As I unpacked several bags of groceries recently I discovered a grocery store snack aisle in my very own kitchen. Chips, puffs, crackers, nuts, and cookies, all loaded on one dedicated shelf in my pantry. Funky shapes, colors, and flavors for the school lunches I pack and for the post work and school "starving" hour that occurs as my kids jump off the bus and I land at home after a long day at work.
Even though I was the one who bought my snack aisle, I was still surprised at the quantity of it and the shocking realization that a trained cook and self proclaimed foodie who makes the majority of our meals at home had purchased all of this stuff and was feeding it to her family everyday. How did that happen?
During my kitchen clean up project I have turned to my favorite food authors, Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman to help me uncover bad habits and to reform my household food policy. My junk food shelf sent me to one of my favorite lines from Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. "Even organic junk food is still junk food." Even though I was buying "good" organic junk food, it is still junk food and after reading a few labels I was convinced my next clean up project was my snack shelf.
In our house junk food has become more than a special once and awhile treat, it has become a staple for between meals, sometimes on a daily basis; even though it is too full of fat and sugar to be consumed everyday.
Similar to many highly processed things you find in the supermarket, organic snack food can be loaded with chemicals, sugar and salt and colors and flavors that you don’t want to put in your body. In addition to the sugar and fat the snack food is full of chemicals that make it addicting and tasty. Chemicals made in a lab, not a kitchen, that add flavor and color. The lists are long, the ingredients are foreign, and even when the ingredients are recognizable, the nutritional value is zippo.
After reading and reminding myself about what Michael Pollan says about junk food and real food, I knew the right thing for me to do is to eliminate most of the products on my snack shelf.
The best way for us to do that has been to replace some of the loved puffs and chips with other options that are potentially just as interesting and still cure our post work and school cravings.
I read a lot of labels and found that not every peanut or potato chip is created equal, it is possible to find good brands, and there are many snack options that aren’t junky. Veggies, fruit, and popcorn, to name a few. The funny thing is I remember these being the snacks I ate as a kid, before you could buy ten different flavors of Doritos.
After doing the research for this article I have a few new junk food rules:
Snack food should closely resemble some sort of real food. Think of potato chips. When you open a bag of potato chips it is clear that a potato was used to make them. Same goes for veggie chips. Green puffs do not occur in nature and there aren’t any real foods I know of that look like bright orange triangles.
Oil is a big deal in snack food. A lot of it is used in processing and there is a wide range of quality and levels of harmfulness. You can go down that Google rabbit hole yourself to research more if you are curious. From my own research it is clear that expeller pressed oils are the best choice in snack food. They are not chemically processed like the other oils, which means there are no toxic substances used to remove the oil from the nut or seed.
GMO (genetically modified organism) free and organic labels are important to me. The popcorn I pop on the stovetop is GMO free and so are the potato chips I buy for our occasional treat, as are all the fruit and veggies we eat.
Here is the list of "new" snacks at my house:
- Popcorn made on my stovetop
- Roasted almonds along with peanuts and pistachios in the shell. Read the labels, I was shocked at the number of additives in some roasted nuts.
- Potato chips, GMO and organic once a week for a special treat.
- Raisins, other dried fruit and applesauce with no added sugar
- Salsa or hummus with veggies
- Cottage cheese with salt & pepper and pretzels
- Cucumbers sliced with salt and a squeeze of lemon
- Peanut butter (look for no added sugar) with apples
- Fruit, organic and as close to in season as possible