Crackers are wonderful snacks. They go great with dips, cheese, fruit and spreads. They're salty and crunchy and according to Snack Works (1), "there’s a variety to fit every mood, every occasion and every appetite". When trying to choose a healthy snack, it's easy to grab a 100% whole grain variety of crackers.
The cracker shown below has fire roasted tomatoes and olive oil. It's baked with 100% whole grain wheat. In addition, "it may help reduce the risk of heart disease". If the crackers can be crunchy, salty, snackable and prevent heart disease, that gives us good reason to throw the box in the shopping cart.
If we take a closer look we immediately spot "natural flavor". Natural flavors are manufactured in a lab, at a chemical plant. Although a natural flavor can be derived only from naturally occurring ingredients, the resulting chemical flavor, whether it is made from artificial ingredients or natural ingredients, is exactly the same. Natural flavors can represent an undetermined number of flavors, as long as they occur in the FDA's list (2).
"Calling any of these flavors natural requires a flexible attitude toward the English language and a fair amount of irony.” - Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (3)
Although whole grain wheat tops the ingredient list, it is followed by 21 other ingredients, mostly food additives. There may be 100% whole grain wheat in the product, but the crackers are not 100% whole grain.
Ingredients: Whole grain wheat, vegetable oil, maltodextrin, salt, tomato powder, onion powder, spices, sundried tomatoes, garlic powder, citric acid, malic acid, malted barley flour, hydrolyzed corn protein, olive oil, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate (flavor enhancers), natural flavor, paprika extract, artificial color, red 40, yellow 5 and blue 1.
Let's take a look at the health claim on the front of the package:
Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods, AND low in saturated fat and cholesterol may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Diets rich is whole grains are associated with lower risks of heart disease, which is why the FDA allows this health claim (4). It's important to note that this statement refers to soluble fiber from whole grain foods in a diet that consists of other plant food and low in saturated fat. This product has 3 grams of fiber per serving, which does make it a good source of fiber, but it's not high-in fiber. True "whole" grains include wild rice, quinoa, barley, millet and oats. Lastly, the FDA requires the manufacturers to write "may reduce the risk of heart disease", as opposed to "treats heart disease" or "prevents heart disease".
There are no studies demonstrating a reduction in heart disease with the consumption of whole grain crackers.
Crackers are wonderful snack foods on occasion, but will not improve our health or decrease our risk of heart disease.
Christine Dobrowolski is a nutritionist and whole-foods advocate.