Helping consumers move from feeling guilty to feeling great about snacking.
There was a time when the word “snack” referred to a handful of popcorn or a chocolate chip cookie between meals. It was a quick indulgence or something to hide the hunger pang until the next meal. In the past few decades, the definition of snack has expanded faster than the package sizes we can buy them in. Today, it might include items such as deli sandwiches, cold cereal, pizzas or protein shakes. It could even mean a meal you’re eating at a non-traditional mealtime. Busy lives that demand convenience has moved more of our eating occasions from sit-down meals to on-the-go snacks.
According to Mintel, more than 70 percent of people snack twice or more a day. Snacking used to be something you’d mostly see in the afternoon, but lately, it has grown in every day part, especially the morning. Despite this high snack frequency, almost one in three consumers in the U.S. say they feel guilty after a snack and 60 percent of consumers wish they had more healthy snack options available (IRI 2017 State of the Snack Food Industry). As the definition of a snack evolves, there are more and more opportunities to offer innovative products that deliver on demand for health in the snacking category.
Science of Snacking on Health
Even though a third of us say we feel guilty after eating a snack, science shows we may not need to. In fact, snacking can even improve diet quality, but it all depends on the types of snacks chosen. On average, snacks contribute nearly 25 percent of a person’s total daily calorie intake (around 500 kcal). These snack calories can act as a great source of healthy nutrients if the right foods are chosen, such as fruits, nuts, cheese, yogurt, etc. These snack calories can also make it harder for someone to get the right amount of healthy nutrients if the wrong foods are chosen, like calorie rich cookies, salty snacks or sweetened beverages.
So, is snacking helping or harming the current U.S. diets? Right now, there’s room for improvement. When compared to meals, snacks provide a higher proportion of the U.S. population’s daily intakes of solid fats, carbohydrate, total sugar, sodium (nutrients we should be reducing), but lower proportions of nutrients we need to increase in the diet. Snacks provide more than one-third of the added sugars Americans consume daily and one-fifth of added fats intake.
Shifting snack food intake from high-calorie foods to foods rich in nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals is vital to make snacking occasions a time when we help our diet instead of hurt it. For example, fiber and protein are both nutrients that are shown to help people feel more full. This means calories consumed at a snacking occasion could mean fewer calories eaten at the next meal. The U.S. dietary guidelines suggest Americans need to consume more of nutrients like vitamin D and potassium, as well. With these nutrients being added to nutrition facts labels shortly, formulating snacks to provide more of these nutrients to consumers will become an excellent opportunity to improve health and diversify products at the same time.
What Do Consumers Want From Their Snacks?
If 60 percent of consumers are looking for healthier snack options, the next question becomes “what delivers on that expectation?” Google’s data shows that protein is the most popular search phrase when it comes to snacks. Weight management is the No. 1 health concern that drives consumer behavior (IFIC 2017), but the “sportification” trend is also driving athletes, casual exercisers and weekend warriors alike toward higher protein foods. Consumers are looking for an ever-increasing amount of protein in their snack bars and beverages, and also including protein-rich foods in their snacking occasions more often.
Plant protein, specifically, has a firm hold with consumers right now, leading to the growth of innovative products like an extruded bean or pea crisps. Many high protein snack bars have begun offering plant-based protein options for consumers looking to reduce their intake of animal-based products. Animal proteins aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, though. Jerky has seen a resurgence in popularity due to its high protein content, leading to diversification of jerky snacks beyond beef as the protein source.
Digestive health has been listed as one of the top 10 trends in nutrition for the last two years, according to New Nutrition Business. In the snacking world, this opens a few different doors. The first is “free-from” products for consumers looking to avoid ingredients like lactose, gluten and FODMAPs on their mission to reduce gastrointestinal discomfort. Fiber also has a role to play in the digestive health trend. Formulating products to contain high fiber ingredients like nuts, legumes and whole grains or adding fibers to convenient snack foods consumers are already eating, are great opportunities. Finally, probiotics are making their way into more and more products. Probiotics first gained popularity in yogurts, but the live and active cultures in dairy are mostly limited to the refrigerated section of the grocery store. However, new probiotic strains that are appropriate for shelf-stable products have found success in snacks such as potato chips and dried fruit.
