Food & Drink | April 13, 2020 6:06 am

A Comprehensive Guide to America's Healthiest Snacking Brands

"Energy waffles," salmon-skin rinds, protein-packed cereals and more

A Comprehensive Guide to America's Healthiest Snacking Brands

At some point in the mid-2000s, the movers and shakers at Frito-Lay, General Mills and Pepperidge Farms held meetings in their world-domination board rooms and decided to start oven-baking chips. American kids were snacking more than ever (by 2010, they’d doubled the snacking levels of their youth counterparts in the 1970s) and perk-happy startup offices had just started sneaking the phrase “unlimited snacks” into job description copy.

But alongside a renewed, national fervor for “grazing” was a nutritional awakening. Americans didn’t want to eat hydrogenated oils anymore, seemingly discovering trans fats and their heart-hearth deficiencies over night. Newsweek began a faithful routine of reminding the country how obese it had gotten. A reality show called The Biggest Loser aired its first episode in 2004. For even vaguely health-conscious American snackers at the time, a choice between traditional Cheetos and the new oven-baked Cheetos, which contained 50% less fat (and 50% less orange, probably), made a lot of sense.

The agency in that decision, though, was highly dubious. An infographic called “The Illusion of Choice” made the rounds on the internet a few years ago, which showed Americans that most of the brands they rely on to get through an afternoon can be traced back to five or six mothership conglomerates. The model is supposed to be a rumination on the dearth of choice in a capitalist society. But when I look at it, I see a different, perhaps more sinister illusion of choice: between unhealthy junk and slightly-less-unhealthy junk masquerading as nourishment.

Luckily, snacks have finally evolved to a better place. They just needed time.

The same revolutions that hit meals throughout the 2010s — farm-to-table cuisine, improved fast-casual dining, foraged foods, the plant-based revolution — eventually made their way down to snacks. Those quick monikers that seem to annoy certain fragments of the population (non-GMO, gluten-free, Kosher, vegan) that first became mainstays for meals have now infiltrated the things we nibble on in between. Why prepare thoughtful entrees at lunch and dinner only to eat highly processed corn tossed in salt during the home-stretch of your workday?

The new snacks that have come to the fore during this enlightenment have stories as thoughtful as their ingredients. Brooklyn-based Brami looks back to Ancient Rome to modernize the lupini beans once preferred by gladiators. Goodfish, which hit the scene just a month ago, upcycles salmon skins from Alaska’s Bristol Bay that would otherwise go to waste, dressing them in sea-salt seasoning. This is choice, the golden age of chomping, with brands that take their time, source ingredients sustainably and put money into causes that matter.

Below, you’ll find 25 of them, including the two mentioned above. Happy snacking.

Hippeas


The first product from LA-based Green Park Brands, Hippeas is a line of organic chickpea snacks served up as puffs or tortilla chips. For the discerning snacker, they check every single box: no preservatives or artificial coloring, USDA-organic, non-GMO, vegan, not a single allergen and eight different flavors. Leonardo DiCaprio cut the brand a check back in 2017, and they’re already on pace for a $100 million evaluation.

Snackout snack: Bohemian Barbecue Chickpea Puffs

Sakara


Sakara is a holistic wellness brand that dabbles in snacks (nori and tortilla chips, granola) as a side hustle to its meal programs, which aim to improve digestion and boost energy. Helmed by best friends Whitney Tingle and Danielle Duboise, the branding is immaculate. But the commitment to all-natural, hard-to-come-by ingredients is real; the catnip and passionflower herbal tea is essential for insomniacs, and the energy bar is one of the best on the market.

Standout snack: Chia Tortillas

Goodfish


Goodfish is a new venture from the folks behind Harmless Harvest (sustainably sourced coconut water from Thailand). They upcycle Wild Alaskan Sockeye crispy salmon skins that would otherwise end up in a landfill, packaging a crunchy snack similar to chicharrones or pork clouds. Only they’re way healthier, at just 90 calories to a bag, with omega-3 fatty acids (which are good for brain), tons of protein and marine collagen, which helps build lean muscle mass and fortify the skin, among other benefits.

Standout snack: Chili Lime Crispy Salmon Skins

Food Should Taste Good


It’s got a long name, and it’s been on the healthy snacking beat longer than most of the brands on this list. Founded by a lifelong grocer in 2006, Food Should Taste Good makes gluten-free, cholesterol-free, trans fat-free tortilla chips using ingredients like black beans, nutty flax seeds and quinoa. Some are vegan, all are kosher. A bowl of 10 also combines for four grams of protein, which is absolutely unheard of in the chips game.

Standout snacks: Multigrain Black Bean Chips

vafels


Vafels is very fun to say, and the planted-based Belgian-style waffle is a favorite of runners and cyclists in the brand’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Instead of using leavened batter (which requires baking powder), Vafels are made with a brioche-based dough and rise over night. They’re then infused with pearl sugar straight from Belgium, which offers a more natural rush than most of the adventure bars at the supermarket.

