A pretzel is a handheld yeast bread that’s usually shaped into a twisted knot.

This popular snack food can be soft and chewy or hard and crunchy but almost always has a shiny, brown appearance.

Because of pretzels’ similarity to other snack foods, such as potato chips, people often wonder how the calorie and salt content of pretzels compares and whether they’re a healthier snack option.

This article explains what pretzels are and how you can include them as part of a healthy diet.

Pretzels are a type of bread typically made from wheat or rye flour and a few other ingredients, such as yeast, sugar, salt, water, and butter.

The snack is often associated with Germany, though various forms of pretzels seem to have emerged across Europe during medieval times — particularly in Italy, France, and Austria. Today, pretzels are popular all around the world.

They come in many shapes and sizes but traditionally take the shape of a twisted knot. According to legend, the classic pretzel knot was invented by a monk who baked his pretzels in this shape to represent praying arms.

Soft pretzels are large and have a chewy texture. They’re usually served individually and are commonly sold at concession stands, restaurants, and bakeries.

Meanwhile, hard pretzels are small and crunchy and can be eaten by the handful, depending on their shape. They’re available at most grocery and convenience stores, making them an easy snack choice.

Classic pretzels are simply flavored with salt, though you can easily liven them up with garlic, cinnamon sugar, nuts and seeds, chocolate, or other additions. Pretzels are often served with mustard, cheese, or yogurt dipping sauces.

Before they’re baked, pretzels are treated with a sodium hydroxide solution commonly known as lye. It causes a chemical reaction on the surface of the dough that turns the pretzels brown and shiny during baking (1, 2).

Food-grade sodium hydroxide is considered safe to consume but can be dangerous if not used properly, so it’s typically used only in food processing plants. If you want to make pretzels, you can substitute baking soda to achieve a similar flavor and texture (1, 3).

SUMMARY

Pretzels are a type of yeast bread that comes in two main varieties: hard and soft. The popular snack food gets its shiny, brown appearance from a chemical solution called lye that causes a unique chemical reaction during baking.

Pretzels are high in carbs and low in fat and protein, and they contain some other nutrients as well.

The table below provides nutrition information for soft and hard pretzels (4, 5).

1 medium soft pretzel, salted
(120 grams)
1.5 ounces hard pretzels, salted
(42.5 grams)
Calories408163
Fat4 grams1 gram
Protein10 grams4 grams
Carbs84 grams34 grams
Sugar< 1 gram< 1 gram
Fiber2 grams1 gram
Sodium41% of the Daily Value (DV)23% of the DV
Folate7% of the DV19% of the DV
Copper17% of the DV7% of the DV
Iron26% of the DV11% of the DV
Niacin32% of the DV14% of the DV
Riboflavin26% of the DV11% of the DV
Selenium37% of the DV3% of the DV
Thiamine40% of the DV15% of the DV
Zinc10% of the DV4% of the DV

Both soft and hard pretzels are made from wheat flour, which is composed mostly of carbs. When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into sugars that it uses for energy.

Because most wheat flour is enriched with extra nutrients, pretzels also contain iron and some B vitamins, such as thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. These vitamins help your body convert food into the sugars it uses for energy (6).

Like other foods made from wheat, pretzels contain some fiber. Fiber is known to improve gut health, and eating more of it might help relieve digestive symptoms such as constipation — though not all types of fiber are equally effective at doing so (7, 8, 9, 10).

Most pretzels contain only a small amount of fiber, but choosing a pretzel made with whole grains or whole wheat flour could add 3 extra grams of fiber to your snack (11).

Therefore, a great way to include pretzels as part of a healthy diet is to pair the carb with another source of fiber, lean protein, or healthy fats to round out the nutritional value of the snack.

Some examples of nutritious foods that pair well with pretzels are:

Soft vs. hard pretzel nutrition

One of the main differences between soft and hard pretzels is their shelf life.

Hard, crunchy pretzels tend to last at least a few months as long as the package hasn’t been opened. On the other hand, a soft pretzel might hold up for only a few days before it turns hard and stale.

There are also some notable differences in their nutrition.

As you can see in the table above, one soft pretzel could contain 2.5 times more calories and carbs than one serving of hard pretzels. A soft pretzel also has twice as much salt per serving.

Still, one soft pretzel contains more vitamins and minerals than a serving of hard pretzels. These differences are due in part to serving size.

Whereas hard pretzels often come in packages that contain 1–2 ounces (28–56 grams), soft pretzels are often very large and might weigh as much as 5 ounces (143 grams). Thus, soft pretzels contain more of most nutrients.

Soft pretzels can still be part of a healthy diet, but it’s usually best to consume them in moderation. One easy way to enjoy a soft pretzel without overdoing your calorie, carb, or salt intake is to save half for later or share it with a friend!

