by Karmeen Kulkarni, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.

Need a quick snack to tide you over until your next meal? Or are you looking for an easy-to-prepare appetizer for your dinner guests? Spread some soft cheese on a cracker and you have a simple cure for satisfying the munchies. But what about the fat and calories? With the new reduced-calorie and fat-free crackers and cheese spreads now on the market, it is much easier to include these snacks in a healthy meal plan. In this installment of "Supermarket Smarts", we will give you all the information you need to choose the crackers and cheese spreads that are best for you.

All Cracked Up

Crackers are a versatile companion to dips, spreads, soups, and salads. Or you can munch them without embellishing them. Whatever your preference, you can find a cracker to suit your taste and nutritional requirements. They come in numerous flavors and run the gamut from high-calorie, high-fat indulgences to low-fat, health-conscious snacks.

The first point to keep in mind when you choose your crackers is the serving size. Clearly, this is partially dependent on the size of the cracker. But serving sizes also vary considerably from one manufacturer to the next. For instance, the serving size for a large flat bread, such as Kavli Norwegian crispbread, is usually one cracker. But a serving of small crackers, such as Ritz Bits, might include eight to 12 crackers. And, of course, it isn't always easy to limit yourself to just a few crackers, so you need to consider how many servings you are actually going to eat. And since most people snack on crackers between meals, remember to factor the extra carbohydrate, calories, fat, and salt into your meal plan for the day.

Finding Fiber

Many people think that they can increase the fiber in their diet by choosing whole grain crackers. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Unless the crackers are made from 100% whole wheat flour (it will be the first and only flour listed), "whole grain" crackers can actually be made of a processed multigrain, rye, or wheat flour. And the term "stoned wheat" usually just refers to stone ground wheat flour. It may sound rustic, but that doesn't make it whole grain. The only way to verify that your cracker is really made from whole grains is to read the label. Rest assured, however, there are several authentic whole grain crackers, made by companies such as "Health Valley" and "Barbara's". And surprise: Nabisco's "Triscuits" are made from whole wheat, too.

If you want to add some fiber to your diet, the thin and very crunchy crackers labeled "flat breads" and "crispbreads" provide the most. Brands such as "Kavli" and "Wasa" provide two to four grams of fiber in a half-ounce serving. Compared with saltines, which have only 0.3 grams of fiber, flat breads are your best bet.

If you do choose to eat flat breads, pay attention to the labels so you don't confuse them with "bread flats." Bread flats are made from refined flour, with B vitamins and iron added later. Since the grain and bran have been removed, bread flats lack fiber, folic acid, pantothenic acid, trace minerals, and vitamins B6 and E. Clearly, bread flats are the nutritionally impoverished cousins of flat breads.

The Grease Test

As is often the case, with the good comes the bad. In crackers, the "bad" means varying amounts of fat. Your best bet is to look for crackers that have no more than two grams of fat per half-ounce serving. Check the ingredient list to see the types of fats used. Steer clear of saturated fats, such as lard, animal fats, palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut vegetable oils. Avoid partially hydrogenated fats as well, since they can raise cholesterol levels the same way that saturated fats can. Watch for crackers that are touted as "rich," "buttery," and "flaky," or are flavored with meat or cheese. These are "red flags" for high calorie and fat content. You can also check for a high fat content using the "grease test." Do your hands feel greasy after handling the crackers? Do the crackers leave a grease stain on paper towels? If the answer is yes, you know those crackers are high in fat. These tricks are especially helpful if you are served crackers at a restaurant or a party where you don't have access to the nutrition facts panel.

Crackers do not have to be high in fat, however. You can choose reduced-fat crackers that have at least 25% less fat (about 2.5--3.5 fewer grams of fat per serving) than the original versions. For example, per half-ounce serving, Keebler's reduced-fat "Town House" crackers have only two grams of fat, and their reduced-fat "Toasteds" have three grams. Hain makes fat-free crackers in a variety of flavors, such as onion and herb. These crackers stand apart from others because they are made with organic whole wheat, which translates into higher fiber and nutrient content.