Standout snack: The Maple Vafel

lytepop


This brand debuted late last year, and seems intent on finding a younger audience; it’s active on social and has already recruited NBA player Trae Young as a spokesperson. It’s a fantastic alternative to Redenbacher-style popcorn thanks to sensible portion sizes and straightforward, organic ingredients like sunflower oil and pink Himalayan salt. That said, the “electrolyte-infused” premise of the snack is a tad dubious, and reminiscent of the alkaline water trend. Lytepop does contain monopotassium phosphate, an ingredient also found in Gatorade, but replenishing the body with electrolytes doesn’t have the same clout it once did, and doing so with popcorn is an odd sell.

Standout snack: Electrolyte Popcorn

Made in Nature


An OG on the organic beat, Made in Nature started as a pear farm in the shadow of Oregon’s Mt. Hood all the way back in 1989, and is now one of the most trusted dried fruit brands in the States. It’s gluten-free and non-GMO, boasts a USDA certification and offers more than 50 different “supersnacks,” from veggie pops to coconut chips to organic hazelnut fudges cooked with fair-trade cocoa.

Standout snack: Dried Mangoes

Bhu Foods


“Bhu” is Sanskrit for “of the earth.” This San Diego brand assigned itself a seemingly impossible assignment: make sweet-tasting energy bites from natural ingredients. But they pulled it off, substituting cane-sugar for monk-fruit chocolate chips, and gluten, grain and soy for a couple extra helpings of protein (which come in whey, pea and egg white varieties, depending on your preference). There’s a lot to choose from among their bars and bites, but start with anything that’s got “cookie dough” in the title to immediately see Bhu’s magic in action.

Standout snack: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Keto Bites

Perky Jerky


Legend holds that Perky Jerky was conceived on a Colorado ski lift, the invention of two friends pining for a tender, next-gen jerky. The result? Jerky made from 100% grass-fed beef marinated overnight — no added nitrates. It adds up to fewer calories and more protein, and they also offer “fancy” options like Truffle and Thyme Beef Jerky made from Wagyu beef (raised without hormones or antibiotics) or a plant-based jerky made from a soy powder blend.

Standout snack: Sea Salt and Pepper Vegan Jerky

Siete Foods


Run by a Mexican-American family of seven (hence, siete) in Austin, Texas, Siete makes grain-free tortillas and and taco shells. Veronica Garza founded the company in an effort to manage personal auto-immune conditions, and endeavored to make healthier Latin American staples that are just as tasty as the homemade flour tortillas her abuela was famous for. Her mix includes ingredients like cassava flour, avocado oil, coconut flour and chia seeds.

Standout snack: Sal y Limon Tortilla Chips

Karma


Mix deep family connections in the cashew game with a Masters in Health Science & Technology from MIT and you get Karma Nuts, a “wrapped cashew” brand launched six years ago by Ganesh Nair. As opposed to oil-fried cashews, Karma Nuts are air-roasted and retain their natural skin, which is satisfyingly crunchy and offers a ton of fiber, plus anti-oxidative properties similar to blueberries. Karma Nuts only deals in cashews, it should be noted, but that’s okay; cashews are an unheralded nut stocked with good fats and minerals that aid in weight loss and boost the immune system.

Standout snack: Variety Pack

Catalina Crunch


Cereal’s come a long way since Cookie Crisps. This Manhattan-based brand makes alternative cereals — vegan, zero preservatives, completely sugar-free — with as much protein as you’d find in a plate of eggs, plus way more fiber. The flavors are fun, including options like Chocolate Banana and Cinnamon Toast, and the texture is reminiscent of a Teddy Graham, so you can eat them in a bowl with milk or munch on them throughout the day. The “keto” branding seems unnecessary, given the diet’s controversy, but this is a low-carb choice, so fair enough.

Standout snack: Maple Waffle Keto Cereal

Lesser Evil


Lesser Evil is pleasantly candid about its own evolution, from churning out “potato wrinkle sticks” in 2005 to organic “egg white curls” today. The brand now operates its own factory in Danbury, Connecticut, and pairs with organic farms around the world. They make popcorn, too, but the egg curls — with whites from American Humane-certified eggs — are a revelation. Six grams of protein over 14 curls ought to be illegal.

Standout snack: Himalayan Pink Salt Egg White Curls

Flock Foods


Part of The Naked Market portfolio (a millennial-run CPG firm), Flock Chicken Chips are high-protein, low-carb rotisserie chicken skins seasoned in salt and vinegar or BBQ. As of now, they’re one-of-a-kind in the market, but once the copycats arrive, it may be hard to manufacture with the same attention to detail and moral standards: the brand currently partners with Heifer International to donate 5,000 chicks a year to families in need.

Standout snack: Salt & Vinegar Chicken Chips

bare


Born on a family apple orchard in Washington State, bare deals exclusively in baked chips. They don’t fry anything, and their ingredients lists are a masterclass in minimalism. Everything that’s on the front of the bag is all you’ll find on the back. The full list for the chips pictured above? “Beets, Sea Salt.” They’re at their most familiar with apples (there are eight different flavors of apple chips), but the vegetable chips (carrots, sweet potato, beets) make for an easy sandwich side substitute.

