Many popular snacks qualify as ultra-processed items thanks to their miles-long ingredients lists and significant deviation from recognizable whole foods.
To help you better understand the impact a bad snack can have on your overall diet, here are 21 of the worst snack offenders.
“America’s Favorite Cookie” doesn’t look so threatening on its own.
A single Oreo contains 40 calories, 3.3 grams of sugar and 2 grams of fat.
Doesn’t sound bad if you can limit yourself to two or three, right?
But that’s the problem—most people can’t. In fact, science shows that the high-sugar, high-fat taste of Oreos is flat out addictive.
A 2013 study discovered that Oreos and drugs such as cocaine and morphine have similar effects on the brains of rats.
The study’s authors wrote, “Rats formed an equally strong association between the pleasurable effects of eating Oreos and a specific environment as they did between cocaine or morphine and a specific environment. [The researchers] also found that eating cookies activated more neurons in the brain’s ‘pleasure center’ than exposure to drugs of abuse.”
That’s why that box of Oreos seems to disappear from your pantry so quickly.
What do you get when you take an already unhealthy snack and blast it with a blizzard of spicy seasoning?
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
It’s easy to munch down a 1-ounce bag of these things without batting an eye, and they somehow manage to cram 160 calories, 250 mg of sodium and 11 grams of fat into that single ounce.
With no valuable nutrients to speak of, these are exactly the kind of snacks that leads to mindless munching.
Of course, standard Cheetos aren’t much better.
You’d be much better off eating some real cheese.
Many cheeses are high in healthy fats, protein, calcium and other valuable nutrients.
Arizona Fruit Juice Cocktails
AriZona juice drinks seem designed to be irresistible.
For one, they’re cheap—a 24-ounce can costs a meager 99 cents.
Second, they taste ridiculously good due to their sky-high sugar content.
The nutrition facts label camouflages how loaded with calories these beverages really are.
The serving size listed on them is just 8 ounces, meaning there are actually three of them in a single can.
For popular varieties such as Watermelon and Grapeade, that equates to about 300 calories and 70 grams of sugar.
Drinking that much sugar so quickly wreaks havoc on your blood sugar, leading to crashes in the near term and increasing your risk of negative health consequences such as obesity and high blood pressure.
Little Debbie Products
Little Debbie produces a ton of popular products—Honey Buns, Nutty Bars, Zebra Cakes, Oatmeal Creme Pies, etc.
They are the textbook definition of ultra-processed snacks.
Perhaps the worst of all Little Debbie snacks are their mini donuts.
A six-donut package of Little Debbie Frosted Mini Donuts packs 430 calories, 25 grams of sugar and a staggering 15 grams of saturated fat (the recommended daily limit is 20 grams).
Eating too much saturated fat drastically increases your risk of high cholesterol, which in turn can have a negative impact on blood flow and oxygen transportation throughout the body—both important for athletes.
They’re fine as an occasional treat, as is every product on this list, but if they’re a daily staple of your diet, you’re asking for trouble.
If you’re craving something sweet, natural peanut butter is a stellar nutritional option.
You know that.
But if you had to name the worst candy of all in terms of nutrition, what would you say?
For our money, Starbursts are a good bet.
Starbursts are about as far removed from a recognizable natural food as you can get.
The first three ingredients are corn syrup, sugar and hydrogenated palm kernel oil.
One pack of Starbursts delivers 240 calories, 34 grams of sugar and 4.5 grams of saturated fat.
Combine that with the fact it also has zero grams of dietary fiber and no protein, and Starbursts rank as one of the worst things an athlete can put in his or her body.
Soda (Especially Mountain Dew and Mello Yells)
If every American replaced the soda in their diet with water or unsweetened tea, it would have a massive positive impact on our nation’s overall health.
Sodas by and large are sources of empty calories fueled by massive quantities of sugar.
Two of the worst you can choose are Mountain Dew and Mello Yello, two popular citrus-flavored soft drinks.
