Is Trail Mix Actually Healthy?

Is snacking on trail mix a smart idea? The answer lies in one important factor.

Trail mix has been around for over a century.

Its origins can be traced back to an outdoorsman named Horace Kephart, who helped plot the route of the Appalachian Trail, and recommended a mixture of nuts, raisins and chocolate for hikers in his 1908 book, The Book of Camping and Woodcraft.

Since its inception, trail mix has had a reputation as a healthy snack. But just how healthy is it really? Should this snack be saved for serious hikers, or is it perfectly fine to mindlessly munch on at your desk? STACK investigates.

The Good

Trail mix isn't trail mix without a hefty dose of nuts. Popular additions include peanuts, almonds, walnuts and cashews. Nuts are a great snack. They taste fantastic, they're convenient and they're high in a number of valuable nutrients.

Most nuts have similar nutritional profiles. According to the Mayo Clinic, they contain significant amounts of unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamin E, l-arginine and fiber. Unsaturated fats are known to lower bad cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for heart health. Protein helps muscles repair and rebuild, allowing you to recover from exercise and get fitter over time. Vitamin E helps prevent plaque from developing inside your arteries. L-arginine also helps with arterial health by making artery walls more flexible. Fiber helps to normalize bowel movements, lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar and keep you fuller for longer after eating.

Daily consumption of nuts confers a wide variety of benefits, including reduced risk of heart attack, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, hypertension and diabetes. Seeds (such as sunflower seeds, another frequent inclusion in trail mix) offer many of the same benefits.

Traditional trail mix also includes dried fruit such as raisins, cranberries, banana chips, etc. Dried fruit is used instead of fresh fruit since it has a longer shelf life and is more portable.

Since dried fruit is essentially fresh fruit with most of the water removed, it provides many of the same benefits. In certain cases, dried fruits are actually higher in some nutrients than fresh fruit. A 2005 study found dried apricots were higher in potassium and iron than an equal serving of raw apricots, and dried figs were found to be higher in calcium and fiber than fresh figs. They also found several dried fruits had a higher concentration of phenols, a type of antioxidant compound that can prevent cancer and heart disease.

The base of any nutritious trail mix should be nuts and dried fruit. These two foods have a lot going for them and are an upgrade over the typical ultra-processed snacks many Americans favor. A 2016 review published in Nutrition Journal states "evidence suggests that increasing consumption of both (nuts and dried fruit) could help improve Americans' nutritional status and reduce the risk of chronic diseases."

The Bad

Most trail mixes include more than just nuts and dried fruit. Unfortunately, these extra additions usually drag down the snack's overall nutritional profile.

M&Ms candies or chocolate chips are a frequent addition. This type of chocolate offers little nutritional benefit and can quickly cause the sugar and calorie content of a trail mix to spiral out of control. You do not need Reese's Cups in your trail mix!

Dark chocolate can bring something useful to the table, provided it's at least 70 percent cocoa. This type of dark chocolate is packed with powerful antioxidant compounds known as epicatechins, which have been proven to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Other possible trail mix additions include yogurt-covered pretzels, sweetened cereals and potato or tortilla chips. None such foods are adding significant nutritional value to the mix, but they are adding extra sugar and saturated fat. A good rule of thumb is that the further a trail mix's recipe strays from the basic nuts and dried fruit formula, the worse its nutrition will typically be. One example? Emerald S'Mores Blend Trail Mix, which features cocoa-roasted almonds, milk chocolate candy, graham crackers and mini marshmallows. A 1/2 cup serving of this blend serves up as much sugar as a Snickers bar and nearly as much saturated fat as a 10-piece Chicken McNugget.

The X-Factor

The more nuts and dried fruit in your trail mix, the better. However, it's totally possible to overdo it even with the healthiest of trail mix blends.

Why? Because both nuts and dried fruit are very calorically dense foods. That means they pack a lot of calories into a small volume. While this is good if you're burning a lot of calories over the course of the day, it's not so good if you're just light to moderately active. That's why serving size is the ultimate x-factor when it comes to the healthiness of trail mix.

If you're torching a high amount of calories on a daily basis—say you're an athlete going through a heavy training period or a hiker spending multiple hours on a trail—serving size isn't quite so important. You need calories to keep going, and trail mix can provide that. But if you're not quite so active, serving size becomes critically important. Since trail mix contains so many calorically dense foods, its recommended serving size is often surprisingly small. Here's what one serving of a popular fruit and nut trail mix (which contains peanuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, cashews and cranberries) looks like in my hand:

I have big hands, but you get the point.

Most people go well above that serving size, typically downing closer to three or four servings in a sitting. If you down four servings of that mix, you're looking at a snack which contains 560 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat and 28 grams of sugar. If you're someone who's looking to lose weight or simply maintain a healthy weight while being light to moderately active, those numbers are going to make things tough.

But if you can stick to the recommended serving size or at least a portion that's somewhat similar, trail mix can be a great snack for just about anyone (provided it doesn't include a bunch of junk food in place of nuts and dried fruit). You can make sure you're getting the most out of that serving size by choosing a trail mix that consists mostly of nuts and dried fruit. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you only need about five ounces per week of a variety of nuts to reap many of their most important health benefits. By weight, dried fruit contains roughly 3.5 times the fiber, vitamins and minerals of fresh fruit. That means a little bit can go a long way for your health and wellness.

One way to better control the healthiness of your trail mix? Create your own.