How to Choose Healthy Crackers

Want a snack that's tasty, low in calories and high in fiber? A cracker could be just what you're looking for.

Many crackers do not live up to their pretty packages and healthy claims. Some crackers contain unexpected "extras" in the form of saturated fats and sky-high sodium and calories. It can get confusing.

We don't necessarily expect crackers to make a major contribution to our nutritional needs. But we do expect them to be more than empty calories. Crackers made from whole grains are a good source of complex carbohydrates, the core of a well-balanced diet. At least 60 percent of our calories should come from carbohydrates like those found in pasta, breads, and crackers.

Crackers can also provide small amounts of protein. And savvy manufacturers are scrambling to produce more nutritious crackers. Manufacturers are required by law to provide a breakdown of nutritional components when they make a nutritional claim. Check the nutrition information carefully to find the most nutritious cracker.

How much fat is too much?

The American Heart Association recommends that your daily intake of fat account for no more than 30 percent of your daily calories. That means 50 to 70 grams of fat per day for the average woman, 90 to 110 grams for a man. Fat content of food is listed on the nutrition labels of crackers and most other packaged foods.

If you purchase foods whose nutrition labels show that fat is 30 percent or less of the calories, then your daily diet will fall close to the 30 percent fat recommendation. This plan will work if you limit other foods generally high in fat to 30 percent of your total daily calories.

The type of fat is as important as the number of grams of fat. Avoid saturated fats including trans-fat, a type of saturated fat, because of their role in raising cholesterol levels. The label will tell you how much saturated fat versus unsaturated fat the cracker contains.

Another ingredient to watch for is sodium. Crackers have long depended on salt for flavor and can contain up to 200 mg of sodium per half-ounce serving. The 2010 recommendations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) say you should limit your sodium consumption to less than 2,300 mg per day. The USDA recommended daily sodium intake for African-Americans is 1,500 mg; this is also the limit for people with high blood presure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, as well as all people age 51 and older. To be considered low-sodium, a cracker must contain less than 140 milligrams sodium per serving.

If the fiber content is not listed in the nutrition breakdown on the side of the box, check the list of ingredients. If the first ingredient is 100 percent whole wheat flour or rye flour, you've got a high-fiber product. If the fiber ingredients are listed near the bottom, you're not looking at a high-fiber cracker.

If you save crackers for an occasional bowl of soup or party hors d'oeuvres, choosing the healthiest cracker is not vital. But frequent cracker snackers should take a close look at the ingredients.

Cracker history

Crackers have long been useful to people on the move, from the time the Jews fled Egyptian slavery with unleavened bread to create matzo. Early sea captains looking for a food staple dry enough to last for months in the ship's hold settled on pilot biscuits or hardtack, so called because the dough was so hard it often required a hammer to break it. In Colonial America, industrious bakers began to produce a more tender cracker by adding fat. The resulting water cracker was an instant success, although pilot biscuits remained popular with sailors, settlers, and the U.S. Army.

Around 1820, bakers began to add yeast to lighten their dough. The resulting butter and soda crackers were sold out of large wooden barrels in general stores, where customers gathered to swap stories amid the mingled aromas of spices, pickles, and brine. With the turn of the century, the cracker barrel gave way to individual cartons lined with waxed paper--much like the cartons that fill our supermarket aisles today.