Rice crackers are a staple ingredient in many of our pantries, whether they're spread with hummus, nut butter, avocado or cheese.
Looking at their ingredient list, at first appearance rice crackers seem like a healthy snack choice -- made primarily with rice or rice flour. But according to health experts, rice crackers aren't as healthy as we might believe for a few reasons.
To find out why, first let's take a look at what rice crackers are made of.
How are rice crackers made?
"Rice crackers are made by applying high temperature and high pressure to rice grains, which causes them to expand and pack together tightly, forming a texture similar to popcorn," nutritionist Steph Lowe of The Natural Nutritionist told HuffPost Australia.
Depending on the brand and the type of rice cracker (plain rice cracker, puffed rice cake, etc.), manufactures can also add flavours and preservatives.
"Rice crackers and rice cakes are highly processed and differ depending on the brand and the ingredients added, such as flavours, salt and sugars and preservatives," nutritionist Fiona Tuck said.
Are rice crackers healthy?
While rice crackers have a healthy image, unfortunately they're not as nutritious as many of us think. Here are the two main reasons why.
They're made from refined white rice
Most rice crackers are made from white rice -- white rice has the outer layers (the husk, bran and germ) removed which also removes many of the nutrients and fibre. Compared to brown and red rice, white rice is considered a refined, high GI carbohydrate.
"Rice crackers are usually low in sugar and fat and can be included in a healthy diet when eaten occasionally. However, they are not the healthy snack many people perceive them to be. They are usually made from refined white rice with very little fibre and protein, so their nutritional value is poor," Tuck said.
"[Rice crackers] have a high GI which means they raise blood sugar quickly, therefore not making them an ideal choice for those people concerned with blood sugar imbalances, insulin resistance and weight loss."
They're low in nutrients
Rice crackers may be low in calories but according to health coach Kirsten Scott, relying on rice crackers alone as snacks can "sabotage weight loss", especially compared to healthier snacks such as veggie sticks with hummus.
"If you look at the 'nutrition facts' label on a package of rice cakes, you'll see a whole lot of nothing. No fat, no fibre, minimal vitamins and minerals, and maybe one gram of protein -- all important nutrients that nourish your body, improve satiety and keep your mind off snacking," Scott told HuffPost Australia.
"Rice cakes are little more than refined carbohydrates (which are quickly digested and converted into sugar) that have been sprinkled with salt and possibly sprayed with some artificial flavouring.
"Instead of taking your mind off of food, snacking on rice cakes on an empty stomach can induce a spike in blood sugar that might just leave you feeling sluggish and craving more rice cakes."
How to make rice crackers healthier
The above being said, the nutritional value of rice crackers also depends on what you're having it with. Are you eating them plain or topped with just honey? Or are they part of a balanced meal or topped with hummus, avocado and veggies?
"Eating them with nut butter or hummus can up the nutritional intake and slow down the release of sugar in the blood," Tuck said.
"Top rice crackers with tuna, avocado and tomato rather than simply Vegemite or jam to help stabilise your blood sugar levels and keep you fuller for longer," Lowe added.
How to choose the healthiest crackers
This is not to say all crackers or crispbreads are unhealthy, but it's important to make the right choices when it comes to ingredients and nutritional value. Here's a guide to help you choose the healthiest options.
1. Avoid white crackers
Generally speaking, white-coloured rice (or non-rice) crackers contain refined carbohydrates, so avoid these and go for darker-coloured varieties which contain whole grains.
"Avoid the white crackers which often contain MSG and artificial flavours. They can be high in sodium too, so it's important to read the labels carefully before eating them," Tuck said.
2. Look at salt content
Many varieties of crackers and crispbreads are high in sodium which can cause problems such as high blood pressure.
"It is very hard to stop at a couple of rice crackers and therefore very easy to eat too much sodium. As a guide, look for less than 120mg of sodium per 100 grams," Tuck said.
"More than 400mg per 100 grams is high and anything above 1000mg per 100 grams is very high. Our maximum daily sodium intake should be no more than 2300mg a day (less than one teaspoon)."
3. Avoid artificial flavours, preservatives and sugars
According to Lowe there is "no need for any form of additives or preservatives in rice crackers", so check the label and prioritise short ingredient lists.
"If you see artificial flavours, MSG, preservatives or sugar put it back on the shelf," Tuck added.
4. Look for whole grains and seeds
"Look for the healthier ones made from whole grains and seeds which ups the fibre and nutrient content," Tuck said.
"Mary's Gone Crackers have a very good selection that include healthy ingredients such as whole grains, seeds and seaweed, making them higher in fibre, nutrients and taste than the traditional white rice crackers."
Other healthy crispbread options include Ryvitas and Vita-Weats.
Failing that, Scott recommends swapping crackers for other healthy, filling snacks.
"Instead of reaching for those rice cakes the next time hunger strikes, try choosing a nourishing snack with healthy fats, protein and fibre," Scott said.
"As rice crackers are often consumed as a snack, try replacing them with vegetable sticks and dip such as hummus for a lower-carbohydrate and nutrient-dense option, or a handful of nuts and berries for a healthy dose of fats and an antioxidant hit," Lowe added.
Five quick and easy snack ideas:
- A whole grain wrap with peanut butter and sliced banana
- Yogurt/coconut yoghurt sprinkled with nuts, seeds and berries
- Hummus or guacamole with veggies
- A handful of almonds and a piece of fruit
- Sprouted whole grain toast topped with a sliced hard boiled egg and avocado