Trail mix is a popular and easy snack. It’s convenient and versatile, plus it’s filling and healthy too. The best thing about trail mix is that you can make your own at home to fit your unique metabolic and lifestyle needs.
What is a Trail Mix?
Originally created as a healthy snack for people to eat while hiking or out on outdoor adventures, healthy trail mixes have become mainstream snacks. But are they all that they are cracked up to be? Can trail mix really be good for you?
Trail mixes tend to be a good source of filling protein, fiber, and healthy fats. They are made with food you can easily nosh on while you are hiking through the backwoods, sitting at your desk, or on the bleachers watching your kids' baseball game.
Most trail mixes contain a variety of dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Some are sweetened with maple syrup or honey or may be flavored with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg or made spicy with chili powder and smoked paprika.
But buyer beware, it’s not uncommon to find sweet treats (like candy-coated chocolates or white chocolate chips) added, which can add up and diminish the health benefits you get from the other ingredients.
Is Trail Mix Healthy? Benefits & Things to Consider
Trail mix has a health halo surrounding it - what could be better for you than nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, right?
There are a lot of pros, but also a few pitfalls when it comes to including trail mix in your daily or weekly diet. Knowing what to look for when buying or making your own version, will ensure you have a healthy trail mix that supports your metabolic needs.
Because the components of trail mix are largely bite-size, it is an easy snack to enjoy when you are on the go. No utensils are needed and you can pack a batch up into smaller portable containers for everyone in the family to grab on their way out the door.
The ingredients and variety of ingredients that make up a trail mix are almost endless. You can mix and match using ingredients you and your family love, that fit your nutritional and health needs, and spice it up as you want.
Choose from a variety of dried fruit like raisins, cranberries, dates, apricots, blueberries, or cherries. Add a few nuts including walnuts, almonds, pistachios, or hazelnuts, and then mix in some granola or low-sugar cereal or popcorn for some grains.
Most trail mixes are a good source of protein and fiber and include healthy unsaturated fats.
The nuts and seeds included in most trail mixes contain protein and some fiber. Protein is important for building lean muscle mass and it helps keep your blood sugar under control.¹
Dried fruit, nuts and seeds, and grains can be good sources of fiber, which helps keep your GI tract healthy and fills you up. Some dried fruits are also relatively low in the glycemic index including apricots, prunes, peaches, and apples.² Buyer beware: dried fruit can be a source of added sugar. Look for plain dried fruit, rather than sugar or candy-coated fruits.
Nuts are also a good source of healthy unsaturated fats, including plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, which may help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. Nuts may also have a role in blood pressure support, brain health, and keeping your GI tract healthy.³
Because of its inherent protein, fiber, and fat content, trail mix can be an ideal snack for filling the gap between meals. Just a small amount will help keep your blood sugar stable and keep you satisfied until your next meal.
But, there can be some downsides to trail mix, making it not as healthy a treat as you might have thought. Here are a few things to consider while shopping or when making your own mix.
While some things are obvious like mini chips or colored chocolate pieces, added sugar can be hidden too. With sugar-coated nuts, chocolate or yogurt-coated raisins or cranberries, and sweetened granola, it’s easy for extra sugar to wind up in trail mix.
When shopping, take a look at the nutrition facts panel for added sugars and choose the brand with the lowest amount. If you are making your own at home and want a bit of sweetness, add a few dark chocolate chips or cocoa nibs for a little treat that will help limit extra sugar and minimize a blood sugar spike.
Some ingredients in trail mix can increase the sodium content. Salted nuts, seeds, and seasonings may contribute to a lot of extra salt. If making your own trail mix at home, look for unsalted nuts and add your own herbs and spices to give it a unique flavor. When buying a premade mix, compare brands and opt for one that has less sodium.
The ingredients commonly found in trail mix can make it a reasonably high-calorie snack. Keeping your portion size in check is the key to staying within your unique calorie needs. A typical serving size for trail mix is ¼ cup, which makes for the perfect-sized snack.
How to Choose a Trail Mix
Shopping for trail mix doesn’t need to be difficult. While the grocery store shelves are lined with options, there are a few key things to look at when you are shopping for a healthy trail mix.
Avoid coated nuts
Cinnamon or cocoa-covered nuts sound delicious and might add a lot of flavor to your trail mix but, they often have a sweetener like honey or maple syrup added so the flavoring sticks to the nuts. It’s best to minimize these or save them for a special treat.
Check the sodium content
Trail mixes are an easy place for extra salt to sneak in. From salted nuts to seasoning blends, they can be a harbor a lot of extra sodium. Read the labels and look for brands with lower sodium content. A good rule of thumb is to keep it to 10% or less of the Daily Value, or 230 mg of sodium or less per serving.
Be mindful of added sugars
Just as with sodium, it’s easy for added sugars to hide in a trail mix. While you can easily spot colorful candies and chips in store-bought mixes, there are other ways sugar can sneak in. Nuts and dried fruit that have a yogurt coating, or granola may have syrups added. Check the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list and compare brands.
Be mindful of the serving sizes
The calories in trail mix can add up quickly, so remember that a little will go a long way! Both nuts and dried fruit and concentrated sources of calories and it can be easy to overdo it with trail mix. A ¼ cup is the standard recommended portion.
