A market analysis of the snack industry sums up our obsession with nibbling:
“Americans love snacking, a fact that will not change in the foreseeable future,” according to the 2011 report by Packaged Facts.
“The children of today, comfortable with replacing entire meals with snacks, will pass these lifestyle traits on to their children, ensuring that snacking will remain a big part of American life.”
America’s culture of snacking is bigger than ever, and so are our waistlines.
Two studies from 2010 by University of North Carolina researchers looked at snacking trends between 1977 and 2006 and found that children now eat three snacks a day and adults snack twice a day. That is one additional snack for each group compared to 30 years ago.
To make matters worse, the snacks are high in calories and the time between eating them is shrinking.
The authors of the report concluded that “our children are moving toward constant eating.”
Three square meals don’t exist anymore, said Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at Packaged Facts, a publishing company that focuses on consumer product research. “Meals and snacks have become all blurred together,” Finkel said.
Signs that snacking is an accepted way of life are everywhere. Car seats for toddlers are often equipped with not one but two cup holders. Fast food restaurants display snack menus. Many grammar schools incorporate snack time into daily schedules, and snacks are practically mandatory at youth events – even activities like pottery class that aren’t particularly strenuous.
E. Whitney Evans, a dietitian and doctoral student at Tufts University near Boston, works with five elementary schools in the Boston area and all have morning snack times.
“What I find really perplexing is, what is the research that suggests kids need to be eating a snack in the middle of their morning?” Evans said. “There is no research to support that it is necessary.”
Americans are consuming about 500 more daily calories today than we were 30 years ago, largely from snacks and larger portion sizes. Because of the difficulty of nutrition research, scientists cannot say whether snacking is the main culprit.
“But if you were to take a graph and plot the increase in snacking and the increase in overweight and obesity in kids, you would see parallel slopes,” Evans said. “I have a hard time believing it is not connected.”
Snacking itself isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but the snacks we tend to eat are.
Most of our snack calories come from desserts and sweetened beverages, and salty treats and candy are on the rise as well, according to the North Carolina researchers.
“The snack quality is utterly deficient in vital nutrients,” said Paul J. Arciero, a Skidmore College professor of health and exercise sciences. Arciero has witnessed cupcakes and fruit juice served at halftime of his son’s soccer games.
“There’s a big difference in terms of nutritional quality of a high-sugar fruit drink and the actual fruit itself,” Arciero said. “I think that is where we have become misguided in fueling our children during athletics.”
Instead of juice, Gatorade or granola bars, Arciero said water will do.
“That is the most cleansing, purifying, essential nutrient that your body requires after an hour of exercise,” he said.
The snack explosion is driven by American’s on-the-run lifestyle, said Finkel, the Packaged Facts researcher.
“A family used to sit down for a meal together when I was a kid, and snack time was something that happened once a day and was very specific,” Finkel said. “Now, snack time is anytime you are in the car, running from one thing to another and needing a boost.”
Snack makers are profiting from the trend. The industry reached $64 billion in 2010, up from $56 billion in 2006, according to Packaged Facts.
Manufacturers are constantly trying to find more appealing ways to package hand-held snacks. Items that are carving out niches in the snack market include snack bars that claim to be healthy, 100-calorie snack packages and indulgent, high-calorie foods that are marketed to women in micro-portions.
Taste drives purchases even among consumers who say they are trying to eat healthy.
“People expect that food companies will be able to alter the taste, the texture, and create sweetness when there isn’t any through artificial means, and they expect it to taste as good as the real thing,” he said.
Americans aren’t alone in their love of snacks. Snack fever is spreading across the globe. Kraft Foods, one the nation’s largest snack makers, is spinning off its snack division into a new company called Mondelez International.
Pronounced mohn-dah-leez, the name is derived from the Latin word for “world” and the French word for “delicious.”
Here is some smart snacking advice from nutrition experts Paul J. Arciero and E. Whitney Evans:
- Before you snack, ask yourself if you are truly hungry.
- Drink water instead of juice, lemonade or sports drinks.
- Avoid casual eating in front of the TV.
- Snack on nuts or seeds instead of a granola bar.
- Eat Greek yogurt instead of regular yogurt.
- Choose high-protein snacks like hard-boiled eggs, legumes and canned tuna.
- Eat fruit instead of drinking fruit juice.
- Dip fruit into nut butters.