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6 Non-Paleo Ingredients that Might be Hiding in your Trail Mix

One almond

Trail mix is a great snack, and it’s often one of the few Paleo options in a gas station or a convenience store. But a lot of trail mix is full of hidden junk, even the kinds that look OK. The package might say “almonds, cashews, & cranberries” on the outside…but then when you look at the ingredients, the “cranberries” turn out to contain added sugar, junk oils, and four different preservatives.

This isn’t about the trail mix ingredients that are obviously non-Paleo, like peanut butter cups or M&Ms. Those are just candy, and everyone can clearly see that they’re candy, so they’re easy to spot and avoid. But here’s a list of 6 ingredients that you might not notice or recognize as non-Paleo, from tricky foods that confuse newbies to hidden junk fats.

1. Partially Hydrogenated Oils

When you see “partially hydrogenated oil,” think “trans fats,” and when you see “trans fats,” think “heart disease.” As this review explains:

“A 2% absolute increase in energy intake from trans fat has been associated with a 23% increase in cardiovascular risk…The presence of small amounts of trans fat in hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils/food products will likely cause many Americans to exceed their recommended maximum.”

Here’s where it gets tricky. US food labeling regulations allow companies to round down the amount of trans fat in food. If it’s less than 0.5 grams per serving, they can legally say there’s 0 grams of trans fat. It’s basically a technically-legal lie that they’re allowed to put on the nutrition label. Don’t fall for this! If you see “partially hydrogenated” anywhere, there’s at least some trans fat in the food.

Example culprit

Fisher Mixed Nuts Deluxe, No Peanuts (link to nutritional info): Cashews, Almonds, Pecans, Brazils, Filberts, Vegetable Oil (Peanuts, Cottonseed, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and/or Sunflower Seed), Salt.

2. Omega-6 Rich Seed Oils

Partially hydrogenated oils are unhealthy because of the way they’re processed. But some oils are also off the Paleo plate just because of what’s naturally in them: omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). You can read all about the details of this here, but in a nutshell, one of the big differences between the modern diet and the diet that humans evolved to eat is the huge amount of omega-6 PUFA in the modern diet. Eating a huge amount of omega-6 PUFAs causes constant low-grade inflammation, which is one of the big factors in chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Industrial oils like soybean oil, canola oil, peanut oil, corn oil, and “vegetable oil” are high in omega-6 PUFA: they’re not Paleo, and they’re not good for you. Unfortunately, they also get thrown into a lot of trail mixes.

Example culprits

Planters Nuts, Cranberries, and Seeds trail mix (link to nutritional info): Raisins, peanuts, sunflower seed kernels, pumpkin seed kernels, cashews, almonds, peanut and/or cottonseed oil, sea salt.

Great Value Cranberry trail mix (link to nutritional info): Dried Cranberries (Cranberries, Sugar, Citric Acid, Sunflower Oil (Processing Aid), Elderberry Juice Concentrate (Color)), Sunflower Kernels (Sunflower Kernels, Peanut Oil, Salt), Golden Raisins (Raisin, Sulfur Dioxide (to Preserve Color)), Raisins, Almonds (Almonds, Peanut Oil, Salt).

3. Organic Cane Juice and Other Names for Sugar

Dried fruit in trail mixes is often sweetened with sugar – or with sneaky names for sugar that food companies use to trick you. Dried fruit is already high enough in sugar: there’s no need to go adding more sugar on top of it.

Example culprits

Whole Foods Island Hopper trail mix (link to nutritional info): Almonds (almonds, expeller pressed canola oil, sea salt), macadamia nuts (macadamia, expeller pressed canola oil, sea salt), cranberries (cranberries, cane sugar, expeller pressed sunflower seed oil), ginger (ginger, cane sugar).

Sahale Snacks Raspberry Crumble trail mix (link to nutritional info): Cashews, Peanuts, Dried Red Raspberries (Red Raspberries, Sugar), Banana Chips (Bananas, Coconut Oil, Cane Sugar, Natural Banana Flavor), Dried Cranberries (Cranberries, Sugar), Sunflower Oil, Sea Salt.

(As a side note: why is it necessary to add “banana flavor” to bananas? Bananas are already banana-flavored! Processed foods really get ridiculous sometimes.)

