Saltine crackers are a pantry staple in many households. Light, crispy and a little bit salty, these crackers work as well for snack options as they do for entertaining a group. Sure, they're useful in a variety of situations, but how's their grade when it comes to their nutrition value?
Saltines are low in fat and calories, but they're really not much more than empty carbs — so they aren't the worst, and they aren't the best. To determine whether they really count as "healthy" is going to depend on your definition of the word and how these low-calorie crackers can best fit your needs.
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A Glance at Saltine Crackers
Made from unbleached white flour, safflower oil, sea salt and baking soda, saltine crackers are pretty simple and to the point — not an excessive amount of additives and preservatives. According to the USDA, five saltine crackers contain:
- 60 calories
- 1.5 g fat
- 1 g protein
- 11 g carbohydrates
- 0 g sugars
Saltine crackers are classified as a grain product because they are made from wheat, but there's a difference between whole grains and refined grains. When grains are refined, they are stripped of their bran and their germ from their endosperm.
Saltine crackers are among those grain products made from white four, a refined grain. This refinement process gives the flour a finer texture, but it also means it lacks fiber and many other nutrients.
Being made from white flour doesn't necessarily mean that saltine crackers are bad for you — but they're not as good for you as whole-grain products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages Americans, who normally get enough servings of grain products in their diet, to step up their grain game and consume more whole, unrefined wheat, rice, oat, barley or other cereal products. At least half the grains you eat should be whole grains.
But when you're looking for whole grains, be careful of the way the food is marketed. Just because a package bears the claim "made with whole grain" or something similar, that doesn't mean it is a 100 percent whole-grain product.
It could be made mostly from white flour with some whole-wheat flour added to give it the appearance of a whole-wheat product. Check the label and the ingredient list. The first grain product on the ingredient list should be a whole grain.
For example, there are saltine crackers made with whole grain, but they aren't much different from regular saltines. As is the case with other products bearing the claim "made with whole grain," these saltines do actually have whole-wheat flour in them — but they contain mostly white flour, which is the first listed ingredient.
Five saltine crackers with whole grain have the same 60 calories as traditional saltines, with the same 1.5 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 12 grams of carbohydrates, only 1 gram of which is actually fiber.
Because fiber is one of the major benefits of whole grains in your diet, you should use this as a measuring point. Grains products should have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving to be considered a good source — meaning that saltine crackers with whole grains fall short of that classification.
The Health Benefits of Saltines
Even if saltines aren't a goldmine of nutrients, they aren't necessarily a diet-buster. They even have a few benefits compared with similar foods.
Saltine crackers are low in fat, so you won't take in a lot of excess calories snacking on them. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends low-calorie crackers like saltines or soda crackers as alternatives to party crackers for people who are trying to reduce their weight.
Crackers do have other practical uses that less shelf-stable grain products might not have. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends incorporating crackers like saltines in your home emergency kits. A good emergency kit is made up of items that do not require cooking or refrigeration, have a long storage life and still have the nutrition people need to keep their energy up.
Saltine crackers are also a practical choice for people who are battling sickness. The National Cancer Institute, as part of its recommendations for people undergoing cancer treatment, recommends saltine crackers as part of a main meal or snack for those who have progressed past a liquid diet but still need something easy on the stomach to keep their nausea and vomiting under control.
Saltine crackers are also a good choice as a low-fiber food for those who are struggling with diarrhea, which causes food and liquid to pass through the digestive system so quickly that the body can't absorb enough nutrition, and which can often result from cancer treatments.
Whole-Grain Alternatives to Saltines
You could use saltine crackers as a vehicle for healthy snacks like peanut butter, hummus or low-fat cheese, but Harvard Health emphasizes it is better to replace these low-calorie crackers with whole-grain bread.
If you crave the crunch of crackers, and bread just won't do the job, try a cracker made with 100 percent whole grains. Triscuit nutrition looks similar to saltines in terms of calories and fat — five Triscuit crackers have 43 calories with 1 gram of protein and 1.5 grams of fat; however, they have fewer overall carbohydrates, having only 7 grams total, 1 of which is fiber.
All of this means that the Triscuit nutrition ratio looks more favorable, with more protein, fiber and unsaturated fat per calorie than saltines do. Triscuits ($15.36 for a box of 6, Amazon.com) are made from three simple ingredients: whole-grain wheat, oil and sea salt.
Whether saltines can be called "healthy" is pretty subjective. These low-calorie crackers won't derail your health efforts, but they likely won't bring a lot of benefits either, the way Triscuit nutrition might. They're great as a crunchy vessel to transport something healthy, but even in those situations, you might be better served going with a whole-grain option.
- USDA FoodData Central: “Classic Saltine Crackers”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Saltine Crackers With Whole Grain”
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Low-Calorie, Lower Fat Alternative Foods”
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: “All About the Grains Group”
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: “10 Tips: Choosing Whole-Grain Foods”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Keeping Your Emergency Kit Nutritious”
- National Cancer Institute: “Eating Hints: Before, During and After Cancer Treatment”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Carbohydrates in Your Diet: It’s the Quality That Counts”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Nabisco Triscuit Thin Crisp Crackers Original”