Despite the best efforts of food companies to convince consumers otherwise, 100-calorie packs aren't a magic-bullet solution to healthy eating, experts say.
"You're not getting much quality food, and it's not really filling," said Indi Maharaj, a registered dietitian at Erlanger's Lifestyle Center. "It's Dieting 101 for lazy people."
About five years ago, snack food manufacturers such as Nabisco (Oreo, Chips Ahoy! and Ritz Crackers) and Frito-Lay North America (Cheetos, Fritos and Sun Chips) began producing lines of individually packaged, 100-calorie snacks.
Experts said a healthy snack should weigh in at less than 400 calories. While 100 calories falls well under that limit, crackers, cookies and chips have low nutritional density, which doesn't improve by coming in a smaller pouch.
When used properly, a snack can help stave off hunger and maintain metabolic activity between meals. The carbohydrate- and fat-rich foods found in many 100-calorie packages can spike insulin, however, which impedes fat absorption, said Shawn Jones, doctor of chiropractic and physical therapy at the Clinical Nutrition Center on Vance Road.
"If you're eating simple sugars, it's hard to lose weight," he said.
Despite lacking nutritional value, 100-calorie packs can help consumers control overeating, said Brian Jones, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at Memorial Hospital's Diabetes and Nutrition Center.
"They do hold us down to certain amount," Jones said. "With people eating triple-size proportions of what we used to even back in the 1950s, this is one way that we're combating the problem of huge portions."
Offering snacks in a single serving can be a double-edged sword, however. Nutritionists said the problem with single serving packs is that people don't always stop at one.
"Most people find that if they buy those things they eat more than one," said registered dietitian Pam Kelle. "Somehow, it's almost like a free food. The little juice packs or cookie packs or potato chip packs are so small and seem so harmless that people think, 'Why not have another one?' "
When Kelle first saw 100-calorie packages of potato chips appearing on store shelves about five years ago, she said she was taken aback by the implied lack of confidence in healthy eating habits.
"I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " Kelle said. "I thought it was laughable that there's so little faith in consumers that we don't know how to eat a portion of food."
Kelle and other nutritionists said consumers would benefit more in the long run, both financially and nutritionally, from making their own snacks using more nutritional foods. Food manufacturers invest money in advertising and the additional packaging used in 100-calorie packages, and experts said that cost is passed on to consumers.
The lines of 100-calorie snacks have expanded in recent years from crackers, chips and cookies to include more nutritionally dense foods such as beef jerky, nuts and fruits.
By buying healthy, whole foods in larger amounts and measuring out individual servings, consumers can save money and learn valuable lessons about portion control, said Louise Powell, a local group leader for Weight Watchers.
"I tell my members all the time to buy healthy products that they can make their own portions and snack on," Powell said. "That's the bottom line: Make your own."
Nutritionists said consumers would be better off substituting the highly processed foods used in many snack packs with natural, unprocessed foods, especially those high in protein (nuts, Greek yogurt) and fiber (carrots, bananas).
Unlike carbohydrates, which the body can process rapidly, protein and fiber take longer to digest. As a result, the sense of fullness lasts longer with these snacks than with most crackers or cookies, Maharaj said.
"These 100-calorie snacks are basically empty calories," she said. "You want it to be nutrient-dense, not just a pack of Oreos or Doritos."
Nutritionists said there is no special significance to a snack limited to 100 calories. More or fewer calories could be better, depending on dietary needs and activity level.
As with all healthy nutritional habits, eating until satisfied and practicing self restraint - with or without the help of a smaller package - is the key, Kelle said.
"So many people have lost touch with their sense of hunger and fullness," she said. "They just eat because the food is there or they think it's time.
"They're not listening to what their body actually needs. The generations before us certainly didn't eat that way. It's about reconnecting with yourself. That's something a lot of people have lost."