A 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew contains a staggering 77 grams of sugar, and the same size bottle of Mello Yello contains 78 grams.
For reference, the latest federal guidelines recommend that people limit their added sugar consumption to between 40 and 48 grams per day.
And don’t think diet sodas are going to save you. While those drinks may not contain the amount of sugar of their full-caloried siblings, the artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas have a negative impact on the brain’s ability to tell your body when you’re full, which leads to overeating.
In fact, a 2014 study discovered that diet soda drinkers ate more calories from solid food than those who drink regular soda.
Grabbing a bowl of cereal is a common snack ploy for many teenagers.
It’s convenient, it’s tasty and it’s heartier than a bag of chips or a candy bar.
However, many popular varieties of cereal fall squarely into the category of “junk food.” Choices like Lucky Charms, Froot Loops or Cinnamon Toast Crunch contain roughly 10 grams of sugar per 3/4 cup serving. But a 2014 study found that the average American eats 30 percent more cereal than the standard serving size, and 10 percent of Americans eat more than 2-1/2 times the standard serving size.
If your bowl of cereal consists of 2 cups (which still doesn’t look like a whole lot), you could be starting your day with as much sugar as you’d get in a can of soda, along with a good amount of fat and sodium.
Think of it like this—in a standard box of Cap’n Crunch, there are supposedly 15 servings.
Have you ever in your life gotten 15 bowls of cereal from a single box? Probably not.
But all too often, food manufacturers decide to cover them in sugar or pair them with junk.
One example is Emerald Nuts Raspberry Glazed Almonds.
These seem innocuous enough. Almonds are healthy, and raspberries are good for you, right?
Well, that raspberry glaze adds an extra nine grams of added sugar per serving compared to the company’s Natural Almonds.
The best, most healthy nuts you can buy are going to have just one ingredient: the nuts. That’s it.
Keep that in mind the next time you reach for an option like Planter’s Crunches Snack Nuts Mesquite BBQ, which contains 20 ingredients.
Are there junkier foods out there than these sorts of nuts? Sure. But the raw nuts’ healthy reputation can be extremely misleading in these cases, earning them a spot on our list.
Photo Credit: dirkr/iStock
There aren’t many worse ways to start your day than a McDonald’s McGriddle.
However, with the Sausage variety being priced at just $2, it’s a common practice for many people.
While McGriddles do contain a good amount of protein, they’re otherwise a cocktail of saturated fat, sugar and sodium.
A Sausage McGriddle, for example, contains nearly half the daily recommend limit of saturated fat.
Then you factor in 15 grams of sugar and a staggering 990mg of sodium.
While athletes who train intensely on a daily basis need more sodium than sedentary people, over-consuming sodium can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and a wide range of other issues. Health officials estimate that if Americans lowered their daily sodium intake to the recommended range, it would prevent up to 92,000 deaths annually.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Fruit in Heavy Syrup
Again, here we have a case of taking a healthy food—whole fruit—and turning it into mostly junk.
Heavy syrup is essentially sugar water, and floating a few slices of fruit in it doesn’t turn it into a healthy snack.
Take Del Monte Peaches Fruit Cup Snacks. A single serving contains 15 grams of sugar. The third and fourth ingredients are sugar and pear juice concentrate.
“(Fruit concentrate) is fruit with the water removed,” Caroline West Passerrello, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told NPR. “It retains the sugar and calories, but it loses the volume, fiber and vitamin C.” It should be viewed as an added sugar akin to high-fructose corn syrup.
Compare that to the no sugar added variety, which contains just 5 grams of sugar per serving.
Any “Gel” fruit cup snack is even worse, as it’s really more akin to gelatin than a fruit cup.
Dole’s Peaches in Strawberry Flavored Gel, for example, contains 22 grams of sugar per serving but just one gram of dietary fiber.
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Girl Scout Cookies
Girl Scout Cookies are delicious.
There’s no arguing that.
And while they’re fine as an occasional treat, they’re surprisingly easy to overindulge on due to their nutritional profile.
