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While small snacks are encouraged at mid-morning and mid-afternoon to meet nutrient requirements, stabilize blood glucose levels and keep hunger at bay, it is important to distinguish between nutrient dense snacks and a treat foods.

A snack is a small amount of food eaten mid-way between two main meals to enhance nutrient intake and prevent overeating to satisfy extreme hunger. Snacks are especially important for children as the stomach capacity of a child is small while the nutrient requirements for growth and learning are high. Snacks must therefore offer nutrient benefit such as fibre lean protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, making a significant contribution towards achieving a healthy diet.

Treat foods are foods that do not offer any nutrient benefit the body. They are typically high in sugar, fat and salt, all which have negative effects on health and weight maintenance, if consumed in excess. Non-nutritious snacks essentially add empty energy to the diet.

With convenient, pre-packaged ‘snack’ items readily available in supermarkets, the overlap between snacks and treats becomes problematic in that a regular consumption of high-energy, nutrient empty foods increases the risk for nutrient deficiency and obesity. Some convenient ‘snacks’ foods are deceptively healthy because they incorporate healthy ingredients such as high fibre cereals and oats but they come with added sugar too.

While South Africa has recently implemented a tax on sugar containing beverages, cold drinks and juices are not the only culprits for high sugar content. Too many treat-like snacks can tip the sugar intake into an excess consumption. The World Health Organization recommends a sugar intake of less than 5 % total daily energy intake. This allowance includes sugar contained in all foods purchased, not only the addition of sugar to cereals and hot beverages.

In order to adhere to this guideline, treat foods containing sugar should not contribute to more than 20% of food intake while the remaining 80% of food intake should be in the form of whole plant foods, lean protein and plant fats. A good rule of thumb, is to limit treat foods to weekends as there is usually plenty of opportunity to consume treats. School days should for the most part be treat free.

As sugar is often hidden in unsuspecting foods, reading labels on shop bought snack items is an important strategy to limit the substitution of a healthy snack with a treat food. Adopting this habit will make it easier to determine between snacks and treats. Assess the sugar content by checking the ‘of which is sugar’ value with reference to the total carbohydrate value. Typically, a healthy convenient snack should not contain more than 5 – 10 % of the total carbohydrate in the form of sugar. Looking for sugar in the ingredients list is also important. Food ingredients are always listed in descending order according to mass. If sugar is one of the first 3 ingredients, the product contains a high amount of sugar.  Ingredients such as sucrose, glucose and cane syrup are also sugar.

Opting for whole foods and minimally processed, high fibre foods as snack options is the best way to achieve an optimal nutrient intake while avoiding an excessive intake of hidden sugar.

5 whole food snack ideas

  • Fresh fruit and plain yoghurt
  • Apple wedges and peanut butter
  • Wholegrain crackers with cottage cheese
  • Vegetables and hummus dip
  • Boiled egg and a fruit

Sometimes, fun snacks are desired but it is the novelty of the snack rather than the sugar content that makes for the fun.

5 novel but healthy snacks

  • Popcorn
  • Banana ice cream
  • Peanuts and raisins
  • Homemade fruit and oat muffins (no sugar needed)
  • Smoothies made with frozen fruit and plain yoghurt

Banana Ice Cream Recipe …

For two servings, blend together:

  • 1 frozen banana
  • 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon nut butter or ¼ avocado
  • ½ cup milk

This soft ice cream can be eaten as is but can be frozen for a more solid treat.

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