The Salt Shake-Out

What about the sodium content of crackers? A single serving rarely contains more than 200 milligrams of sodium, which is not a significant amount unless you are on a sodium-restricted diet. But if you add a salty cheese spread or dip, or eat several servings, that sodium can add up. As with fiber, you need to watch the terminology here. The word "unsalted" doesn't necessarily mean that the cracker is made with little or no salt. Rather, it can mean salt was not sprinkled on top as a flavoring. Also, salt may occur naturally in some of the ingredients. So the cracker itself can still have well over 140 milligrams per serving. According to The National Academy of Science, we can safely eat 1100-3300 milligrams of sodium a day. A single serving is well under that limit, but if you can eat multiple servings, that salt can add up.

Say Cheese

Crackers are great on their own, or served with dips or soups. But one of the most popular cracker partners is cheese. Crackers with sliced cheese and cheese spreads are a staple on hors d'oeuvre trays, and with good reason; these tasty duos are quick and easy snacks. However, cheese can be high in fat, so choose carefully.

Cheeses can be separated into two categories: natural cheese and processed cheese. Natural cheeses, which were showcased in the January/February 1993 issue of "Diabetes Self-Management", are made from milk that has been allowed to thicken. Examples include cheddar cheese and mozzarella. Processed cheeses are blends of different cheeses that have been pasteurized to lengthen their shelf life and treated with gelatin thickeners to give them a smooth texture. According to U.S. Government standards, processed cheeses must contain at least 51% cheese, although they often contain more. The remainder is made up of water, milk, skim milk, buttermilk, powdered milk, or whey. Cheese spreads come in nearly every shape and flavor, from tubs of herbed cheese to blocks of cheese with bacon.

The nutritional profiles of cheese spreads can vary widely. A serving of cheese spread is generally about one ounce, which translates into two tablespoons, or enough for two to four crackers. But that measurement assumes you don't spread the cheese on too thickly. Keep in mind, too, that you need to account for crackers.

Cheese spreads tend to be high in sodium. For example, Kraft's "American Cheese with Bacon" has 560 milligrams of sodium and "Old English's Sharp Cheese Spread" has 480 milligrams. Even Weight Watchers' port wine cheese, which has 70 calories and three grams of fat, has a hefty 190 milligrams of sodium. But you can find low-salt versions of several spreads. Kraft's "American Cheese With Jalapeno Pepper" has 95 milligrams and their pineapple cheese spread has only 75 milligrams.

The Good, the Bad, and the Fatty

The calorie and fat contents also vary; although some spreads have quite a high fat and calorie content, several manufacturers make healthier low-fat versions. On average, cheese spreads have 70-110 calories per ounce. This may not seem like a lot, but team that ounce of spread with four crackers and you'll suddenly find yourself eating 160-200 calories.

The fat content of cheese spreads ranges from three to nine grams of fat per ounce. Some spreads get a significant amount of their calories from fat. For example, an ounce of Sargento Cracker Snacks' "American Cheese with Pimiento" has nine grams of fat and 110 calories. This means 74% of the calories come from fat--a hefty sum for the fat-conscious. And watch out for saturated fat: Land O'Lakes Golden Velvet cheese spread has six grams of total fat and four grams of saturated fat, meaning 66% of the total fat is saturated.

If it sounds as though the fat content will keep cheese spreads off limits, take heart. Several companies do make heart-healthy versions. For instance, Kraft has a line called "Healthy Favorites" that has 50% less fat than Kraft's regular counterparts. These products have three to five grams of fat per ounce, with varying amounts of sodium. Healthy Choice makes a cheese spread with zero grams of fat per ounce; however, it has 390 milligrams of sodium. As a general rule, as the fat content decreases, the sodium content increases. So, choose your cheese spread according to your individual health concerns.

Crackers and cheese spreads are delicious and easy snacks. Although these munchies can be high in fat and extra calories, you can now pick from many healthier options. Just choose wisely, and you'll have many great combinations to work into your meal plan and enjoy.

(Note: This article appeared in "Diabetes Self Management", November/December 1995. Reprinted with permission.)