10 Unhealthiest Trail Mixes You Can Buy

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Many people think trail mix began with gorp (good ol' raisins and peanuts) in the 1970s; it brings to mind childhood campouts and a subset of health-conscious hikers. Trail mix has been around for centuries though. Nomads carried mixtures of dried meat, nuts, and berries to sustain themselves on long journeys and hunting excursions because this food was portable, stayed fresh, and didn't need cooking. We may not be hunting buffalo anymore, but trail mix is still an easy, quick snack.

Trail mix can be wholesome: It's nutrient-dense with a blend of protein, healthy fats, carbs, and fiber. It's satisfying and offers quick energy, which is perfect for hiking or busy days. Combining nuts, dried fruit, and seeds is simple, but if you want to buy it, it's worth noting that pre-packaged varieties are often loaded with sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats from overly processed additions. 

We did some digging and compared top brands to determine which trail mixes are better left at the store. Some trail mixes are really just candy masquerading as a healthy snack. Because the serving size is tiny — usually just ¼ cup — it's important to take note of what's contained in each portion. Read on to see how the worst offenders fit into the FDA's recommendations for daily allowances of calories, fat, sugar, and sodium.

1. Favorite Day Caramel Cashew Trail Mix

There's nothing quite like the promise of caramel to make our ears perk up. That buttery sweetness brings bliss, but it also brings a sugary punch that adds calories. This trail mix has a whopping 220 calories and 15 grams of fat in just a ¼ cup serving, and if we're honest, most people don't stop at that. The amount of sugar in this trail mix is also concerning, with 12 grams per serving, putting you well on the way to meeting the recommended daily sugar allowance in just a few bites.

There are conflicting ideas about how much added sugar is too much: The American Heart Association recommends 25 grams daily for women and 37.5 grams for men. U.S. dietary guidelines are slightly more lenient at 50 grams per day. Still, no matter which guidelines you follow, 12 grams for a few tablespoons of trail mix seems like a bad idea, so give this one a miss. Pro-tip: When trail mix has six components, four of which are candy, it's a red flag. Buy the candy bar you're craving and call it a day.

2. Planters Nuts & Chocolate Trail Mix

This trail mix by the nut giant Planters seems to be a reasonably healthy option. While it contains candy in the form of M&M's, the rest is tame compared to others on this list: peanuts, almonds, and raisins. The nutrition information label tells another story, though. At 170 calories and 11 grams of fat per serving, it's on par with other trail mixes — but the serving size is even smaller than usual: only 3 tablespoons. A small child might eat more than that and most adults certainly will.

As to those M&M's, while scientists haven't definitively stated that food dyes are harmful, there are concerning contaminants in some food dyes, including Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40. There's evidence these dyes can cause allergic reactions and hyperactivity in children and they have no nutritional benefit. Skeptics point out that people eat foods with artificial colors all the time, which is true, but anyone trying to optimize their diet can find a trail mix that's free of questionable ingredients.

3. Kirkland Trail Mix

Shopping at Costco can make you feel like a kid in a candy store, and when you can get a 4-pound bag of trail mix full of M&M's, you might be one. Kirkland's trail mix has peanuts, almonds, cashews, and raisins, which are healthful. Nuts are a terrific source of protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and Kirkland's mix uses three super-healthy nuts. So why are we down on this brand?

As with most trail mixes, Kirkland's serving size is ¼ cup unless you buy a box of 2-ounce individually packaged bags, which is almost double the amount. A serving has 160 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 10 grams of sugar. This sounds pretty tame compared to other brands, but size matters here. A 2022 study published in Current Developments in Nutrition found that snacking from large packages causes people to eat as much as 12% more. Real-life snacking bears this out; eating a lot from a seemingly endless bag of snacks doesn't make the bag look emptier, so we keep noshing.

While switching to the individual packs of trail mix sounds like it would solve the problem, each small bag has 310 calories, 20 grams of fat, and 19 grams of sugar. That's a lot for a snack, so we'd skip this one unless plans for the day include hours on a hiking trail.

