The good news: nearly 90% of consumers read nutrition labels. The bad news: people don’t always understand the vital nutritional terms on labels. Nutrition IQ is critical to supporting healthy eating habits and reducing the risk of chronic disease. For example, according to The International Food Information Council Foundation, nearly two in three people have heard of nutrient density, but far fewer can explain what it means. And while many consumers now understand that protein is a vital addition to meals, they are less picky about their protein when it comes to snacking.
First, let’s first review why protein is critical to our daily diets. Proteins are essential macronutrients that help to maintain our immune systems and build muscle, bone, skin, and hair. Without consuming the appropriate amounts of protein, you run the risk of missing out on these essential functions. Eventually, that could lead to problems, such as a loss of muscle mass, failure to grow, weakened heart and lung function, and even early death. Available evidence indicates that it’s the quality of protein (or the protein “package”), rather than the amount of protein that likely makes a difference for our health.
Nutrient density is the measure of how much nutrition you get per serving or per calorie eaten and vital to achieving a nutritious diet. When choosing between two food items with the same calorie amount, one food choice can provide your body with the protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals we need every day. In contrast, another option may provide empty calories from sugar and saturated fat with no other significant nutritional benefits.
Snacking often gets a bad rap because many options are loaded with sugar, saturated fat or excessive salt. And the food industry has responded to this challenge with endless “low sugar” and “low sodium” snacks – but that does not mean that the nutritional benefits are increased. The next evolution in the quest for better-than snacks has come in the form of protein labeled options. But while protein is good, not all protein snacks are created equal, and consumers may end up with a food solution that sounds healthy but is not.
One of the challenges with finding nutrient rich snacks is that until recently, there was no tool available for health professionals or food manufacturers to determine the nutrient density of protein snack products. Working with a team at Herbalife Nutrition, we created an index to identify the comprehensive profile of nutrient rich protein snacks. And the results were illuminating for consumers wanting to grab a bite that satisfies their hunger needs but also supports their desire for good quality protein snacks.
Our study, entitled “A Modified Nutrition Rich Food Index to Assess Nutrient Density of Protein Foods and Snacks” presented at last month’s American Society for Nutrition annual meeting, demonstrated that good source protein food products are snacks with vitamins A and D, calcium, and fiber. At the same time, consumers should also look for products with a low amount of saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. As for calorie count – a healthy snack should be 100-150 calories to prevent hunger and maintain satiety before the next meal. So next time you grab a yogurt, shake, or protein bar – don’t just count calories, but also the vitamins and fiber to increase your healthy food options and raise your snacking IQ.
By Simon Sum, DCN, RDN, ACSM-CPT, FAND, Director of North America Scientific Affairs, R&D at Herbalife Nutrition