Lately we're inundated with the message that we're supposed to eat only whole foods that our great-grandmother would recognize, and "shop the perimeter" of the supermarket, avoiding the aisles of packaged stuff in the middle. But what are you supposed to do when the munchies hit and you don't have time to make a salad? What about those times when you're craving something more fun than a carrot?
I'm happy to report research showing that some snack foods deserve more respect. These healthy snacks aren't just good alternatives to potato chips, they're nutritional powerhouses in their own right:
Popcorn: It's easy to forget, but popcorn qualifies as a whole grain, and research presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society shows that the antioxidants known as polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn than they are in fruits and vegetables. The most polyphenols are found in the hulls of the popcorn, which also provide a lot of fiber. Popcorn hulls are "nutritional gold nuggets" according to Joe Vinson, PhD, of the University of Scranton, who conducted the research. (Just remember that popcorn ceases to be a health food when it's slathered with butter and salt, and avoid microwave popcorn if you can—potentially dangerous chemicals line the bags and one of the ingredients often used in the butter flavoring has been linked with breathing problems called "popcorn lung").
Chocolate: You've heard a hundred times that chocolate is good for you, but the evidence just keeps piling up. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that chocolate eaters have lower BMIs than non-chocoholics, and more research presented at the American Chemical Society finds the chocolate can reduce stress hormones and that the flavonoids it contains may play a role in reducing heart disease and cancer. Caveat: Dark chocolate and high-quality chocolate contain more of these beneficial compounds, so keep in mind that chocolate Easter eggs from the drug store probably don't fit the healthy snack criteria.
Salsa: More research presented at the American Chemical Society meeting finds that the spicy ingredients, called capsaicinoids, in hot peppers prevent heart disease by reducing accumulation of cholesterol in the body and boosting circulation. Of course, while salsa and hot sauce might be healthy, it can be hard to figure out what to put them on, since researchers will never discover that greasy tortilla chips are good for us. Try mini rice cakes or baked blue corn tortilla chips as an alternative.
So the next time you need a healthy snack, make these your go-to choices. You might even try to combine them—look for chocolate bars laced with spice, or try shaking spicy curry powder on popcorn (I love this latter snack, though my husband thinks I'm crazy).