May 29, 2024
With its combination of nuts, seeds and dried fruit, trail mix is a healthy, tasty snack -- or it can be. We tasted and ranked eight brands from best to no! no! no!

Filling the lunchbox with foods that will please and nourish is a lofty, demanding goal. But trail mix is a great solution to the snack quandary. A tasty handful of real, unprocessed nuts, seeds and fruit delivers lots of the right things, including protein, fiber and antioxidants.

Trail mix packets come in many forms — and yes, many incorporate chocolate, but for this taste test, we stuck with the non-meltable, entirely nutritious nut and cranberry mixes. Most of the versions we sampled include either cashews or almonds, plus various other nuts and seeds.

While the specific fruits and nuts in these mixes is important, the most critical issue is freshness. In spite of the fact that every packet we tried was well within its use-by dates, nearly half had freshness issues.

The problem is that nuts are very high in the kind of fat that goes rancid quickly. Their shelf life is 6 to 12 months, if stored in a cool, dark place. Rancid nuts not only taste awful, they’re potentially bad for your health. Since many manufacturers set “use-by” dates based on a 2-year shelf life, the first trick to finding good trail mix is to find packages with the latest dates, ideally 12 to 18 months in the future. The second tip is to slow spoilage by storing pouches in the fridge or freezer to retain their freshness.

Great trail mix has a satisfying balance of ingredients, and every element is utterly fresh. Bad trail mix has stale nuts and over-dried fruit, and the worst of them taste rancid or moldy.

Here’s the scoop on the best-tasting trail mix pouches at local markets, and the packs that will make kids think they hate nuts. Nutrition information refers to a single pouch, which ranges from 0.7 to 1.5 ounces.

Trader Joe’s Just a Handful of Almonds, Cranberries & Cashews

Every element in these packets is super fresh, and they include a generous amount of toasty nuts. This is trail mix as it should be. 210 calories, 14 g fat, 65 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 12 g sugar, 5 g protein. $6.49 for 10 1.5-ounce packs. (4 stars)

Planters NUT-rition Heart Healthy Mix

This salty mix of peanuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans and walnuts is straight up good. Every nut is crunchy, fresh, lightly salted and slightly toasty. 190 calories, 17 g fat, 40 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 6 g protein. $6.28 for seven 1-ounce packs at Walmart. (4 stars)

Good & Gather Cashew Almond Cranberry Trail Mix

While this mix is decidedly long on cranberries, the nuts are so fresh that they retain their natural sweetness. 140 calories, 9 g fat, no sodium, 2 g fiber, 9 g sugar, 3 g protein. $8.29 for 10 1-ounce packs at Target. (3 stars)

Emerald 100 Calorie Packs

The nuts in these little packs are fresh, but some people may balk at the mysterious white powder coating the cranberries. It looks like mold, but is actually just potato starch. 100 calories, 6 g fat, 25 mg sodium, 1 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 3 g protein. $5.88 for 10 0.7-ounce packs at Walmart. (2½ stars)

Raley’s Cold Waterfalls Trail Mix

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Inside these see-thru pouches is a fair distribution of fruit, seeds and nuts that are relatively fresh, but this mix is overloaded with salt. 230 calories, 14 g fat, 135 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 12 g sugar, 7 g protein. $7.99 for seven 1.5-ounce  packs. (2 stars)

365 Cape Cod Trail Mix

Old almonds tossed with even older cashews that have lost most of their flavor make this a poor choice, especially since the “best before” date is still six months out. 230 calories, 17 g fat, 45 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 9 g sugar, 6 g protein. $8.39 for 10 1.5-ounce packs at Whole Foods. (1½ stars)

Nature’s Garden Organic Cranberry Health Mix

Plump raisins and fresh seeds don’t make up for the spoiled walnuts and almonds in this mix. The label is also misleading, as the primary fruit is raisins, not cranberries. 170 calories, 12 g fat, no sodium, 2 g fiber, 9 g sugar, 5 g protein. $32.99 for a 2-pack of 24 1.2 ounces at Costco (note that the package includes three varieties, each with different ingredients). (1 star)

Great Value Omega-3 Trail Mix

Don’t even think about this one! The decades-old nuts in this mix taste like a food science experiment gone terribly wrong. 240 calories, 19 g fat, no sodium, 3 g fiber, 8 g protein. $8.38 for eight 1.5-ounce packs Walmart. (No stars)

Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at [email protected]. Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/tag/taste-off.

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