's an ingredient you recognize, like Unreal Candy's red beet juice-dyed chocolates.
4. Stick With Whole Foods, Organic or Not
"At the end of the day, a diet high in fruits and vegetables will be healthiest, whether it's organic or not," says Jalali. For a snack with the convenience of a wrapped candy bar, go with dried fruits (with no sugar), fresh whole apples, tangerines, or pears (these travel well), or flax and rice crackers (as long as they have few ingredients). For a snack that has the crunch of potato chips, try a nut mix, or carrots and celery with dip or nut butter. And to reap the maximum benefits of nutrients from your snack, have a hardboiled egg (it has fewer calories, and more fiber and protein than an energy bar) or an ounce of almonds (these give you solid protein and fiber without any unwanted additives).