Most snacking still occurs in the evening at home but this is declining. Morning snacking however has shown the strongest growth and snack foods replace more breakfasts than other meals, said the Snacking in America 2008 report from the NPD Group, a market research company.
The NPD study also found that most snack-oriented convenience foods, such as potato chips, are eaten between meals, but such items are increasingly finding their way into meal times as accompaniments or replacements.
The idea of snack foods being consumed at meal times could offer opportunities to food manufacturers, as a recent survey commissioned by Solae found that consumers increasingly seek filling breakfasts that release energy slowly, expanding the potential for products such as soy.
Harry Balzer, vice president at The NPD Group and author of Eating Patterns in America, said: “A generation ago most Americans believed they should ‘avoid snacking entirely’, but today snacking is more acceptable and is clearly the fourth meal of the day.
“Twenty-one percent of all meals are snacks.”
He added: “Mom’s warning about spoiling our appetites with snacks is definitely going unheeded.”
After experiencing a period of decline between 1996 and 2002, consumption of snacks has grown steadily and is forecasted to grow by 14 percent by 2017.
The consumption of snack-oriented convenience foods is particularly growing among children aged six to 12.
For children, fruit is the top food eaten between meals anywhere and consumption is up from five years ago, driven by more at home consumption. This is followed by cookies, candy or gum, ice cream, and chips.
The popularity of fruit snacks points to the demand for healthy products across food sectors and the opportunities for snacks manufacturers to improve the nutritional profile of their products while maintaining their appeal to children.
By 2017, NPD projects children under nine and adults aged 30 to 39 and 50 to 59 will account for the largest number of snacks eaten.
However, snacking among younger children aged two to five and adults aged over 55 is declining, while adults aged 18-34 showed the greatest decline.
Schwartz, who heads up NPD’s food and beverage business unit, said: “There is an aging curve that shows between meal eating peaking at a very young age; although children in general remain the heaviest snackers.
“On the other end of the age spectrum, between meal eating shows growth after the age of around 60. Because this is where the population is heading, we would expect this behavior to just outpace population growth.”
According to NPD Group's findings, many industries that target the youth market are enjoying strong growth, which often outpaces overall industry growth.
A recent report from IRI (Information Resources, Inc) said that retailers should work with manufacturers to help tackle obesity and arm parents with the information they need to select products that provide children with “better-for-you” healthy meals, beverages and snacks.
It said that figures gathered from sources including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that 21 percent of US children aged 6 to 17 are currently identified as overweight. By 2020 that number is projected to jump to nearly one third of all US children.
One of the main three factors that the report identifies as being at the heart of childhood obesity is mass marketing of food-related messaging. However, efforts are being made by the industry to self regulate the advertising of junk food, including the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in the US.