The variety of crackers in any grocery store can be slightly overwhelming, with boxes often spanning entire aisles. The truth is that all crackers are not created equal! While healthy crackers do exist, many are high in sugar, sodium, unhealthy fats, and artificial flavors.
Addicted to Crack(ers) — Why They're Dangerous
The main problem with crackers is the fact that they’re so processed. They come wrapped in plastic, stuffed in boxes, and contain so many unrecognizable ingredients they might as well have been sent from a foreign planet. These days, many manufacturers strip the cracker down to nothing but fast-digesting starches and finish with a dose of sugar and sweeteners. And graham crackers, a campfire favorite, might be just as bad as the chocolate and marshmallows that top them: They’re made mostly of enriched flour, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and honey, and contain upwards of 8 grams of sugar per two-cracker serving (sounds more like cookies, to me). So why’s that so bad? High sugar consumption has been linked to cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease, and increased levels of LDL cholesterol (which can increase the risk for heart attack). When sugar is entering the body in droves from sources we’re not thinking are sugary problems, overdoing it can be too easy Sugar and Cardiovascular Disease: A statement for healthcare professionals from the Committee on Nutrition of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism of the American Heart Association. Howard, B.V., Wylie-Rosett, J. Circulation, 2002 Jul 23;106(4):523-7. .
And it’s not just sugar — sodium can be a problem, too. One single-serving pack of Ritz Bitz cheese crackers contains 480mg of sodium (20 percent of the daily recommended value). Research suggests too much sodium can increase in blood pressure, as well as increase risk for cardiovascular disease Sodium Intake and Cardiovascular Disease. Morrison, A.C., Ness, R.B. School of Public Health, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Texas 77030, USA. Annual Review of Public Health, 2011;32;71-90. . And there’s something else fishy with crackers: Many contain artificial flavors and dyes. The rainbow version of Goldfish contains four artificial colors. Although it’s still unclear what long-term dangers these could lead to, artificial dyes have been linked to certain types of cancers, hyperactivity, and behavior problems in kids The Artificial Food Dye Blues. Potera, C. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2010 Oct;118(10):A428. .
That doesn't even account for the cheese (or peanut butter, or chocolate) filling. One pack of Austin Cheese Crackers contains 210 calories and 10 grams of fat — and four of those grams come from trans fats, which have been linked to abdominal weight gain (in animals), even when excess calories weren’t consumed Trans Fat Diet Induces Abdominal Obesity and Changes in Insulin Sensitivity in Monkeys. Kavanaugh, K., Jones, K.L., Sawyer, J., et al. Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Medical Center Boulevard, Winston-Salem, NC 27517, USA. Obesity (Silver Spring), 2007 Jul;15(7):1675-84. . Trans fats have also been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and the onset of type 2 diabetes Metabolic Implications of Dietary Trans-Fatty Acids. Dorfman, S.E., Laurent, D., Gounarides, J.S., et al. Cardiovascular and Metabolism Disease Area, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Obesity (Silver Spring), 2009 Jun;17(6):1200-7. . And while most crackers present a load of potential health dangers, many come with hardly any protein or fiber (which should be a cracker essential!).
Smart Crackers — Your Action Plan
When searching the cracker aisle, it’s important to check the nutrition label. Good options tend to have short ingredient lists with recognizable words rather than hard-to-pronounce additives. To be safe, stay away from crackers with these offenders: partially hydrogenated oils (aka trans fats!), high fructose corn syrup, or artificial colors. The sodium content should be less than 230mg (about 10 percent of the daily recommended value) per serving.
And don’t be fooled! Crackers labeled as “baked” aren’t necessarily healthy. Be sure to check the label for the total fat content, and stick to options with less than 10 grams of fat per 100 gram serving. As a rule, rice crackers and crispbread tend to be lower in fat, and as an added bonus, crackers with seeds (such as linseed, poppy seeds, or flax seeds) tend to be higher in fiber than others types.
Next, look for crackers that are 100 percent whole grain. Even if the ingredient list says “wheat flour,” it’s not a whole-grain food unless it specifies “whole-wheat flour.” Don’t be fooled — words like “wheat,” “multigrain,” and “7-grain” can appear on packages that contain a mixture of refined and whole grains, and a cracker that looks “whole” (read: brown) may just be colored by molasses or caramel.
And don’t forget about portion size! Look for crackers with 150 calories or less per serving — and make sure it’s a serving size that’s realistic (and easy to stick to). For instance, five Ritz crackers contain 80 calories, which may seem like a good deal, but if you’re going to chow down on more like 20 crackers, that means quadruple the calories — not such a good deal.
Rather than scanning the cracker aisle for healthy choices, try making crackers at home for guaranteed A+ nutrition. Pack in flavor with sesame seeds or flax seeds, which are high in lignans, a type of fiber that may lower cholesterol Flaxseed Lignan Lowers Blood Cholesterol and Decreases Liver Disease Factors in Moderately Hypercholesterolemic Men. Fukumitsu, S., Aida, K., Shimizu, H., et al. Nutrition Research, 2010 Jul;30(7):441-6. . Crackers are surprisingly easy to make at home, and they don’t come wrapped in a plastic sleeve with dozens of unpronounceable ingredients!
Five Healthy Cracker Recipes to Make at Home:
Homemade Wheat Thins via Kitchen Stewardship
Olive Oil Crackers via The New York Times
Organic Cheesy Wheat Tidbits via Rodale
Parmesan Sesame Crackers via Taste of Home
Easy Vegan and Gluten-Free Crackers via Oh She Glows
What's your favorite cracker substitute? Rice cakes? Cucumber rounds? Share your ideas in the comments below!