4. Good & Gather White Cheddar Trail Mix

A favorite part of Target runs is finding unexpected items, including snacks, no matter what's on your list. Target's signature brand, Good & Gather, offers many trail mix options to suit every palate. The white cheddar trail mix is true to its name: Each component is coated in cheesy goodness that makes it hard not to eat the whole bag. Almonds, cashews, sesame sticks, and cheese crisps, all with that salty, delectable crunch — anyone who likes a savory trail mix will love it.

As with most salty snacks, though, loving it is the problem. A ¼ cup serving (4 tablespoons) packs 170 calories, 13 grams of fat, and a whopping 250 milligrams of sodium. While it's true that our bodies need salt to function, the Food and Drug Administration lists the daily sodium limit as 2,300 milligrams, or about 1 teaspoon of salt. So, that small serving of trail mix is already 11% of the sodium we should have in a whole day, and good luck sticking to one serving. Not to rain on anyone's parade, but too much salt in your diet not only leaves you thirsty and bloated but can lead to serious health issues like high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. This variety of trail mix from Good & Gather should be eaten sparingly or not at all; there are more nutritious options.

5. Southern Grove Sweet & Spicy Cajun Trail Mix

Southern Grove, an Aldi private label, makes many kinds of trail mix, but reading the labels is key to choosing one that will support your health goals. The Sweet & Spicy Cajun mix is one to avoid; although it includes peanuts and almonds, it's padded with butter toffee peanuts, Cajun-style corn sticks, honey-roasted sesame sticks, and roasted corn. These are highly processed elements that are better avoided.

One serving (¼ cup) has 150 calories and 10 grams of fat, and the amount of salt adds up fast. 270 milligrams (12% of your recommended daily allowance of sodium) in a small handful of food is too much, especially if you eat more than a serving. Too much salt contributes to health woes ranging from headaches and bloating to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, so it's wise to watch your intake. With that in mind, leave this trail mix on the shelf in favor of one with simpler ingredients.

6. Great Value Chocolate Peanut Butter Trail Mix

Great Value is one of Walmart's private label brands, allowing shoppers to save money on groceries by rivaling national brands. There's a huge variety in the Great Value trail mix family, ranging from clean-ingredient mixes that nourish you on a hike down to candy-laden bags that would be more at home at a preteen sleepover. The Chocolate Peanut Butter Trail Mix is an excellent example of the candy kind. This is a sugary snack that has very little nutritional value, with peanuts, mini peanut butter cups, chocolate-peanut butter-coated cereal, and milk chocolate-coated candies (plain and peanut).

Our eyes glazed over at the very long list of ingredients, including artificial colorings, corn syrup, and palm oil. We were also shocked to discover that the Eat Well Guide (EWG) flagged the rice cereal for possibly containing arsenic in the rice. EWG scored this trail mix at 8 (the closer a food gets to 10, the worse it is for you, nutritionally speaking). One serving has 170 calories, 11 grams of fat (4.5 saturated fat), and 13 grams of sugar. Considering that most people should focus on eating less sugar to avoid weight gain and type 2 diabetes, we'd skip this trail mix and opt for one with a shorter, pronounceable list of ingredients.

7. Favorite Day Peanut Butter Chocolate Trail Mix

Target's signature label, Favorite Day, was "designed around celebration and indulgence," according to the retail giant, and this peanut butter chocolate trail mix certainly doesn't go back on that promise. Peanuts are the only component of this mix that isn't candy. With peanut butter cups, chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, and cereal squares coated in chocolate and peanut butter (think Chex Mix's Muddy Buddies or Puppy Chow, depending on where you grew up), this may as well be a candy bar. 

Favorite Day Peanut Butter Chocolate trail mix has 180 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugar in a ¼ cup serving, making it a snack to be wary of; it would be easy to consume half a day's calories with an open bag. The ingredients list is a red flag for anyone looking to fit trail mix into a healthy nutrition plan. As a rule of thumb, you should look for simple ingredients (almonds, raisins, and cashews are great examples) rather than long lists of chemicals, additives, and preservatives. This trail mix includes hydrogenated oils, which can increase LDL cholesterol and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Simply put, this can't be considered trail mix — it's more of a dessert and should be treated the way Target markets it: as a special indulgence.

