According to experts, the final answer is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Snacking is the kind of everyday luxury I can really get behind — nothing beats a little mid-afternoon nibble. And I’m mostly vegan, so the snacks I eat are probably really good for me, right? Well, whether something is “healthy” or not actually depends on nutritional content, not buzz words. Unfortunately, a lot of people tend to conflate “vegan” with “healthy,” and marketers play into this by pushing it as a catchphrase on plant-based snack labels and packaging.
Those marketers are savvy — so can you really blame anyone who thinks seeing a picture of a vegetable or the term “plant-based” front-and-center on a bag of chips or a vegan jerky wrapper means it’s a solidly healthy choice? That said, we should always take claims on food packaging with a grain of salt, so I asked nutritionists to help me investigate whether these plant-based snacks are really healthier than their alternatives.
Crunchy plant-based snacks
Have you noticed a major uptick in the number of bean-based products on the market these days? Yeah, me too. Not that I’m complaining — I’d like to shout out chickpea carbonara for basically changing my life. There's a good reason legumes are being made into everything from chickpea puffs, to lentil crackers, black bean tortilla chips, and edamame pasta. “[Snacks like] Hippeas are great to satisfy a craving,” Kathryn Bonilla Strickland, a registered dietician in Virginia, tells Mic, referring to a popular chickpea puff brand. “They’re healthier than fried chips, but comparable to baked chips.”
That’s not exactly because they’re plant-based, though. After all, potato chips (as long as they’re not made with animal fat or other animal-derived ingredients) are largely plant-based. But garbanzo-based snacks, for example, have fiber and protein from the chickpea flour — so unlike traditional potato chips and crackers, they actually have some nutritional value. The same can’t be said for, say, Pringles, which have basically negative nutritional value.
That doesn’t mean those packaged salty bean snacks are healthy, though; they’re just healthier than a lot of other options. “I would not deem these snacks as ‘healthy,’ but rather a nice treat to have every now and then,” Strickland says.
Indeed, Hunnes cautions against blindly assuming Hippeas, lentil puffs, or similar legume-based vegan snacks are “healthy” at all. “These are a highly processed food, akin to Cheetos (but vegan),” she says. Sure, they have “marginally healthier ingredients,” she notes, but “when you consider how highly processed they are, they are not necessarily healthier.” Still she says, if it’s a choice between Hippeas and Cheetos, Hippeas are probably a better choice.
If you want a truly healthy salty snack that’s also high in protein, Hunnes says making your own is the best option. “I’d rather someone roast chickpeas and add some spice to them for a crunchy snack,” she says. I have to agree. Making homemade chickpea snacks takes basically zero prep and, frankly, they taste better than anything on the market.
If the many ads I get targeted to vegan hikers (read: lesbians) are to be believed, vegan jerky is all the rage. I am literally not buying this one. What’s in vegan jerky, anyway? “Vegan jerky is made from soy, mushrooms, or mungbean — depending on the manufacturer — and then flavored with either liquid aminos, soy sauce, or other spices,” Strickland explains. That doesn’t mean vegan jerky is bad — especially when compared to the fatty, salty meat versions — but it’s not a health food. “Strictly speaking, nobody needs vegan jerky, however it can be a decent snack — especially on-the-go or to satisfy a craving.”
Hunnes recently tried Beyond Jerky herself, and says it was salty, chewy, and reminiscent of jerky — but that doesn’t mean she thinks we should all go out and buy it. As with the crunchy snacks, she notes, jerky is filled with highly-processed ingredients. “I would say you absolutely do not need to eat vegan jerky unless it’s a flavor [and] texture you miss while on a plant-based diet,” she says.
Still, while vegan jerky may not always be a health food, it is definitely better for you than most meat jerky. Slim Jims, for example, are packed with fat and salt — and a whole lot of other processed ingredients. Plus, as iffy as compressed pea and mungbean protein sounds — that’s what Beyond Meat’s new line of jerky is made of — reviewers seem to adore it.
Plant-based protein bars
As a person who works out a lot and lives alone, sometimes eating whole meals just isn’t a priority for me. In those instances, I grab a protein bar. Dinner in 45 seconds — amazing! But not all protein bars are created equal. Pretty much all the experts I spoke with agreed: Plant-based bars are probably healthier than protein bars made with milk and eggs. “Plant based protein bars tend to use other healthier ingredients such as almond butter, flax seeds, and nuts,” Strickland says. Of course, as with anything, it’s best to look beyond the flashy packaging claims; always read the ingredients and nutrition info to get a better idea of what you’re eating.
That said, it turns out the proteins that come from plants may be better for you than animal sources. Plant-based proteins contain nutrients in them that are inherently in the plant itself — phytonutrients, plant-nutrients, antioxidants, fiber — that make them healthier, says Hunnes. Animal proteins, which tend to be more acidic than plant proteins, can change the pH of your blood and also affect the health of your microbiome; those effects, Hunnes notes, can be detrimental to your health.
So, which vegan protein bar is the best? According to the experts I spoke with, it’s the Lara Bar. “It is naturally sweetened with dates and easy to take on the go or just have around the house for a quick snack,” Strickland says.
But nutritionists’s actual favorite plant-based snacks — unsurprisingly — aren’t anything that comes in a package. “When I think of healthy plant-based eating, I think of whole foods, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, and other plant-based proteins such as tofu and edamame,” Hunnes says. So if you really want a healthy plant-based snack, think simple.