January 9, 2008
Snacks: should we or shouldn’t we? The jury seems to be out on that one. Just this morning, as I plodded along on my trusty treadmill, I happened upon a brief TV interview with ND Penny Kendall-Reed
hawking discussing her new book, The No-Crave Diet. One of the supposed myths that she busted was the idea that we should basically snack all day long ( what’s been referred to as “grazing” in recent years), and eat 4-6 smaller meals per day.
No, no, no, said Ms. Kendall-Reed, that theory has been thrown out the window! Recent science indicates that leptin, the fat-controlling hormone in our bodies, only begins to really work its magic about 5 hours after we’ve last eaten (and so, works best overnight). If we keep shoving food into our mouths every two to three hours, we undermine the function of leptin. So to really lose weight, she advised, don’t snack at all. Stick with 3 meals–that’s it.
Well, I’m not sure I could ever give up snacks entirely, but if I do snack, I’d prefer it to be something that isn’t going to cause my fat cells to multiply or my arteries to stiffen up. What better choice than trail mix? It’s the perfect snack for us North Americans: quick, portable, ostensibly healthy, it provides us with the twin hits of two favorite tastes, sweet and salty.
But don’t kid yourself that you’re eating a health food if you consume store-bought varieties. Often, these are roasted in unhealthy oils (the nuts), coated in unhealthy oils (the dried fruits) or sprinkled with flour (wheat can be nasty for some) or sugar (which is nasty for everyone). They may also contain additives, coloring, artificial flavorings, preservatives, or hydrogenated oils. By far, the best way to acquire trail mix is to make your own. And since it’s so easy to throw together, why not?
I thought it might be useful to run through the basic components and offer what would or wouldn’t work for a healthy trail mix. I’ll also include our own preferred mixture here at the DDD residence (“We particulary enjoy those cashews, Mum. But thanks for not giving us those raisins!“).
What Should I Include in a Basic Trail Mix?
The generic recipe is very simple: use any combination of dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and cereals that you like.
Just keep in mind one essential rule: minimize or eliminate processing. In other words, for the optimal trail mix, it’s preferable to gather all your ingredients in their raw form, measure according to healthy percentages of protein and carbs (since the original purpose of trail mix was to provide a boost of energy while hiking—a high-exertion activity—it should contain a fair amount of protein and carbs for energy, or a high proportion of nuts and seeds), then dehydrate or cook the ingredients, as you wish.
My own basic trail mix recipe includes:
- approximately 75% nuts and seeds (I use almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, peanuts, and Brazil nuts; pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds)
- about 20% dried fruits (I use unsweetened dried cherries, dried cranberries, raisins, chopped dates and chopped figs)
- and about 5% grains or cereals, if you wish (I tend not to worry about the cereal part).
The following guidelines may help you decide which ingredients to include in your own mix.
NUTS AND SEEDS:
In general, nuts are a wonderful and very nutritious food. They contain heart-healthy Omega 6 and Omega 3 fats, monounsaturated fats, antioxidant vitamin E, and they are also generally high in protein. Nuts arrive in their own natural packaging—their shells—which will help preserve and protect them as well until ready to use.
Because it’s more difficult to buy nuts with the shells still on and then shell them yourself before blending into a trail mix (that alone would provide enough exercise to earn the right to eat them all!), the second best choice is raw, natural nuts from a health food store.
Organic nuts, of course, would be preferable, but these are often quite expensive.
Choose unroasted, unsalted, raw, natural nuts for your mix. If you wish, you can roast them yourself, by laying them out on a rimmed cookie sheet and baking in a 350 F (180C) oven for about 10-15 minutes, until just starting to turn golden. If you do choose to add salt, use a natural sea salt with a full complement of minerals. Cool completely before adding to your mix.
Keep in mind that the oils in nuts and seeds are volatile; this means they are prone to rancidity if exposed to air, heat, or oxygen (which is why you don’t want to buy those pre-roasted ones). In order to preserve the integrity of the oils in your nuts and seeds, refrigerate (or freeze) raw nuts/seeds until you use them. This way, you’ll obtain the highest health benefits from your healthy snack.
- Almonds. These are always at the top of my list, since they offer a high protein content, heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, and a lower fat content than most other nuts. They are also the highest nut for calcium.
- Coconut. Previously maligned because of its high saturated fat content, coconut has recently been promoted by some alternative health professionals as a heart-healthy food that can also help preserve thyroid functioning. If you can find high quality organic coconut, this can be a great addition to your trail mix.
