Many of us may find that there's nothing quite like a stiff G&T or ice-cold beer to soothe our frazzled nerves at the end of a hard day and ease us into the evening's festivities. However, the hunger that bites after a long-ago lunch, combined with alcohol's ability to sharpen the appetite, mean that we can find ourselves looking for something solid to accompany our liquid refreshment. In bars and pubs up and down the land, the early evening sees a glut of individuals having their fill of crisps and peanuts - fatty foods regarded as hazardous to our health. However, the savoury morsels offered in drinking establishments need not spell nutritional disaster for the body, and may even have benefits to offer. This week, I thought I'd provide a guide to what's good and what's not on the bar-snack menu.
The daddy of savoury snacks is the potato crisp. Unfortunately, even unadulterated, the potato comes up short on desirable elements such as fibre and nutrients. Its transformation into crisps, however, takes the potato to new nutritional lows. The high-temperature frying process is likely to imbue it with damaged fats known as trans fatty acids. Not found in significant quantities in nature, trans fats are cause for concern in the nutritional community, as there is evidence that they may be a factor in heart disease and some forms of cancer. Of all the bar snacks, I regard crisps as the bad boys of the pack.
Another bar food many of us can be tempted to crack into is nuts. While peanuts are a staple in most pubs, classier joints often offer posher nuts such as almonds and cashews. Like crisps, nuts are rich in fat. But a sizeable proportion comes in the form of monounsaturated fat - widely recognised as protective for heart disease and stroke. Nuts are also a good source of fibre, magnesium and potassium, which are believed to have heart-healthy properties. In more than one study, nut-eating has been associated with a substantially reduced risk of heart disease. Because heat can damage the fat in nuts, they are almost certainly best had in their raw form. However, even roasted, nuts represent a healthier alternative to deep-fried slivers of spud.
The rise of the gastropub has seen growing availability of another type of bar fare: the olive. Both black and green olives are naturally fatty fruits, though this is principally of the healthy monounsaturated type. Olives also contain antioxidant nutrients, which can reduce damage in the body wielded by disease-provoking chemicals called free radicals. Studies suggest that a diet rich in olive oil may help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain forms of cancer. While the science has focused on olive oil, the likelihood is that eating the whole fruit has similar benefits for the body.
As far as the nutritional attributes of bar snacks is concerned, the evidence suggests that nuts and olives are at the top of the tree.