School started in earnest last week and while most people are focused on the quality of food in the cafeteria, I’m obsessed with snacks.

Since when do all kids, even 9 year olds, need a daily morning snack? And when did it become standard for that snack to be a fistful of crackers?  And while I’m at it, when did crackers become healthy?

I’ll get to the nutrition of crackers in a minute (but be warned, it’s not pretty).  First, though, I want to point out that getting kids into the habit of eating a vacuous, nutritionally insipid mid-morning snack isn’t the best idea.  If they must snack, can we at least use the opportunity to get them in the habit of eating food that’s actually healthy?

Crackers are alright on occasion, but daily cracker-snacking is best left to the birds.  Here’s why:

  1. Kids don’t need more grains; they need more whole grains (and most crackers fail in this department).
  2. Kids don’t need more exposure to grain products.  They already eat them joyfully, and frequently to the exclusion of other types of foods. Instead kids need more exposure to fruits and vegetables.
  3. Contrary to popular belief, snacking doesn’t just redistribute calories over the course of the day. It adds calories to the daily grand total.
  4. The body can scarcely tell the difference between white flour and white sugar. Seen this way, loading kids up on crackers at school doesn’t make sense.

I know I’m sounding a bit like a crazy mama at the moment.  But really, crackers—especially crackers used as chips, not as platforms for real food, i.e. cheese, hummus, or something yummy like a tomato and zucchini compote—aren’t a positive addition to our kids’ culinary day.  They teach our kids that snacks are crunchy, salty things… like chips.

Yes, I know crackers are baked, and that makes them “healthier” than potato chips, but being better than a chip doesn’t de facto make something healthy. (But even if it did, isn’t that setting the bar a tad low?)  Read The Potato Chip Challenge: How We Decide What Snacks to Give Our Kids.

In terms of habits, kids would be better off eating potato chips once or twice a week than eating crackers every day. At least we tell them chips are junk.

Now that I’ve vented, let’s move on to the nutrition.

Most crackers are made from refined flour, even when they tout whole grains.

Crackers made from whole wheat, such as Triscuit Crackers, deliver 2-3 grams of fiber per serving.  Be suspicious of crackers with less.

  • Cheez-It Crackers (a favorite in my daughter’s 4th grade class): Each serving delivers less than 1g of fiber, a sign they’re made from refined flour.
  • Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers: The box says each serving provides 5g of whole grains, but each serving delivers only 1g of fiber. Why? Because even Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers are made primarily from refined flour.  (Check out the ingredients; you’ll see what I mean.)

FYI: You can get 1g of fiber from a serving of Lay’s Classic Potato Chips, Chips Ahoy! cookies, or a McDonald’s Hot Caramel Sundae. One gram of fiber is no big deal.

Refining sucks the life out of whole grains.

Look at everything that gets lost when whole grains are refined.

FYI: The only reason refined flour approaches whole flour on any nutrient is because refined flour is enriched.

See more on whole vs. refined from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Crackers are an empty snack… unless you count sodium and fat as attributes.

  • One serving of Original Cheez-It Crackers has 310mg of sodium and 9g of fat.
  • One serving of the Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers has 250mg of sodium and 8g of fat.
  • In comparison, one serving of Triscuit Crackers Original has 180mg of sodium and 4.5g of fat.

FYI: According to the Harvard School of Public Health, adults should limit their sodium intake to 1500mg per day. (Young children should have less.) I’m not sure allocating so much of your daily allotment to crackers is wise shopping.

It takes a lot of crackers to get the goods.

Your child would have to inhale 27 Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers in order to benefit from the 1g of fiber or 10 Triscuits to take in 3g of fiber. That’s a whole lot of crackers.

Which translates into plenty of calories.

Maybe this helps explain why 2-6 year olds now consume 182 more calories per day than they used to.

  • One serving of Cheez-It Crackers has 180 calories.
  • One serving of Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers has 150 calories.
  • One serving of Triscuit Crackers has 120 calories.

(FYI: A small 2-ounce box of Goldfish Crackers = 280 calories.) Read Goldfish vs. Bunnies.

Don’t think I’m down on Cheez-It Crackers.  I like them as an occassional treat.  What gets me going, though, is using them—and their crunchy brethren—as healthy, daily delights.

NuVal, the nutritional scoring system that doles out values between 1 and 100 (with 100 representing top nutrition) gives most crackers a mediocre score.

Although the top crackers receive scores in the 80s, the median (average) score for the category of crackers is in the 20s. That’s where Cheez-It Crackers fall (NuVal score=23).

Many of our kids’ favorites, however are at the bottom of the nutritional barrel. Let’s face it, our kids are less likely to sink their teeth into Ryvita Rye & Oat Bran Whole Grain Rye Crispbread crackers (NuVal score=87) than they are to chow down a couple of Ritz Bits Cheese Cracker Sandwiches (NuVal score=7)

FYI: Bananas score 91 and blueberries rate a cool 100.

Other traditional snack foods are also nutritional time bombs.  Read The Snacking Minefield , Think Snack TIME Not Snack FOOD, and Snacking and the Nutrition Zone Mentality.

For all the teachers who want quick, easy and portable snacks…

I say ask parents to wash some apples, bring in some bananas, or to cough up some carrots at least as often as they crate in the crackers.   It’ll nourish our kids and teach them the right habits.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~


Sources: All websites accessed 9/20/10; Bittman, M., 2009. Food Matters: a Guide to Conscious Eating. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. p. 88; Piernas, C. and B. M. Popkin. 2010. “Trends in Snacking Among U.S. Children.” Health Affairs 29(3): 398-404.