Consumers are snacking more that ever before. Once viewed largely as a way to indulge or ease short-term hunger, snacking often replaces the traditional three meals a day that dominated American food consumption for decades, with shoppers now eating more but in smaller quantities.
The definition of a snack also has changed with yogurt, nuts and energy bars among the options joining candy bars, chips, cookies and popcorn in providing fuel, acting as a meal replacement or providing essential nutrients for on-the-go consumers looking for a tasty treat or a healthy alternative. Even avocado toast, Caprese salad, zucchini chips and insects have joined the snacking menu.
"All the trends around grab and go, eating on the go, takeout food, meal kits, Uber Eats, all those trends are pointing toward more of these eating in smaller portions in various times of the day,” Dave Donnan, a partner with A.T. Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm, told Food Dive. “Snacks are no longer a between meal occureance."
With the snacking category already at $89 billion, and growing at a 3% clip, it’s clear that a disruptive movement is occurring, affecting what we eat for snack, when we eat and how we do it. With Datassential estimating that consumers eat about four to five snack foods a day, it's no wonder that Big Food is aiming to play a bigger role in this popular trend.
The birth of snacking
Pretzels and popcorn are believed to be the first original snack foods, but in the U.S., the invention of the potato chip in 1853 catalyzed the industry, David Walsh, a vice president of membership and communications for SNAC International, told Food Dive in an email. Nearly 70 years later, technological innovations reshaped the industry, helping spur consumption of snack foods, he added.
Between 1950 and 2000, America became a nation that snacked. Manufacturers ramped up production of packaged snacks that made it easy to assuage cravings for salt, fat and sugar. By the 1980s, when living life on the go became a bigger part of everyday life, packaged snacks were a necessity to keep people going.
"All the trends around grab and go, eating on the go, takeout food, meal kits, Uber Eats, all those trends are pointing toward more of these eating in smaller portions in various times of the day. Snacks are no longer a between meal occurence."
Partner with A.T. Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm
But in recent years, snacking has evolved from mostly nutritionally void treats to an essential part of our daily diet. It has forced large food manufacturers such as Campbell Soup, Hershey, Kellogg and Conagra Brands, among others, to innovate internally or turn to acquisitions to help them catch up in a snacking space increasingly being dominated by more trendy and nimble startups.
The struggle to define a snack
Despite some clear definitions of what is a snack, there is a significant amount of ambiguity that has cropped up as it has grown.
A few decades ago, this issue wouldn’t have existed because snacking habits have only recently evolved, said Sean Kelly, the CEO of SnackNation, a snack delivery company. But now, generations snack differently and define what the term means differently, making it more difficult to assign one definition to the word.
“If you look back in the day before millennials were coming into age, the snacking category used to be primarily made of low nutritional value foods; more as treats,” Kelly told Food Dive. “Now, snacks have become more than just treats. They've found a way to maintain great taste while adding in significant nutritional value. Almost any food can be made into snack form, so the number of snack occurrences is going to increase.”
A snack is function-specific, rather than product-specific, Walsh said.
“The snacking universe is now incredibly far-reaching, encompassing foods that we would not have thought of as snacks just 5-10 years ago," he said. "Because consumers are eating fewer sit-down meals and replacing them with snacks, there has been considerable growth in nontraditional snacks over the last several years.”
If the type of food or the frequency in which it is eaten doesn’t help categorize a snack, perhaps portion size can, Kelly said. An individual having a meal with friends and family consumes food containing 400 calories or more, but for snacks, people look for foods between 100-300 calories, and typically between 150-200 calories, he said.
In an effort to give consumers more choices that fit inside this range, PepsiCo, Hershey, Campbell Soup, Mondelez and Hormel Foods are among the companies who have introduced 100-calorie snack packs or products specifically geared toward snacking.
When is the right time to snack?
Growing up, many people remember being told not to eat a snack too late in the afternoon because it would ruin their dinner. As younger individuals turn to snacking, the right time to snack could be almost anytime, and as they have children, there is a strong likelihood that the habit gets passed on to future generations. Kelly estimated that millennials and Generation Z snack four times a day, baby boomers twice and the Silent Generation once.
“Millennials are the first generation to substitute one meal per day on average completely with snacks,” Kelly said.
“Snacks are part of my lifestyle—not just a departure, but an alignment of who I am as an individual; what my identity is."
CEO of SnackNation,
It helps that snacks are easier than ever to find. They can be found in grocery stores, either in regular packaging or in individual grab-an-go items. In addition, convenience stores, club stores, pharmacies and vending machines have an assortment of foods to keep hunger at bay. So while consumers could plan ahead to purchase a snack, their wide-spread availability makes it easy to spur impromptu buying decisions, almost anywhere.
Snacks with benefits
But as snacks play a greater role in daily food consumption, expectations for the sector are changing, too. SNAC International's Walsh cited IRi data that found 58% of consumers want snacks that contain vitamins and minerals, and 75% of shoppers want ones that are guaranteed fresh.
“Consumers are increasingly looking to the snack category, rather than traditional meals, to acquire key nutrients, including protein, vitamins and minerals,” Walsh wrote. “This has led to a category that has evolved and expanded to reach nearly every aisle of the grocery store.”
Organic ice cream that is high in protein, vegan or gluten-free cookies, yogurt-touting probiotics, and packaged nut, cheese and fruit combinations are all examples of products that appeal to the healthy snacker. Nearly every section of the grocery store now plays a role in snacking.
Although major CPG companies are better known for their center-of-the-store products, they are increasingly looking for ways to adapt their portfolio to snacking.
Campbell Soup, which purchased snacks giant Snyder’s Lance for nearly $5 billion last fall, also has modified some of its most well-known brands such as Pepperidge Farm, Goldfish crackers and its iconic soups to make them more snack friendly. In recent years, the company has focused its efforts on controlling more of the snacking market throughout the entire day to ensure it has a product for whenever the individual decides to snack.
"By us being able to understand better what consumers are looking for through those moments (of the day), we can provide a snack that better fits what they are looking for," Carlos Abrams-Rivera, president of the recently created Campbell Soup Snacks division, told Food Dive.
Choices in snacking will increasingly be a reflection of the consumers’ lifestyles and goals. Instead of snacks being a one-off product like a candy bar, they will be an intentional part of the eating plan, Kelly says.
“People still want the chocolates, candy-like items,” he added. “But chocolate covered almonds. Dip my nutrition bar in chocolate.”
Today’s consumers, particularly the younger ones, have come to see snacking as part of their mentality.
“Snacks are part of my lifestyle—not just a departure, but an alignment of who I am as an individual; what my identity is," Kelly said of this audience.
Christopher Doering contributed to this story