On a recent flight home to Minneapolis, a flight attendant offered me a choice of cookies, almonds or Cheez-It crackers.
Now, I know what Cheez-It crackers are: Flour, cheese and soybean oil mixed with a few spices and food dyes. So the package, touting five healthy benefits, perplexed me: 9 grams of whole grains! 100 percent real cheese! Fifty percent whole grains! Baked! Just 100 calories! These claims lull you into thinking this is a better snack, when it’s actually just empty, sodium-laden calories.
Of course, Kellogg's is far from the only company to make such promises. It’s merely one example of how food marketers use nuggets of selective information to mislead consumers. Take the whole grains claim. The seal used to promote a product that is made of up of half whole grains is virtually identical to the seal that advertises 100 percent whole grains. Even though the benefits of crackers made of 50 percent whole grains are substantially lower (since you've removed half of the fiber). The amount of sodium -- 170 milligrams -- is way more than you should be getting in 100 calories. And I bet you didn't know that nine grams of whole grains -- even though it sounds like a lot -- is just about half a serving of whole grains.
In other words, Cheez-Its fall into a category I like to call Almost Junk Food.
What should you eat instead? In a pinch, always choose whichever option most closely resembles real food. In this case, I would have chosen the almonds, which at least supply some healthy fats, fiber and plant-based protein, in spite of the added salt.
But the better solution, at least until airlines -- and concession stands and gas stations and everywhere else people buy convenience foods -- start serving healthy whole food options, is to keep a few of our bars stashed away for such situations. That's what I do. After all, Step One products are the only packaged foods I know that ensure that each ingredient was chosen specifically to boost health.
More importantly, remember that if a package of a convenience food looks too good to be true, it probably is. Even when you’re at 30,000 feet.