Puffed Snacks: A Healthier Option?

If you like to nosh between meals, you may be familiar with the exploding trend of puffed and popped snack foods that are made with a variety of legumes (like lentils, chickpeas, navy beans, and fava beans), grains (quinoa, cassava, sorghum), vegetables (such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and beets), tropical fruit (jackfruit), and even seeds (water lily). The original popped snack, of course, is popcorn, and there is no shortage of newfangled popped corn snacks, either.

Most of the newcomers, often from “health food” brands but also from some major manufacturers, are marketed as healthy options with wholesome-sounding names and descriptors on the packages—“veggies,” “skinny,” “smart,” “vegan,” “organic,” “non-GMO,” “gluten free,” “clean ingredients.” And they come in all sorts of flavors, from white cheddar to peanut butter and chocolate to turmeric to dill pickle—and in all kinds of shapes and textures, from crunchy logs, puffed-up balls, and wagon wheels to fluffy squares and triangles.

These products have come a long way from older generations of snack foods, which are mostly made of refined grains and largely consist of greasy chips and popcorn, salty pretzels, and corn puffs covered in artificial colors and imbued with artificial flavors. But are these new-generation snacks actually good for you, or are they just grownup versions of Cheetos and an excuse for adults to snack on junk food? A little of both, we found.

A puffed snack primer

puffed snack

Most puffed and popped snacks are made through a combination of heat and pressure. One of the most common methods is a process called food extrusion, in which a mixture of ingredients is forced through a tube with a tiny opening. This causes pressure and heat to build, which vaporizes the moisture inside and creates steam that both cooks the mixture and puffs it up with air.

In the past, most of these types of snack foods were made of cornmeal, but innovations in the extrusion method have enabled the development of new products that can be made with other ingredients that are often more nutritious. In addition, some of the new snacks have added fiber and protein, on top of what is naturally present. Because of the long shelf life, some researchers even see these puffy food items as a way to combat malnutrition in developing countries.

Crunching the numbers

These newcomers weigh in at about 110 to 150 calories per 1-ounce serving, with sodium ranging from under 100 to well over 200 milligrams and fat typically ranging from 3 to 8 grams, most of it unsaturated. Depending on the main ingredients, many deliver more protein than conventional processed snack foods, like potato chips—as much as 5 to 6 grams per ounce, which is about the amount in a large egg. Some products have 3 grams of fiber per ounce (comparable to a half-cup of many cooked vegetables), though others have little or none. By comparison, classic Cheetos Puffs have 160 calories, 10 grams of fat, 270 milligrams of sodium, 2 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fiber per ounce.

Satiating snacks

Generally speaking, puffed and popped snacks may be more filling than denser processed snack items like chips and pretzels for the same amount of calories. Satiety is important in weight control because that feeling of fullness can help prevent overeating and thus potential weight gain.

Several studies have shown that adding air (or water) to food can fill a person up on fewer calories. For instance, in a small study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2000, normal-weight men were assigned to drink yogurt shakes before lunch that were pumped up with different amounts of air but had the same number of calories. Those consuming the higher-volume shake ate 12 percent fewer calories at the subsequent meal than those who pre-loaded with the lower-volume shake, and they also reported feeling less hungry and more full after the shake.

Another study in the same journal, in 2015, compared aerated and non-aerated versions of a nonfat-milk beverage in men who drank the beverage after an overnight fast; aeration more than tripled the volume of the milk. The aerated drink greatly increased stomach volume and slowed stomach emptying (as seen on MRI scans over four hours) and reduced hunger (based on an appetite questionnaire) compared to the non-aerated beverage, which had the same number of calories.

This concept is the basis for Volumetrics, which was ranked the second-best weight-loss diet in 2020 by U.S. News & World Report (tied with a vegan diet and after WW, formerly Weight Watchers, which ranked #1). Developed about two decades ago by Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., a nutrition professor at Penn State University, Volumetrics em­­phasizes foods with low calorie density, usually thanks to their high water or air content. Though these new puffed snack foods themselves have not been put to the test, it’s conceivable at least that they could promote satiety and appetite control in the same way.

Another way these puffed snacks may promote satiety is through their fiber and protein, present either from the whole ingredients themselves or from fortification. Whole foods high in fiber or protein (like nuts and yogurt), when eaten as snacks, have been shown in studies to help make people feel full longer and delay their next meal. The research is less clear when it comes to added fiber and protein in processed foods, but some studies have found that snacks with these added ingredients can also delay the desire to eat a meal.

Other research suggests that the perceived size of a food may affect satiety, too. That is, if the food just looks bigger, you may think it will better satisfy your appetite, regardless of its calorie content.

A textural perspective

What also seems to matter in terms of satiety is a food’s texture—how crunchy, chewy, hard, or creamy it is, for example—and thus how easy it is to chew and swallow. It may, for instance, be easier to overeat puffed foods that dissolve easily in the mouth than those that require more chewing. There may also simply be an expectation that a food with a lot of texture will be more satiating. Several studies have, in fact, shown that when people eat foods with complex texture compared to foods with low textural complexity, they tend to eat less of them and feel more satisfied. (A future Wellness Letter article will discuss how physical attributes of food, including textural complexity, affect satiety.)

Bottom line

Many of the latest iterations of puffed snacks are nutritionally better than the old guard, but be aware that they are still largely made up of flour and oil and often have moderate amounts of sodium and fat, a formula that makes them tasty and hard to stop eating. And they may not contain all those vegetables that you might think some have. For instance, those “beet” puffs may be mostly flour with beet powder added mainly for flavor and color. In a pinch, these snacks can be a reasonable option if you select carefully (always check the nutrition label’s fine print, including the ingredients list), and they could potentially help curb hunger and reduce overeating of calorie-dense foods. But the best foods to snack on are still whole or minimally processed foods—vegetables, fruits, nuts, hummus, and yogurt, as some examples. Keep in mind that popcorn qualifies as a healthy, whole-food snack, if you can find it not loaded with fat and sodium; air-popping dried corn (or another whole grain such as sorghum) yourself is the best way to prepare it, and you can mist it with olive oil or another flavorful oil and add herbs or spices after popping, if desired.

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