The Skinny on Skinny Snacks

reduced guilt skinny fries

This is a guest blog post by Carol Harvey, Director of food/nutrition labeling and product development at Palate Works.

There’s an oversized rumor going around that fewer calories and less fat per FDA serving of a food = “skinny” = better for you (healthier).

If we follow that logic, then diet cola, and even some non-diet sodas would be “better for you” than vegetable juices, blended fruit, or a cup of any milk or yogurt. And a refined-flour, low-fat cookie loaded with sugar would be “better for you” than one with nuts and/or whole grains (which contain more calories per ounce than sugar and refined starches do).

An example from the otherwise-nutritionally-progressive shelves of Trader Joe’s is their Reduced Guilt Skinny Fries with “80% less fat than regular potato chips” and described on the package as a “better for you” snack. (Another example that comes to mind is Popchips.)

trader joes fries

What makes them “better”? Less fat (2 g here vs. 6-11 g in real potato chips) means fewer calories per serving (110 vs. 130-180). But saving a few grams of fat and 20-70 calories (a tiny portion of your daily caloric intake) has trade-offs:

The Skinny Fries pack more than twice the sodium of your average potato chips (320 mg vs. 140), half the potassium, less than half the fiber and protein, and no vitamin C (vs. 10% DV).

fries nutrition facts

The package pitch credits an “innovative air-popping process” for the lower fat. Actually, it’s due to common extrusion processing via steam and high heat/pressure, which obviates cooking (frying) in oil. Many foods are processed this way.

However, large particles and fiber are problematic in extrusion, so whole grains and potato skins are generally not used – just the refined starches – and extra salt is often added to help with texture and color and replace lost flavor. The result is a) loss of the most nutritious parts of the potato and grains – vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber – not to mention real potato taste and texture, and b) much more sodium than potassium (the opposite of health recommendations). With the many excellent reduced-fat (6-7 g) real chips out there, it’s more of a nutritional (and taste) sacrifice to eat “skinny.”

How well do those skinny claims fit?

“Better for you” and “reduced guilt” are implied health/nutrient claims, use of which would require that the food provide (and show on the label) at least 10% of Daily Value for at least one beneficial nutrient – vitamin, mineral, protein or fiber. This snack doesn’t.

Lower fat (or calorie) content alone does not qualify any food product (or menu item) to be described as healthy or better for you. Skimpy nutrition ≠ healthy.

Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at palatemail [AT] yahoo [DOT] com.

  • James Cooper

    Very nicely put!

  • yo

    Excellent article

  • Jennifer

    Would love to see more articles like this educating us on labeling pitfalls and harmful ingredients. Thanks for the excellent info!!

  • Gerome

    This is irritating. So, Carol, I promise not to serve this as a main course to my children. Come on, it’s a SNACK. It has NO PRESERVATIVES. Okay, it’s salty. So are regular full-fat chips. Your blog posts seems to suggest that this is not a better for you alternative to OTHER SNACKS. But all of a sudden we have a nutrition expert telling us that we’ve lost the nutrition in the processing. Does that mean that reagular potato chips are a good or better source of nutrition? EEEEK!

    • Fooducate

      Gerome, we’re fine with snacks being snacks. But when a snacks starts to tout health benefits that aren’t there, it should be called out.