Samoas, for example, contain 11 grams of sugar (with 10 of it being added sugar, the worst type of all) and 3.5 grams of saturated fat per serving.
And that serving is just two cookies.
The sky-high sugar and fat contents present in these cookies make it quite difficult to stop at just two.
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Wendy’s Crispy Chicken BLT
When it comes to value or dollar menu options, this might be the worst chicken sandwich of them all.
The Wendy’s Crispy Chicken BLT contains 420 calories and 23 grams of fat.
While a breaded chicken cutlet on a bun with some lettuce and tomato ain’t too bad, the additions of bacon, mayonnaise and a slice of American cheese push this sandwich into the danger zone.
High fat foods take a long time to digest, making them a terrible pick for a pre-workout, pre-practice, or pre-game snack.
The standard Wendy’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich, which doesn’t contain those additions, has 7 fewer grams of fat and 350 fewer milligrams of sodium.
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Pop-Tarts aren’t a smart way to start your day.
The fact they contain little fiber and just a bit of protein means you’re likely to be hungry again before lunch, and the massive amount of sugar sets you up for a debilitating mid-morning crash.
If you don’t want to be snoozing in fourth period, you should seek out smarter options.
Kellogs recommends one pastry per serving, but the packaging pairs two pastries in the same wrapper. Also, your toaster probably has two slots.
Know what that means? Many people who eat Pop-Tarts are downing two of them at a time.
For varieties like Strawberry Milkshake, that means you’re ingesting a quick 30 grams of sugar to start your day.
If your breakfast has sprinkles on it, it’s probably not the wisest choice.
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KFC’s Honey BBQ Sandwich
Sauces seem harmless.
They’re just a little extra flavor, right?
Well, many of the sauces that have become common in the American fast food industry are so unhealthy that they can nutritionally bankrupt your meal.
For example, KFC’s Honey BBQ Sandwich.
At 340 calories, there are more calorically-dense options on the menu.
However, the BBQ sauces adds nearly 20 grams of added sugar to the item.
When your chicken sandwich contains 21 grams of sugar and 1,350mg of sodium, you’re asking for trouble.
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Coffee Drinks That Are Basically Desserts
A small cup of coffee is low in calories and healthy. Add in a dash of cream and a spoonful of sugar and it’s still not nutritionally terrible.
But some of those flavored coffee creations you find at coffee shop chains are downright dreadful.
Flavored lattes—especially the seasonal offerings—are some of the biggest offenders.
A 12-ounce Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte packs in 300 calories, 11 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbohydrates and 39 grams of sugar. A Starbucks Caramel Brûlée Latte of the same size has even more calories (340), 11 grams of fat, 52 grams of carbohydrates and 40 grams of sugar.
To put those numbers in perspective, both of those drinks contain more calories than a six-piece Chicken McNugget, more fat than you’d get from five Rice Krispy Treats, and roughly the same amount of sugar as you’d find in a can of soda.
The chain’s Frappuccinos might be even worse. A 12-ounce Ultra Caramel Frappuccino packs 11 grams of saturated fat and 44 grams of sugar.
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3 Musketeers Bars
Obviously, candy bars aren’t healthy food.
But some are certainly worse than others, and 3 Musketeers Bars might be the junkiest of all.
A single bar packs 5 grams of saturated fat and a stunning 36 grams of sugar.
Compare that to a PAYDAY Peanut Caramel Bar, which are a similar size, yet contain 15 fewer grams of sugar, 2.5 fewer grams of saturated fat, and 6 more grams of protein.
Most of that protein is coming from the peanuts themselves, as opposed to being added in artificially during the manufacturing process, making it even more beneficial.
Remember, when searching for a good snack, high amounts of fiber and protein are good signs. Being able to actually recognize whole foods is also a good sign (think how different an actual apple looks than Caramel Apple Pop-Tarts, for example).
But high amounts of sugar, saturated fat and sodium? Particularly when two or three of those are true in the same item? That’s a big red flag.