4. Peanuts, Corn, and Other Sneaky Grains and LegumesSoy

Number 4 on this list is a quick review of things that are often confusing for Paleo newbies – you might assume that they’re Paleo, but they’re not. Don’t feel bad if you mix up one or more of them: you’re definitely not alone. But watch out for:

Example culprits

Planters Spicy Nuts and Cajun Sticks Trail Mix (link to nutritional info): Peanuts, corn, vegetable oil (soybean, peanut, corn, and canola oil), yellow corn masa flour, unbleached wheat flour, sesame seeds, bulgur wheat, contains 2% or less of salt, sea salt, dextrose, dried chili peppers, maltodextrin, spices, dried onion, corn flour, vegetable color (turmeric extract, beet powder, oleoresin paprika, paprika extract), dried garlic, potato flour, monosodium glutamate (flavor enhancer), dried tomato

It’s like a Who’s Who of non-Paleo foods! Peanuts, corn, and wheat all make an appearance, not to mention all the industrial oils lumped into the “vegetable oil.”

Sahale Korean BBQ Almonds (link to nutritional info): Almonds, Cashews, Dried Pineapple (Unsulfured Pineapple, Sugar, Citric Acid), Organic Tapioca Syrup, Sesame Seeds, Organic Fermented Soybean Paste (Water, Organic Rice, Organic Soybeans, Sea Salt), Organic Cane Sugar, Sea Salt, Brown Sugar, Rice Wine Vinegar, Spices, Shiitake Mushroom Powder, Dried Garlic, Cayenne Pepper.

These almonds contain both soy and rice (a grain, not Paleo either). Also, for bonus points, can you spot all the different kinds of sugar in this list? On top of “sugar,” there’s “tapioca syrup,” “organic cane sugar,” and “brown sugar.”

5. Sesame Sticks

Sesame is OK in Paleo meals as an ingredient in salad dressing or Paleo baking. There’s nothing wrong with the sesame itself here. But sesame sticks are actually made of ordinary wheat flour – they just have some sesame flavor added and a few sesame seeds stuck onto the outside for decoration. Sesame sticks are often found in Tex-Mex or Asian-style trail mixes, so watch out for them.

Example culprits

Kar’s Sweet ‘n’Spicy Trail Mix (link to nutritional info): the sesame sticks contain “enriched wheat flour [unbleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron [reduced iron], thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], soybean oil, sesame seeds, honey coating [sucrose, wheat starch, honey], bulgur wheat, tack blend [maltodextrin, xanthan gum], salt, beet powder {color}, turmeric {color}).”

Great Value Asian Nut Crunch (link to nutritional info): the sesame sticks contain “Unbleached Wheat Flour [Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour], Soybean Oil, Sesame Seed, Bulgur Wheat, Salt, Beet Powder [Color], Turmeric [Color]”

6. Yogurt-Covered Anything

Dairy is a Paleo gray area, and some people do just fine eating full-fat dairy, especially from grass-fed cows. There’s nothing inherently wrong with yogurt – real fermented yogurt is full of probiotics, healthy fats, and other good stuff. But how many kinds of yogurt do you know of that can sit out on a store shelf at room temperature for months at a time without going bad?

The “yogurt” in trail mixes is barely recognizable as yogurt – there’s a place for traditional dairy foods on Paleo, but “yogurt-flavored raisin coating” isn’t one of them.

Example culprits

Wild Roots Coastal Berry Trail Mix (link to nutritional info): in the ingredients list, the yogurt chips contain “sugar, palm kernel oil, whey powder, nonfat dry milk powder, yogurt powder [cultured whey, nonfat milk], lactic acid, soy lecithin.”

Emerald Nut Berry Blend Trail Mix (link to nutritional info): the yogurt coating on the raisins contains “sugar, partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil, calcium carbonate, yogurt powder [cultured whey protein concentrate, cultured skim milk, and yogurt culture], artificial color, soy lecithin, natural flavor.”

(In addition to all the other junk, notice that partially hydrogenated oil is making a reappearance here.)

Read the Ingredients, Not the Advertising

To quickly recap, if you’re trying to stay Paleo, avoid trail mix with any of the following ingredients:

All of this is why it’s so important to read the boring, black-and-white ingredients label, not just look at the front of the package. Marketing jargon like “all natural” doesn’t actually tell you if something is Paleo or not.

It can be pretty discouraging trying to find good Paleo-friendly options in the huge maze of junk – but if that’s getting you down, one simple alternative is to make your own – buy raw nuts, high-quality chocolate, sugar-free dried fruit, and other ingredients in your favorite combination and make your own custom blend. You could even add some chocolate-covered almonds to the mix for a special treat.

Photo of Ashley Noël

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