Focus on nutrient-dense foods
Nuts, seeds, and dried fruit are all nutrient-dense foods that will help you maintain or improve your metabolic health. Focus on blends that have a variety of things like almonds, walnuts, dried cherries, raisins, blueberries, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), and dry-roasted chickpeas.
How to Make a Healthy Homemade Trail Mix: Key Ingredients
Making your own trail mix is easy and fun. Because it is so versatile, you can mix up a variety of ingredients and spices you and your family like. Let’s take a look at how to make a healthy trail mix, how much to eat, and a few simple recipes for you to try at home.
Almost any nut will work in trail mix. Whole almonds, walnuts, peanuts, cashews, and pecans are all delicious additions. You may also want to consider some less common nuts like hazelnuts and pistachios. All nuts contain healthy fats, protein, and antioxidants that will help support your health, manage your blood sugar and fill you up.
A recent systematic review actually found that people who ate nuts regularly had a lower incidence of being overweight.⁴
The best seeds for a trail mix are bigger seeds like pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds. These will give you the crunch you are looking for and add a bit of texture and nutrition to your mix.
Dried fruit can be a bit tricky. Look for plain dried fruit with no added sugar or coatings (these are your best bet for a low-sugar trail mix). Raisins, dried cranberries, currents, dates, figs, apples, dried blueberries, and cherries are a great place to start.
Sweet/savory healthy mix-ins
Looking for a little sweet treat or spicy, savory notes to add to your trail mix? Add some dry whole grain cereal or popcorn, a few dark chocolate chips, or spice it up with some wasabi-covered peas or spicy roasted chickpeas. Remember, anything that is coated might have added sugars, so check the label before tossing them into your mix.
Store your trail mix in an airtight container or resealable bag for a week or two in the pantry.
How Much Trail Mix Can You Eat?
Even healthy trail mixes can be high in calories. Nuts, seeds, and dried fruit are both nutrient-dense and calorie-dense. Be mindful of your portion size. One serving size per day for a snack should be fine for most people.
Is Trail Mix a Good Snack For Weight Loss?
When enjoyed in balance and moderation, trail mix can be a part of your weight loss plan. Because the ingredients are high in protein and contain fiber and healthy fats, snacks like a healthy trail mix can be satiating, and help keep the between-meal munchies away.
To help with portion control, make up a few small bags or containers ahead of time so they are ready to go. This can help prevent overeating when you are hungry.
Healthy Trail Mix Recipes to Try Out
Trail mixes are really pretty simple to pull together and you can mix and match ingredients to come up with a new version every week! Here are a couple of blends to try.
These fall flavors are delicious any time of the year, but especially good as the temperature starts to drop. Make a batch of this over the weekend and portion it out into ¼ servings to enjoy all week. Add a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg to the mix if desired.
- 1 cup chopped toasted walnuts
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- 1 cup dried apple chips
- ½ cup dried cranberries
- ½ cup pumpkin seeds
Makes 16, ¼ cup portions
Sweet and Crunchy Mix
The cherries and apricots give this blend a sweet note but the glycemic index remains low as the apricots, nuts, and popcorn combine nicely to keep it down. To keep the popcorn crisp, store it separately from the rest of the mix and add a few pieces just before serving.
- ½ cup dried cherries
- ½ cup dried apricots
- 1 cup toasted almonds
- 1 cup pistachios
- 1 cup air-popped popcorn
Makes 16, ¼ cup portions
Hearty with a Kick
Instead of buying roasted chickpeas from the store, try roasting your own for this mix! It's a great way to use up any leftovers you may have.
- 1 cup walnuts
- 1 cup almonds
- 1 cup roasted chili pepper spiced chickpeas
- ½ cup raisins
- ½ cup dried apples
To make the chickpeas:
- Preheat your oven to 425°F.
- Rinse the chickpeas and dry them well. Place them on a sheet pan and toss them with a heart-healthy oil and chili powder.
- Place them in the middle of the oven and roast for 20 - 30 minutes until they are crispy. Shake the pan a little ½ way through to prevent them from sticking and get all sides nice and crispy.
- Remove them from the oven and place the sheet pan on a wire rack to cool.
- Once they are completely cooled, toss them with the other ingredients and store them in an airtight container.
Makes 16, ¼ cup portions
Topics discussed in this article:
1. Mazidi, M., Vatanparast, H., Katsiki, N., & Banach, M. (2018). The impact of nuts consumption on glucose/insulin homeostasis and inflammation markers mediated by adiposity factors among American adults. Oncotarget, 9(58), 31173–31186. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.25168
2. Glycemic Index & Glycemic Load. Dried Fruits.Accessed 10/9/22 https://glycemic-index.net/gi/fruits/
3. Holscher, H. D., Guetterman, H. M., Swanson, K. S., An, R., Matthan, N. R., Lichtenstein, A. H., Novotny, J. A., & Baer, D. J. (2018). Walnut Consumption Alters the Gastrointestinal Microbiota, Microbially Derived Secondary Bile Acids, and Health Markers in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. The Journal of nutrition, 148(6), 861–867. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxy004
4. Nishi, S. K., Viguiliouk, E., Blanco Mejia, S., Kendall, C., Bazinet, R. P., Hanley, A. J., Comelli, E. M., Salas Salvadó, J., Jenkins, D., & Sievenpiper, J. L. (2021). Are fatty nuts a weighty concern? A systematic review and meta-analysis and dose-response meta-regression of prospective cohorts and randomized controlled trials. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 22(11), e13330. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.13330