e-News Exclusive

Snack Is the New Black

By Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD

Increased snacking among consumers is providing RDs greater opportunities to educate clients about healthful options.

As dietitians, we know that understanding current food and snacking trends as well as consumer habits are key to developing dietary recommendations. Knowing when consumers prefer to eat and where they purchase food helps us devise a plan that suits their lifestyle.

To give health professionals insight into the eating patterns of today’s consumers, researchers presented data at Experimental Biology 2015 in Boston in an American Society for Nutrition satellite program, “Smart Snacking: When Science Meets Nutrition.” Leading researchers in consumer trends, behavior, and nutrition science discussed how snacking has emerged as a new frontier in nutrition research and provides substantial opportunities to help improve nutrient intakes and promote health. The results of their work offer dietitians valuable information that can help them frame nutrition recommendations in this new eating environment. 

The State of Snacking

When developing meal plans and providing dietary advice to consumers, dietitians want to know not only what consumers eat but also when they eat. RDs agree that breakfast is a must, but we know that meal occasions can vary from person to person. Sally Lyons Wyatt, of IRi Worldwide, a leading consumer marketing research firm, explains that eating three square meals each day has become a rarity. An estimated 14% of consumers report eating three meals and no snacks, while 38% say they consume three meals with several snacks each day. When it comes to mini-meals, 28% say small meals fit their lifestyle, and 21% say they eat on the run and grab food when they can, according to IRi Worldwide.

The trend toward snacking has been steadily increasing over the past five years. In 2010, 21% of consumers reported consuming three or more snacks daily; today, 41% say they have more than three snacks per day. The average number of snacks consumed in 2015 is around 2.6 per day, according to IRi Worldwide. “Although three meals and two snacks seems like a lot of food, portion control and smart choices make it work for people with hectic schedules,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RDN, CDN, national health influencer and owner of BetterThanDieting.com. In her practice, she encourages people to think of meals and snacks as mini-meals. “I encourage people to choose a trio of protein, whole grains, and healthful fat to promote satiety,” Taub-Dix says.

The 12-Hour Snack Day

In addition to an increase in the number of snacks consumers eat each day, the time of day they choose to snack also has changed. In 2010, only 7% of individuals reported snacking in the early morning. Now, 18% are snacking early in the morning. Midmorning fuel breaks have increased from 22% to 31%, with the biggest boost seen in the afternoon, from 51% to 69%. Evening and late evening snacking remains popular, but also has increased from 44% to 55% for evening and 24% to 39% for late evening, according to IRi Worldwide. Dietitians now have the challenge of helping clients sort through snack ideas that fit into a healthful diet and make sense for all times of the day.

Beneficiaries of the Trend

As people snack more, sales of snackable foods increase. Sales of macro snacks, such as biscuits, confectionery, bars, salty snacks, nuts, and other savory snacks, increased 2.8% in 2014 over 2013. Sales of indulgent snacks, including ice cream and baked goods, rose 3.1% in 2014 over 2013, according to IRi Worldwide. Of particular interest to dietitians is the healthful snack category: Healthful snack sales increased 2.4%. So despite the drift toward indulgent snacks, both the macro and healthful snack categories give dietitians an opportunity to suggest more nutritious options to consumers and food companies to promote a more healthful trend.

The Mind of Snackers

However, regardless of the type of snacks people eat, it appears they aren’t always snacking mindlessly. When it comes to achieving a healthful diet, 41% say snacks are an important part of their healthful eating plan. Fifty percent say they select snacks because they have additional health benefits beyond nutrition, and 52% are looking for items that are “good for me.” If dietitians are concerned that people aren’t finding smart snacks, 65% say that healthful snacks are easy to find, and 44% say they’re looking for snacks that contain whole grains and provide fiber.   

Most Popular

In fact, wellness, satiety, and convenience have been top of mind for many consumers, and as a result sales of the following foods increased in 2014 over 2013 figures:

• specialty nut butters (22.4%);

• snack-sized produce (13.2%);

• fresh eggs (11%);

• carob/yogurt coated snacks (9.7%);

• refrigerated smoothies (8.2%);

• nutritional snack and trail mixes (4.8%);

• yogurt (3.5%); and

• snack and granola bars (2.8%).

Great Opportunities

The trend toward increased snacking presents an opportunity to help consumers address nutritional shortfalls, improve nutrient intake, and provide health benefits. According to program presenters Richard D. Mattes, MPH, PhD, RD, of Purdue University, and Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, of the University of Minnesota, snacking provides an opportunity to choose “smart snacks,” such as nuts and whole grains. According to Mattes, an ideal snack is palatable, affordable, satisfying, energy neutral (energy contribution is compensated for in subsequent meals), contains nutrients, and is potentially health promoting. For example, evidence shows that nuts can help satiate consumers, compensate for the energy they provide, and are a rich source of protein, fiber, vitamin E, vitamin K, folate, magnesium, copper, and potassium. 

In addition, other snacks can offer opportunities to increase intake of whole grains, Slavin said in her presentation. The desire to find snacks that contribute whole grains and fiber is positive. “Efforts to increase the whole grain content of popular foods, including snack foods, will make it more likely that consumers will meet whole-grain consumption goals,” Slavin added.

RDs’ Role

Whether it’s to improve the healthfulness of the diet, fuel the day, increase whole grain and fiber consumption, or simply to indulge, consumers are snacking and snacking often. Dietitians are equipped to creatively help consumers find snacks that fit, fuel, and nourish, so snacking can be a delicious and nutritious way to support good health.  

— Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD, is a senior vice president and director of food and wellness at Pollock Communications in New York City.