8. Kar's Nuts Garlic Parmesan Snack Max

Michiganders have loved Kar's Nuts since the 1930s when the company started selling nuts to Detroit Tigers fans outside the stadium. Since then, it has become a nationally recognized brand in grocery outlets, vending machines, and convenience stores. The Garlic Parmesan Snack Max combines almonds, peanuts, pretzels, and sunflower seeds coated with seasoning, which sounds pretty healthy on the surface. Sunflower seeds are a nutritional powerhouse full of protein, fiber, and healthy fats, and eating them in trail mix means no pesky shells. Extra points for adding sunflower kernels because many people wouldn't seek them out for snacking, unlike peanuts and almonds.

Unfortunately, with 160 calories and 14 grams of fat per ¼ cup serving, this trail mix gets most of its calories from fat. The sodium content is 130 milligrams, 6% of the recommended daily allowance and lower than some of the other salty varieties we chose. Yet the word "salt" features six times in the ingredients list, leading us to conclude that this trail mix would score much higher without the garlic parmesan seasoning that coats every piece. Ultimately, we prefer cleaner ingredients in our trail mix.

9. Southern Grove Tuscan Trail Mix

Another offering from Aldi's private label Southern Grove made our list of least healthy trail mixes; this time, it's the Tuscan mix. It starts strong with peanuts, almonds, and cashews but is rounded out with sesame sticks, garlic bread sticks, and rye chips. This mix doesn't offer enough nutritional benefit at 160 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 112 milligrams of sodium per 1 ounce serving (approximately the same ¼ cup portion other brands suggest).

Aldi has high-quality standards for its products; over 90% of the inventory is private label brands, and the retailer is beloved for offering many organic and natural products without MSG, artificial colors, or GMOs. So, while the salty bites in the Tuscan mix feature fairly natural and pronounceable ingredients, we still need more to convince us that this snack is healthy. It's also worth noting that the almonds and cashews are last on the ingredients list. It makes sense since they're the priciest, but it doesn't improve our opinion of the product. Aldi offers several healthier trail mixes worth paying a bit more for.

10. Happy Belly Yogurt Trail Mix

Happy Belly is an Amazon private label that sells food, drinks, and pantry staples through Amazon.com, Whole Foods, and Walmart. You can find a variety of Happy Belly snacks, including trail mix, and the Yogurt Trail Mix seems pretty nutritious on the surface. The blend of healthy nuts and fruits, including peanuts, cashews, dates, raisins, and dried cranberries, is what a traditional trail mix is all about. A ¼ cup serving has 160 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugar, which is relatively high but not that shocking considering it contains three kinds of dried fruit.

Unfortunately, this mix also includes yogurt drops, which is the ingredient that landed it on the list of offenders. But yogurt is healthy, right? Yes, but the ingredients list the term "yogurt-flavored drops." They may taste similar to yogurt, but these highly processed nuggets are palm oil mixed with sugar and yogurt powder. In fact, these drops only add fat, sugar, and calories without the nutritional benefits of yogurt. While this mix is better for you than those made chiefly of candy, keep shopping if you're serious about a healthful diet.

How we chose trail mixes

Since many people consider trail mix a healthy snack, we headed to the snack aisle to check out popular national brands and signature labels. We read ingredient lists and checked sugar, sodium, calories, and fat content relative to the serving size. In some cases, we also noted whether they contained artificial colors, flavors, or hydrogenated oils. It was shocking to realize that small ¼ cup servings contained significant percentages of the recommended daily allowances for sugar, salt, and fat, leading to the inclusion of these products on our list.

While it was no surprise that trail mixes featuring several types of candy weren't so healthy, reading the labels showed us that savory mixes weren't much better. Making homemade trail mix is a simple way to have a nutritious snack on the go, but if you'd rather buy trail mix, be sure to read labels and choose mixes with the simplest ingredients possible. When snacking on trail mix, whether prepackaged or homemade, keep portion control in mind — dole it out in a small dish or measure it into a snack bag for travel so you don't go overboard.