Snacks, they make the world go round, right? We’ve all been there, in need of a good snack for the kids (or ourselves). However, back to school, meal planning, shopping… it can all be so overwhelming. If you’re new to food allergies, special diets, or healthier eating/living, take it one day at a time. In the case of food allergies, you’ll generally have to deal with a very overwhelming start, as you’ll have to clean everything out in one go. For everyone else, you’ll have a little more time to replace items as you go along.
As you read this (very long) article, know that it’s a guide to help you along on your journey. Some of it is opinion based on knowledge and experience. At the end of the day, you’re going to have to do what’s best for you, and that’s OK.
Having walked a mile in so many of your shoes, please remember, I embrace and encourage the safe choices you’re making for your families. There are some kids with sensory issues that will ONLY eat a handful of foods. There are other kids who will eat anything. Either way, you have to make the best choices for you.
If you’re looking for great resources on healthier eating/living, check out the Just Ingredients website. The guides are amazing, and had they been around 10 years ago, I would have loved to have them. I can’t stress this enough: if you’re new to choosing better-for-you ingredients, check out Karalynne. She and I are on the same page in so many ways, and I’m so happy to know her. While I focus on telling people about food allergies, she’s focused on the base ingredients and how it effects overall health.
Before I Get To Talking, Some of The Top 8 Free Companies/Snacks We LOVE
Full disclosure: these are not the only top 8 free snacks on the market. These are the ones that we love the most and A: are top 8 free, and made on top 8 free equipment, and B: use ingredients we support. There are other snacks that we love, but they aren’t free from the top 8 (some people in our home can have the top 8), or are seen as treats rather than everyday snacks for lunches.
- 88 Acres (such clean ingredients)
- Free 2 Be (they may have a new granola bar coming soon)
- Karen’s Naturals
- Libre Naturals
- Made Good Foods (LOVE the added veggie blends)
- Partake Foods
- Zego Foods (one of the few top 8 AND corn free companies)
Reading Product Labels
When reading a label for snacks, you should be on the lookout for several things. First and foremost, does it contain something your child is allergic to? What about a derivative of the allergen? If not, then you should move on to calling the company.
Also check for the sugar content (more on that below), and the quality of the ingredients, if that’s something important to you right now.
Legally (in the US), a label only has to disclose if any of the US Top 8 Allergens are present in the product. The top 8 are wheat, dairy, egg, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish. Information about processing aids, shared equipment, the facility, etc., does not have to be on the label. When you do see extra info, do a little happy dance.
When you’re calling a company to see if something is safe, you’ll need to ask 4 major questions. For the sake of this example, you’re calling about an allergen called XYZ,
- First, say hello (always be mega polite), and let them know which product you’re calling about.
- Does this contain XYZ?
- Are any of the ingredients derived from XYZ? Only ask this if there are names of things you don’t recognize.
- Is this made on shared equipment as XYZ?
- Is XYZ present in the facility where this is made? Only ask this if you are that sensitive.
- Is this product stored or transported with XYZ? This is especially important if you’re allergic to corn or soy. Interestingly, some companies know this answer right off the bat because they know the other ingredients the trucks haul.
Some companies will ask you to email the questions. Some know all the answers. Others will call you back. The level of sensitivity will determine how many of the questions you’ll have to ask.
Companies can change their facility, equipment, packaging, recipe, and anything else without sending us a notification. Mark your calendar each year to call companies that you rely on to make sure nothing has changed.
Interestingly, there was a product that we enjoyed that was made in a dedicated facility. When we called recently, we learned that they partnered with another company, and there are now several pieces of shared equipment. They’re taking every precaution, and were so happy to chat with me about it.
I share that to say this: producing food is a hard business that moves FAST. I met a company in March and by June they had lost their first co-packer and had moved into a second one. None of that is on the label and the only way to know HOW your food is being produced is to reach out to them.
If You’re Gluten Free or Wheat Free
Did you know that certified gluten free products can be made on shared equipment with wheat? Now, for most people, that won’t be a problem. The cleaning programs in place will be enough for you. There will be a minority of you who won’t be able to tolerate the shared equipment.
If you’re wheat free, don’t assume that gluten free is good enough for you. If you’re gluten free, don’t assume the certification means you don’t have to call.
Also, some foods that are naturally gluten free aren’t certified. This is because of cost. Smaller companies have a lot of financial responsibilities, and certifications usually start at $10,000.
Quality Ingredients Matter
We have personally experienced the blessing of food allergies and intolerances. It was because we HAD to learn about the quality of food and ingredients that I call it a blessing. I can honestly say that 11 years ago I only knew a little about ingredients in food where quality and GMOs are concerned. 10 years ago, that ALL changed. Overnight it would seem I had to learn what everything meant. I had to learn that some snack bars (looking at you too organic) use 3, 4, or 5 versions of sweeteners. In fact, these days, if I pick something up and one of the first two ingredients is a form of sugar, I put the bar back.
