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More snacks = healthier diet, report finds

By Hank Schultz , 13-Nov-2012

Americans are snacking more than ever, and the more they snack, the healthier their diets, according to a new report.

Common wisdom has it that snacking is a deleterious activity, eroding healthy eating habits.  And the assumption continues that calories consumed during snack times are empty at best, crowding out healthier food portions that might be consumed during regular meals, or are downright harmful in the case of high amounts of saturated or trans fats or high levels of sodium.

Just the opposite is true, according the report issued by Chicago-based market research firm NPD Group.  The report, titled Snacking in America, found that consumers following the healthiest diets snack twice as often as those with less healthy diets.

“Concerns about health is one of the leading reasons why snacking is increasing,” Kathy Ross, author of the report, told FoodNavigator-USA.

Different times of day, different motivations

The report breaks the snacking habit down into different “occasions” corresponding to different times of the day.  Doing so, Ross said, yields new insights into snacking behavior and how it is changing.  It also gives an insight into consumers’ mindsets when they approach these food choices.

“If you look at snacking in totality, it is increasing slightly. But if you really drill down to better under at the snacking occasions, morning versus afternoon versus evening snacking, those occasions are driven by different motivations and very different choices. What is declining is the evening snack time, which is the non-healthy snack choices like ice cream or chips.”

“The fastest growing behavior is the morning snack time, the one most driven by healthy nutrition attitudes.  Not only is that behavior occasion increasing, it is spreading out to a wider demographic of individuals and is including more and more healthy choices,” she said.

Food choices among these healthy, active snackers include fruit, yogurt and many kinds of nuts and seeds.  And all sorts of nutrition bars are popular with these consumers, Ross said.  Foods with a better-for-you positioning are particularly popular with this group, she said.  These consumers are reading labels, even on their snack choices.

Another misconception debunked by the report is the overall motivation for snacking in the first place. Although supermarket operators have long sought to have shoppers run a gauntlet of gums, candy bars and single-serve chips on the way to the checkout, that’s not where this more active snacking constituency is making their choices, nor are they making these decisions on the spur of the moment.

“It is not an impulse-driven occasion. Almost 80% of the things that we snack on are things that we planned and are already available in our homes.  Very few snacks are impulse items,” Ross said.

Morning is healthiest

Looking at meal times and snack occasions separately, mornings, both breakfast and the morning snack time, are when consumers are most driven by health concerns, the report says. 

“Those times are most likely to include a better-for-you label,” Ross said. “It is becoming a health-driven occasion, more than lunch or dinner.”

Even with the trend toward healthier snacking, the sodium sultans need not worry.  Salty snacks are still the leading category by a long margin, Ross said.

“Salty snacks are the No. 1 choice both within the home and away from home.  When you look at healthy choices within salty snacks then crackers and pretzels come to the front,” she said.

Eating at home

Another trend uncovered in the report is that more meals and snacks are being consumed at home.  And, while teenagers are still the leading snackers, consumers over 50 are the next, and it is this category that is making the informed, healthy choices.

That would seem to open an opportunity to market snacks to this demographic, but Ross said it is unclear exactly what such a product positioning might look like.  Healthy aging bars, anyone?

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