Remember when we used to think trail mix was a health food? It's nuts! This highly caloric snack is supposed to be consumed while hiking. But more often than not, trail mix is consumed in front of a computer, the nuts are covered in salt and sugar, and the fruit has been replaced by bits of chocolate. If you're still uniformly counting every trail mix as healthy, you've been duped!
Trail mix is a snack with vastly different blends of ingredients. It can include dried fruit, nuts, granola, coconut, and sometimes chocolate, to create a super craveable blend of salty and sweet.
Is trail mix healthy?
It can be, and it can also be pretty unhealthy, too. While nuts are definitely a healthy snack that's packed with heart-healthy fats, coating them in sugar or salt is a tricky recipe for disaster. Dried fruit is a great source of fiber as well as vitamins and minerals. But if the only fruit involved is a raisin rolled in a sweetened yogurt coating, guess again. Perhaps the biggest problem with trail mix is the serving size. Since there are lots of nutrient-dense foods in this snack, eating it mindlessly out of the bag will tally up to hundreds of calories before you know it. And if you aren't really hiking, well . . . let's just say it's as bad as snacking on other unhealthy snacks with a bad reputation.
How to pick the best trail mix
You can tell a lot about how healthy or unhealthy a trail mix will be by judging it at face value. Here's what to look for:
- Avoid coated nuts: Nuts are amazing sources of nutrition, but avoid mixes that contain sugar- and salt-coated nuts.
- Look for mixes with mostly fruit and nuts: If the mix contains lots of candy, chocolate, and deep-fried crispy snacks, it's no longer a healthy choice.
- Read into the name: From "s'more" to "monster" and "unicorn", trail mix names that use dessert references usually mean lots of added sugar.
- Mind the sodium: For flavored trail mixes that are savory, check the sodium content. Seasoning blends can rely heavily on salt to add flavor, and after two handfuls, that can add up to the maximum recommended daily amount of 2300 milligrams!
- Look for less added sugar: Remember that fruit is a naturally occurring source of sugar, but the sugar to be wary of is added sugar (note: all companies must list this information by 2021). A little won't make or break your day, but if you're comparing brands side by side, opt for one with less added sugar.
- Think about the serving size. The serving size for most trail mixes is 1/4 cup, which is about one handful. Keep this in mind as you're looking at the nutrition label and ask yourself what the sodium and sugar levels would look like if you were to double, triple, or even quadruple the amount you're consuming (and that's only a few handfuls).
The best trail mixes you can buy
1. Back To Nature Harvest Blend
If you're looking for no added sugar and no added salt, Back to Nature's Harvest Blend should be your pick. There's plenty of flavor in there from the raisins, almonds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, pecans, and dried apricots. With 5 grams of protein per serving, this is the highest protein pick of the bunch.
2. Planters Nut-rition Omega-3 Mix
If you're all about heart health, this one's for you. Planters Omega-3 Mix contains cashews and walnuts, and is an excellent source of ALA omega-3s. You won't find any junk food mix-ins here—just sweet cinnamon apples and raisins. With only 25 milligrams of sodium, it's a sodium-conscious pick you can feel good about.
3. 365 Everyday Value Cape Cod Trail Mix
This Whole Foods brand mix is super simple. It only contains almonds and cashews that are roasted with canola oil and sea salt (but only 30 milligrams of sodium per serving), mixed with dried cranberries. There is a bit of added sugar here, but it caps off at 2 grams per serving. If you're looking for a basic trail mix that makes for an enjoyable sweet-salty snack, this is it.
Available at Whole Foods Market.
4. Enjoy Life Seed & Fruit Mix Mountain Mambo
Trail mix can be a frustrating category for those who are trying to be nut-free, but Enjoy Life's entire line focuses on offering allergen-free options. This mix has sunflower and pumpkin seeds along with raisins, cranberries, dried apples, and chocolate chips. While it does have 4 grams of added sugar, it's still much less than other trail mixes out there. And to be honest, this one feels like a true trail mix, with lots of textures and flavors. Buy it in a single-serving pouch if it's too tempting to get a whole bag.
The worst trail mixes you can buy
1. Trader Joe's Rainbow's End Trail Mix
We'll call this one the best house on a bad block. The Rainbow's End trail mix is definitely a treat trail mix, but it's slightly better than other options out there. While the mix includes peanuts, almonds, raisins, and M&M-type chocolate, the chocolate is made with natural dyes (turmeric, spirulina, etc). Still, this isn't a trail mix to gorge on. It has about 8 grams of added sugar and 210 calories per serving, which is on the higher end of the spectrum in the category.
2. Kar's Sweet 'n Salty Mix
Kar's seems to be realistic about how much people will actually eat in a sitting, so they designate a serving size at 2 ounces, while most other trail mixes keep it at 1 ounce. But the truth is that a serving size of trail mi should really be less than that. With a serving of 2 ounces, you'll be consuming up to 270 calories, 17 grams of fat, and 10 grams of added sugar.
3. Emerald Breakfast On the Go Nut & Granola Mix, S'mores
You know how camping is supposed to be a healthy outdoorsy activity? It is, if you're hiking and forest bathing, but not if you're sitting in front of your tent, scrolling on your phone and eating s'mores. That's kind of what this trail mix is: the dessert parts of trail mix without any of the good parts. Made with vanilla-flavored granola, honey roasted peanuts, milk chocolate candies, marshmallows, cocoa almonds, and graham crackers, it's really a bag of junk food. You'll be eating a long list of different kinds of sugars, wax, paragons, and hydrogenated palm kernel oil.
4. Archer Farms Sweet Heat BBQ Trail Mix
At face value, this doesn't seem to necessarily be a 'bad' trail mix. But look closely at the components: seasoned almonds and peanuts, corn nuggets, and honey-roasted sesame sticks. The corn nuggets and honey sesame sticks are not a nutritionally valuable addition like, say, dried fruits. With 240 milligrams of sodium, this savory trail mix is the most sodium-heavy of the bunch. While that's still only 10 percent of the daily value, think about how that starts to add up once you're snacking on this by the handful.
5. Nature's Promise Monster Trail Mix
This trail mix is everything you want in a monster cookie: peanuts, chocolate chunks, chocolate candies, and raisins. But it all comes under the guise of a healthy snack. With 5 grams of added sugar per serving, you're better off giving into your craving and eating a small version of the cookie you actually want.
6. Kirkland Trail Mix
This isn't the only trail mix on the list that has raisins, nuts, and chocolate candies, but if avoiding artificial coloring in food is important to you, skip this one. Since it is Costco-sized, remember that 3 tablespoons is a very small portion of this bag, and that the nutrition value is based on an even blend of all the ingredients. So don't go picking out the M&Ms and leaving the nuts and raisins behind.