How You Can Source More Snacks
Given the nature of our business, I have access to more resources when compared to the average person, and I’m so grateful for that. However, I LOVE letting trusted sources do the heavy lifting for me. There are two stores in our area that I trust to be the gatekeeper for me when I need a break.
Good Eggs and Rainbow have very high standards. VERY high. In fact, we did the on-boarding process for our bakery for Good Eggs and the amount of info the want on every ingredient you source is phenomenal. If you use certain ingredients, they won’t even consider your product. The same can be said of Rainbow. The best part is, anyone can go to their websites and browse the products available to get some new snack ideas.
Hallmarks of Clean Ingredients
Look for snacks that contain easy to read and understand ingredients. I find that I’m not too put off by snacks that have 2 or 3 minor ingredients I don’t love such as xanthan or citric acid. Look for whole grains, and lean towards organic if you can. Check out the account Just.Ingredients on Instagram, and be sure to visit her website too. There’s lots of great advice, all in one place.
Remember that the order ingredients are listed in matter. They’re listed by percentage. For example, if a bar has the number one ingredient as oats, that means by percentage, there are more oats in the product that any other singular ingredient. When I see that the number one or two ingredient is a form of sugar, I say no thanks.
Am I Against (Added) Sugar?
Kind of… I recognize that we all have our own unique food/health/wellness journey. If Gushers are what you choose to buy because they’re the only gummy snack your kid won’t react to, good for you (genuinely happy for you). Every kid needs a gummy snack in their life. If there’s a better option available for your child, I hope they enjoy that one as well.
When it comes to added sugar in snacks, I’m really against it in bar form (and other forms) where it’s been very processed. Let’s face it, tapioca syrup solids is far from the original plant state. The same goes for stevia powder. When something that was once green is sold in stores as white, I have a personal problem, and choose not to buy the product. Focus on the word personal. Everyone has to do what’s safe for them.
What Sugars Am I OK With?
On a personal level, I’m super happy with whole fruit sugars, date sugar, honey, and maple sugars. Generally speaking, these are the options that are closest to their original forms. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m OK with my kids eating a truckload of alternative sugars either.
For many years I’ve been about balance and reducing unnecessary sweeteners where I can (yes, we still eat dessert). Here’s an example: seaweed snacks. There are several to choose from in the store that are organic. Several have added sugars, several don’t. I opt for the ones that don’t, and the kids love them. Another example: cookies. I love the Partake Cookies because the ingredients are just so wholesome.
When I’m reading a label, I take it all into consideration. If the protein content is the same or greater than the added sugar content, then I’m considering a purchase.
What Else Do I Avoid?
When choosing snacks for the kids, I avoid anything that looks like a science experiment, food coloring, excessive preservatives, and ingredients that I know are not really all natural. Where possible, I avoid ingredients that I know are lab made corn derivatives.
Remember, our story is our own. We have a mixed household where each person requires a special diet, and most have food allergies too. One of our kids simply can’t do cane sugar, excessive added sugars (including non-cane), food coloring, added chemicals, pesticides, and more. It means we have to be vigilant about so much, and stay on top of every single ingredient.
Different Names For Sugar & Sweeteners
Over the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve (as a society) demonized sugar (along with fat, carbs, red meat, etc.). The thing is, if you go get a sugar cane and press it, and drink the juice, it’s pretty cool. As a society, we’ve gotten away from having foods/ingredients in moderation and we’re tipping the balance in one unhealthy direction. One could argue that’s the root cause of many problems. With that in mind, food producers have gotten very clever with how they sweeten products. Here’s a partial list of names to recognize (yes, there are more):
- Agave Nectar
- Barley Malt
- Beet Sugar
- Brown Rice Syrup
- Brown Sugar
- Cane Sugar
- Carob Syrup
- Coconut Sugar
- Corn Syrup
- Date Sugar
- Ethyl Maltol
- Fruit Juice Concentrate
- Glucose Solids
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Invert Sugar
- Malt Syrup
- Maple Syrup
- Monk Fruit
- Raw Sugar
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum Syrup
- Sugar/Sucrose/Table Sugar
- Turbinado Sugar
Take the time to really educate yourself on what’s in food and how it’s processed. If you’re OK with what you learn, awesome. If not, take little steps each day to make a change. One of the easiest ways to change purchasing choices is to wait until you run out of something (rather than replacing everything at once).
As I mentioned in the Count Allergies Not Calories Article, there’s nothing wrong with ice cream, cookies, and cake. Strive to have a healthy relationship with food, and strive to ensure that the food is loving you back. Our kids eat ice cream several times a week… it’s made with organic fruit, a little maple, salt, vanilla, and dairy free milk. We call it ice cream, and they love it. They eat cookies too!
I try not to limit the options available, and instead, focus on finding (but usually making) a clean/safe version. While it does take up your time, when you send your kid off to college, or vocational school, or their first day of work, you won’t look back and think “I regret feeding them better-for-you foods”.