US consumers are snacking more than ever before as busy lifestyles lead to on-the-go eating and drinking, blurring the boundaries between meals and snacking.
“Between 1977 and 2006, snacking in the American diet has grown to constitute ‘a full eating event,’ or a fourth meal, averaging about 580 calories each day,” said professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University Richard Mattes.
Half of those snack calories were consumed as beverages between meals, he said.
However, although Mattes said Americans tended to be less fully aware of the calories they consumed through beverages, it is not necessarily the case that increased snacking is linked to an increased risk of obesity.
G. Harvey Anderson of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto said: "The literature does not support the intuitive notion that increased consumption of snack foods is an independent cause of obesity.”
Anderson added that for some age groups, such as the very young and the elderly, foods consumed outside of mealtimes were important for overall nutrient and energy intake.
Food and beverage manufacturers have increasingly turned their attention to creating and marketing ‘better-for-you’ snacks in recent years, highlighting attributes such as vitamins, minerals, fiber content and lower sodium, in an effort to educate consumers about nutrition, as well as take advantage of demand for such products.
As the number of calories consumed through snacks has increased, the time spent eating meals has remained constant at about 70 minutes, Mattes said. But the amount of eating that takes place while engaged in other activities doubled from 2006 to 2008 – from 15 minutes a day to nearly half and hour – and drinking outside of mealtimes jumped from 45 minutes to 85 minutes a day during this period.
According to a recent report from market research organization Packaged Facts, US packaged snacks sales hit $64bn in 2010, up from $56bn in 2006. It said it expected the growth rate of the market to further increase over the next several years, and predicted sales to reach $77bn by 2015.