Salted vs. unsalted pretzels

Traditional pretzels are sprinkled with large grains of salt before being baked. This coarse salt adds crunch and bursts of flavor to the otherwise mild snack.

Hard pretzels may also contain extra salt as a preservative to help them stay fresh. In some cases, they might even contain more salt than an equal serving of regular potato chips (5, 12).

Here are the differences in sodium content among various types of pretzels (4, 5, 13, 14):

  • 1 medium (120-gram) soft pretzel, salted: 940 mg
  • 1 medium (120-gram) soft pretzel, unsalted: 302 mg
  • 1.5 ounces (42.5 grams) hard pretzels, salted: 527 mg
  • 1.5 ounces (42.5 grams) hard pretzels, unsalted: 106 mg

While not everyone needs to watch their salt intake, about 25% of healthy people are considered to have salt sensitivity. This means their bodies can’t get rid of excess salt efficiently, which can lead to high blood pressure (15).

High blood pressure may increase your risk of death from heart failure by up to 30% (16).

If you already know that you’re salt-sensitive or if you’re watching your salt intake in general, choosing unsalted hard pretzels is an easy way to make sure you don’t accidentally overdo it on the salt.

Unsalted hard pretzels might not seem like the most exciting of these choices at first glance, but remember, there are many ways to liven pretzels up! Try pairing them with a few bits of dark chocolate or a cinnamon-yogurt dipping sauce.

SUMMARY

Regular pretzels are high in carbs and salt and low in protein and fat. Depending on the type of flour used, they also contain some fiber and B vitamins and a few minerals, including iron and zinc.

Overall, pretzels are a simple snack that don’t contain too many additives and can be a good source of a few vitamins and minerals.

That said, there are a few things to keep in mind when eating pretzels.

Serving size matters

A standard serving of hard pretzels is 1 ounce (28 grams), which can be difficult to measure accurately. Roughly, a single serving of hard pretzels is 15–20 small knot-shaped pretzels.

However, researchers have found that we often underestimate how much we eat (17).

In one small study, researchers asked 48 adults to identify how much pasta they planned to eat prior to the start of a meal. Most people who ate more than they intended were aware they had done so, but they still underestimated how much more they had eaten by at least 25% (18).

Plus, exactly how many pretzels makes up a 1-ounce (28-gram) serving is determined by the shape and size of the pretzels, which will vary among different products.

To measure a serving of pretzels accurately, it may be a good idea to use a food scale or measuring cups until you have a better idea of what a standard serving size looks like.

Fillings, flavorings, and dips add calories

Although plain pretzels are pretty simple, other types may be filled with peanut butter or cheese, have a candy coating, or be served with dipping sauces.

Ingredients such as these will likely add extra sugar, salt, and calories to your pretzel snack.

For example, a soft cinnamon-sugar pretzel from the popular pretzel chain Auntie Anne’s contains 470 calories, while their original pretzel has 340 calories. Pairing one of those pretzels with a dipping sauce adds 45–170 calories (19).

What’s more, a 1-ounce (28-gram) serving of chocolate-covered hard pretzels has 130 calories, compared to 109 calories for the same amount of plain hard pretzels (20).

That said, if you like flavored pretzels, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying them from time to time.

If you’re counting calories or concerned about your intake of certain nutrients, you might consider practicing greater moderation with filled or flavored pretzels than you would with plain pretzels.

They’re often high in simple carbs

Unless they’ve been made with a whole grain flour such as rye, most pretzels are not very nutrient-dense, meaning they don’t contain many beneficial nutrients relative to their calorie content.

That’s because most pretzels are made from refined wheat flour, also called white flour.

White flour is made from wheat with the outer portion of the grain removed. This also removes most of its fiber and nutrients. Foods made with white flour also tend to raise blood sugar levels more than foods high in protein and fat do (21, 22, 23, 24).

Most people tend to eat more refined grains than whole grains. But eating more whole grains has been linked with a lower risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes (25, 26, 27, 28).

Thus, choosing pretzels made with whole grains or pairing regular pretzels with other nutrient-dense foods, such as nuts or fruit, is an easy way to increase the nutritional value of your snack.

SUMMARY

Pretzels don’t have many downsides as an occasional snack. Soft pretzels and flavored pretzels are usually higher in calories, salt, sugar, and fat than hard pretzels, so you may want to limit your intake of those varieties.

Pretzels are a fun and tasty food with a deep-rooted history in cultures around the world.

They can be enjoyed many different ways but are commonly eaten as a snack.

The nutritional value of a pretzel can vary greatly depending on whether it’s hard or soft, how big the serving size is, and whether additional ingredients such as chocolate or dipping sauces are used.

Nevertheless, pretzels are a tasty treat that can easily be included in a healthy diet, especially when paired with other nutritious foods.

Just one thing

Try this today: Try to plan out some snacks for the week. Include a mix of nutrient-dense options, such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts, along with some of your favorite packaged snacks — including pretzels!