- Pumpkin Seeds. Known to be high in zinc, pumpkin seeds can help boost immunity and have been shown to help prevent prostate problems. They’re also high in iron and other minerals. The phytosterols (plant sterols) in pumpkin seeds have also been shown to help reduce cholesterol.
- Sesame Seeds. These tiny gems are a great source of calcium and the same type of phytosterols as in pumpkin seeds. Remember that they need to be chewed to crack the outer hull, as this exposes the healthy oils within and renders the seeds digestible by our digestive tract (otherwise, sesame seeds—like flax seeds—are not digested and pass whole through our systems. While they offer fibre in this manner, they won’t offer nutrients this way).
- Walnuts. Filled with healthy Omega 3 oils, walnuts are good for brain function (and they look like little brains, don’t they?) and heart health. Slightly higher in fat (about 65%), they probably should be eaten in moderation.
- Conventional (non-organic) peanuts. Even if you’re not allergic, peanuts can harbor aflatoxins, a highly toxic mold (supposedly more toxic than DDT!). Organic peanuts tend to be less problematic in this area.
- Commercially prepared soy nuts. In general, though soybeans offer great protein and are also important for women in pre- and menopausal years, commercial varieties are often roasted in poor-quality oils, high in added fat, and, unless organic, genetically modified. Check preparation and ingredients carefully if buying soy nuts.
[“Yum! Thanks for those cashews, Dad!”]
Fruits are not only a high-fibre, no-fat snack; they’re also an excellent source of vitamins, some minerals (especially dates, raisins, and figs), and they add the chewiness and sweetness that so many of us crave in a trail mix.
- Apricots: These fruits offer a great source of vitamin A. The organic variety is naturally darker in color than conventional apricots, and much sweeter! If you’ve never tried organic dried apricots, I highly recommend them.
- Blueberries/Cranberries: both these berries have been shown to help prevent urinary tract infections by inhibiting bacteria from clinging to the urinary tract. They’re also high in vitamins and antioxidants.
- Cherries: tart, organic dried cherries provide pucker-power in a trail mix and offer vitamins A and C, as well as a source of calcium.
- Goji Berries: A relatively new addition to the realm of dried fruit, Goji berries are delicious (not quite as sweet as raisins and a bit chewier), with an impressive nutritional profile including high levels of vitamin C (higher by weight than oranges), several vitamins and minerals, and an array of amino acids. I previously wrote about goji berries (among other things) in this post.
- Raisins: a perennial favorite, raisins are a good source of iron and also contain other minerals and vitamin B. Don’t forget, however, that raisins can be poisonous to dogs! (“We appreciate that, Mum.”)
- Figs: dried figs are known to be anti-parasitic and help keep the intestines in good shape. They also provide a great fruit source of calcium as well as potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and phosphorous, not to mention good fibre content! I’ve grown very fond of figs (it’s just platonic, silly) and will post some new recipes with them in the next week or so as well.
non-organic dried fruits, as they can be coated in wheat flour (to prevent sticking together), sugar and/or unhealthy oils (same reason as flour), and often contain sulfites (a preserving agent). For people concerned with maintaining the enzymes present in raw fruits, look for dried fruits that have been dehydrated at low temperatures (usually below 118 degrees F).
plain puffed cereals, such as brown rice (I use Erehwhon unsalted) or organic oat circles. Many gluten-free grains, such as quinoa or millet, are now also available puffed as well.
- Avoid: many commercial cereals contain sugar, hydrogenated oils, flavors, and so on. Check labels to ensure healthy ingredients and no extra sweetener.
How Do I Store My Trail Mix and How Long Should I Keep It?
For maximum longevity, store your trail mix in sealed, opaque containers in the refrigerator and take out only as much as you’ll need at a time. This will keep both the nuts and seeds fresh as long as possible, usually about a month (though it likely won’t last that long). However, if you detect even the slightest trace of rancidity in the taste of your nuts or seeds, it’s always better to discard the mix.
Trail mix is a real staple in our house, as my HH adores nuts of all kinds (Including me. You DID see that one coming, didn’t you??). And making your own, besides being fun, provides a comforting sense that your snacks can provide at least some of the essential nutrients in your day. And what if Ms. Kendall-Reid is right, and we should forgo our daily snacks? Well, just toss that trail mix into a big bowl of organic baby greens, and you’ve got an instant meal (and no one’s prohibiting that just yet!).