When it comes to health and nutrition, consumers want to get health benefits from foods they recognize instead of fortified snacks. Snacks that incorporate servings of nuts, fruits and vegetables have strong appeal for this demand. For the snacking industry, the key is to make natural, healthy food more convenient for consumers. Rather than reaching for high protein snack bars, consumers are beginning to reach for hard-boiled eggs, cheese, nut and fruit mixes, as well as dried legumes.
The Fragmentation of Meals
The demand for naturally functional snacks could also be driven by the fragmentation of mealtimes. As people’s eating occasions drift away from sit-down meals to on-the-go eating, it becomes more important for snacks to deliver the food and nutrition qualities meals used to deliver. For example, in the past, a meal like chicken breast with a side of vegetables and rice was a sit-down meal. Now, this meal might become three different snacks someone eats over the course of the afternoon and evening: chicken jerky on the commute home, a small ready-to-eat salad while catching up with family, and lentil crisps while unwinding in the evening. Snacking innovations that provide consumers with a convenient, snackable way to get their servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein they used to get at their meals are the key to the future.
Despite strong demand for healthy snacks, the current reality is that the indulgent snacks are still leading the way when it comes to consumption and category growth (IRI 2017 State of the Snack Food Industry). In other words, many consumers say they want convenient vegetable servings while they reach for a chocolate chip cookie. Dietitians know that restriction is one of the most common mistakes people make when trying to get healthier, so the solution isn’t to make these indulgent snacks go away. A more appropriate path is pursuing the concept of mindful indulgence: helping consumers feel better about their tasty treats.
Mindful indulgence is all about reducing the sugar, sodium and calorie content of foods while making sure they still taste great. Keeping taste a priority in these products while taking a “stealth health” approach is often the best road to success. Consumers often perceive “reduced sugar” or “reduced fat” products as being less tasty before they even eat them, so the stealth health pathway of quietly reducing sugar or calories and letting the consumer look at the label to make their own decision is often the better approach.
Fat is Back But in the Right Way?
In recent decades, the pendulum of nutrition trends has swung from demonizing fat to demonizing sugar, and the phrase “fat is back” is everywhere. While fat is essential for health, the full-fat trend is spurring the growth of snack categories like salty snacks, cookies, doughnuts and other indulgent treats (IRI 2017 State of the Snack Food Industry). Unfortunately, these foods are still not the best snack options when it comes to nutrition, whether they are low-fat or full-fat.
For the snacking industry, it is important to make sure the fat in foods is 1) healthy and 2) in the right amounts. Many diets recommend reducing fat because fat is so rich in calories (9 calories per gram) compared to carbohydrates or protein (4 calories per gram), not because fat is inherently bad. This means going back to full-fat snacks may just exacerbate the problem of consumers getting too many empty calories from their snacks. Making sure snacks contain healthy fats like mono- or polyunsaturated fats, and contain servings of food groups consumers need to get more of, like fruits and vegetables, is the holistic way to provide the benefits consumers are expecting from full-fat products.
Best Foot Forward
It’s important to be mindful of all of these ideas when innovating for the future, not just any single one. Reducing sugar while adding fat back in will only result in the demonization of fat and demand for more sugar in several decades if we don’t make sure snacks are still healthy in other ways. Taking the science and trends of snacking into account, the future of snacking will rely on these steps for success when it comes to nutrition:
1. Deliver recognizable, nutritious foods in convenient formats (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, dairy, nuts and seeds)
2. Protein and fiber are essential nutrients to leverage in formulation
3. Keep products low in calories, salt, and sugar, and use the right types of fat
4. Remove or replace ingredients such as artificial flavors, colors and preservatives to appeal to the widest variety of consumers
5. Taste and convenience are key for any product. NIE
Nathan Pratt, PhD, RD completed his doctoral studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where his research focused on weight management, nutrition labeling, and consumer behavior. He is a member of Kerry’s nutrition science team and is responsible for supporting internal and external scientific communications.