Ever wonder how trail mix got its name? According to camping legend, in 1999 a group of film makers got lost in the wilderness of Burkittesville, Maryland and had to survive solely on a bag of nuts and berries. While they were never discovered, the footage of their struggle was found one year later— the good news is they never went hungry.

The Trail Mix Project — Why it’s Dangerous

Trail mix is a go-to snack for outdoor enthusiasts because it is lightweight, portable, and staves off hunger by virtue of its density. But these days, danger lurks in the prepackaged mix in the form of excess sugar, oils, and preservatives, putting this formerly naturally nutritious snack on the Greatist Dangerfood list.

Like most delicious things with addiction-worthy appeal, trail mix has humble, unthreatening beginnings. It all began as a combination of dried fruits, granola, and nuts, quickly gaining the reputation of promoting heart healthNuts and berries for heart health. Ros, E., Tapsell, LC., Sabaté, J. Endocrinology and Nutrition Service, Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer, Barcelona, Spain. Current Atherosclerosis Reports 2010 Nov. 12(6):397-406. and ascending to star status in health food circles. But if weight loss is a goal, trail mix isn’t the ideal snack option. Although nuts are packed with heart healthy fats, they’re also pretty high in calories. So unless they’re used as fuel while foraging in the forest, there are other lower calorie snacks better suited for a less active lifestyle.

The real danger lies in the fact that most prepackaged trail mixes (albeit convenient) have taken a few extra liberties in their ingredient lists and have loaded the mix with extra salty nuts, sugar-packed fruits like dried bananas (the crisps are fried!) and chocolate, transforming this once nutrient-dense snack into a decadent, heavy dessert.

Forging A New Trail — The Action Plan

Trail mix is an energy-packed staple and, while it stands out as a clear winner when put up against a candy bar, don’t confuse it for a health snack. One way to ensure trail mix is healthy is to make it at home, which can be easy to do and even cost-efficient.

Stop by the nearest health store or supermarket where nuts and berries are sold in bulk and start mixing and matching. Keep an eye out for almonds, walnuts, and peanuts in their low or no-salt versions. Raw is better than roasted (and definitely better than candied). Complement them with sugar-free, naturally dried fruits such as raisins, apricots, or cranberries. Feeling adventurous? Try adding seeds, such as pumpkin or sunflower. We’ve even seen wasabi as an option at a trail mix bar (pictured). To kick-start your healthy trail mix business, consider mixing it up with themes like The Hawaiian Mix (cashews, coconut flakes, golden raisins), PB & J (peanuts, dried cranberries, raisins), or even Asian Fusion (peanuts, soy nuts, coconut flakes, wasabi). Get creative!

But remember, as with any snack, portion control is important. Here’s a snapshot of different caloric values of common trail mixes.

Updated January 2012