Healthiest and Unhealthiest School Lunch Snacks

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Childhood obesity rates are not rising as fast as they used to, and in some areas they are even declining. Still, with 18.5% of all children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 years considered obese — about 13.7 million kids in all — childhood obesity remains a serious problem in the United States.

Lack of sufficient exercise and genetic factors are partly to blame. Another significant factor in children’s health is the kinds of food consumed on a regular basis. Snacks consumed at school in particular can represent a major portion of kids’ daily diets.

Carol Chong is the national nutrition advisor to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation,
an organization funded by the American Heart Association and Clinton Foundation that works to reduce obesity in children. In an email to 24/7 Wall St., Chong wrote, “[Snacks] serve to keep blood sugars within normal levels to avoid hunger, which may lead to irritability, lack of focus and behavior issues, especially in kids.”

Chong noted schools have made remarkable progress in ensuring kids have access to healthy foods at school. Also, the new federal school lunch nutrition standards that took effect in the 2012-13 school year, and the new rules for foods sold in school stores and vending machines that took effect in 2014-15 have helped make food available at school healthier.

Two examples of healthier snacks that are now popping up in school vending machines are Clif Organic Z Bars and Bare Apple Chips. Clif Organic Z Bars have less sugar than most granola bars at around 10 grams. Bare Apple Chips are also becoming more prevalent in schools, and even the flavored varieties are healthier than most snacks. The cinnamon kind, which is on our list of healthiest snacks, only has two ingredients — apples and cinnamon — with no added sugar.

However, the variety of snacks marketed to parents and provided in schools is enormous, and plenty of unhealthy snacks continue to be common both at school and at home, and of course at stores.

Soda, fruit juices, candy, chips, pretzels, and cookies continue to line the shelves of traditional vending machines today. The list of least healthy snacks features an array of foods that are considered unhealthy, such as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Skittles, Chips Ahoy Chocolate Chip Cookies, Tropicana Twisters, and more.

24/7 Wall St. compiled two lists of healthy and unhealthy packaged school snacks to highlight the difference between the two. To be considered a healthy snack, an item needed to have 200 or fewer calories and less than 230 mg of sodium — in line with federal guidance. We avoided especially sugary and fatty snacks. To identify a selection of some of the nation’s least healthy snacks, we considered snack items with nutritional contents that do not meet these guidelines.

Click here to see the healthiest school lunch snacks.
Click here to see the least healthy school lunch snacks.
Click here to see our detailed findings and methodology.