Standout snack: Sea Salt Beet Chips

Biena


Another chickpea prophet, Biena started in a single store outside Boston eight years ago, and is now on shelves in 15,000 retail locations across America. Their snack collection includes both roasted chickpeas — which contain 70% less fat than peanuts, if you can believe it, without sacrificing any protein or fiber — and puffs, which come in let-your-hair-down flavors like White Cheddar, Ranch and Blazin’ Hot. Even the dark red color for that final flavor, it should be noted, is accounted for: Biena mixes beets, black currants and tomatoes to achieve it.

Standout snack: Aged White Cheddar Chickpea Puffs

Undercover


The name has a fun origin — founder Diana Levy calls herself “the ultimate double agent, a health-conscious chocoholic” — and the brand had a noble original mission: find a way to make sure her celiac-diagnosed daughters could still enjoy chocolate cookies. She cracked the gluten-free code: Undercover makes organic quinoa chips lightly drizzled in fair-trade cacao bean chocolate mixed with dried fruits like blueberries or pomegranates for extra flavor. Half a bag is only eight grams of sugar, which is a solid deal.

Standout snack: Dark Chocolate + Blueberries Quinoa Crisps

Brami


The Italian lupini bean that once fueled gladiators in Ancient Rome has made its way to a test kitchen in Brooklyn. This oft-unheralded legume absolutely dunks on venerated beans and nuts; it has 50% more protein than chickpeas, 60% fewer carbs than pistachios, 100% more fiber than edamame (that’s saying something) and 80% fewer calories than almonds. It’s a super-snack, basically, and Brami packs them fresh in the bag for easy snacking (just note — they’re pickled, so there will be some moisture) or as an addition to a salad or stir fry.

Standout snack: Starter Pack

Just The Cheese


Big week for Just The Cheese! The brand’s founder appeared on Shark Tank this weekend (he declined offers from three Sharks), so if you like 100% Wisconsin cheese, might want to head over to the site before their servers crash. Just The Cheese has been around a while (it got a ton of attention during the original Atkins boom) and worked to evolved recently, emphasizing its rare role as an oven-baked, single-ingredient option. There’s a fair amount of saturated fat in these things (40% of your daily value), so it probably shouldn’t be a daily tradition, and it won’t replace a cheese board at your favorite wine bar. But over a long day at work — fire away.

Standout snack: Mild Cheddar Bars

gimMe Snacks


Marine vegetables are just different. Seriously, seaweed packs more nutrients than “land vegetables,” and gimMe Snacks’s roasted seaweed, which is sustainably harvested in South Korea’s Yellow Sea, is an ideal entry point to the snack. Founders Annie Chun and Steve Broad have been doing it better than everyone else for a long while: this is the first seaweed snack to earn USDA Certified Organic status. And the calorie count, it has to be noted, is just insanely low: 10 sheets is somehow only 25 calories.

Standout snack: Sea Salt Roasted Seaweed

Terra


Another heritage brand in the (admittedly short-lived) healthy snacking space, Terra began when two chefs from four-star Manhattan restaurants teamed up to make a better bar snack. Saks Fifth Avenue was one of the brand’s first clients, way back in 1990, and the young brand ramped up production each year, eventually selling to The Hain Celestial Group. The mission, though, has stayed the same. Terra makes chips from a uniquely diverse list of vegetables, from parsnip to kabocha to those famous naturally blue potatoes.

Standout snack: Sweet Potato Chips

Avo Crazy


Avo Crazy is another label in The Naked Market’s portfolio. It’s a smart play. If avocado popularity amongst millennials were destined to fizzle out, it probably should’ve happened by now. Meanwhile, these puffs could probably be called a number of things; they include avocado oil and defatted avocado powder, but contain more organic rice flour than anything else, and organic spinach powder helps account for the color. Still, they’re only 100 calories a pop, come in a few different flavors, and the packaging is a delight.

Standout snack: Vegan Ranch Puffs

Think Jerky


Think brings out the big guns for its jerky. Every single flavor is a bespoke recipe conceived by a standout chef; the roster includes Michelin-Star winners, James Beard winners and a guy who’s won multiple BaconFest championships. The only rules? Minimize sugar and salt. No veggies options here, but the meat is only sustainably raised 100% grass-fed beef or free-range turkey.

Standout snack: Sriracha Honey Turkey Jerky

PopCorners


The headliner for snack label Our Little Rebellion, a subset of BFY Brands that was purchased by PepsiCo late last year, PopCorners is a more mainstream option than most on this list, and a constant in workplace kitchens. It’s a decent alternative to like-minded popcorn chips, though; the crisps are never fried, non-GMO, kosher, gluten-free, and don’t contain a single preservative.

Standout snack: Kettle Corn

Yomi Bites


Officially started by two Philadelphian cousins after an apparently very productive Thanksgiving discussion, Yomi Bites makes cookie dough-style munchkins from all-organic ingredients like almonds, oats, honey and flax. Each flavor — of which there are several, but PB Chocolate Chip is the best — comes in a portable pouch ideal for an in-between meals or pre-workout jolt. None contain soy, dairy or gluten.

Standout snack: PB Chocolate Chip