Defining a Snack
One possible definition of snacking from a 2010 review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science & Nutrition, stated, “A snack is composed of solid food(s), including those typically eaten with a utensil (with or without a beverage) that occurs between habitual meal occasions for the individual, is not a substitute for a meal, and provides substantially fewer calories than would be consumed in a typical meal.”
However, according to Barbara Katz, president of HealthFocus International, meals and snacks now have a more blurred definition, where the snacking opportunity is more important than what is actually consumed. Rather than the size of the snack, one should instead consider the time of day, what the make up or content of the snack consists of, and the purpose of the eating occasion. This can be applied to either a food or a beverage, said Ms. Katz.
Snacking on the Rise
While the actual definition of snacking is a bit hazy, one thing remains clear—consumers today are snacking more than in the past. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that snack consumption has risen in the last 30 years. In 1977, 41% of consumers reporting eating no snacks daily, while in 2007 only 10% of consumers did not snack at all. Comparatively, in 2007, 18% of the population had four or more snacks daily, while in 1977 only 5% snacked this frequently. The largest percentages had between one and two snacks daily (25% and 26%, respectively) in 2007, while in 1977, 32% had one snack daily, and only 16% had two snacks.
So what are consumers looking for in a snack? HealthFocus reported that 7 out of 10 shoppers think that all food can be improved for nutritional functionality. Thirty seven percent said that, “All food and beverage categories including things like soft drinks, snacks and candy can be made as good for you as possible,” while 32% said “All food and beverage categories including things like soft drinks, snacks and candy can be made as good for you as possible assuming they taste exactly the same,” showing that a large percentage want nutrition, but don’t necessarily want to compromise on taste. An additional 31% said they don’t buy indulgent snacks for their healthfulness, so there was no need to make them any better for consumers.
When trying to assess what makes a snack “good for you,” concepts such as fewer artificial and more natural ingredients, and reduced fat and sugar ranked high among consumer desires. Fifty seven percent said reducing things like fat and sugar made snacks healthier, while 52% referenced using less or no preservatives. Fifty two percent also suggested natural ingredients were most important for making snacks healthier.
Consumers are also holding certain snacks to higher standards in terms of how healthy they should be. Depending on the snack, and when it’s consumed, consumers expect snacks to be more nutritious. Ms. Katz noted that 60% of consumers expect granola bars and breakfast bars to be healthier and more natural compared to non-chocolate candy. Ice cream and chocolate also have high natural requirements among consumers. HealthFocus’ research also found that sports drinks and energy drinks have more leeway in being natural and/or healthy, because consumers are using them for other reasons, such as stamina or combatting fatigue.
Timing of when a snack is consumed also impacts how healthy they should be in the eyes of consumers, said Ms. Katz. “In early morning, or what we consider to be breakfast, healthiness is more important, and continues to be through lunch. This desire tapers off as the day progresses,” she said. HealthFocus data show that 76% of consumers want snacks to be healthy in the early morning, and this dips to around 60% in the mid-morning and around noon. In the late afternoon, consumers are more likely to treat themselves, with only 45% wanting a healthy snack at this time. In the evening, healthfulness is important again with 64% wanting a healthy snack, but this percentage drops significantly to 27% after dinner when consumers want to indulge.
Marketing to Snackers
With snackers’ perceptions and desires shifting so dramatically throughout the day positioning a product as a snack can be a difficult undertaking. However, to Ms. Katz, it seems that specifying a product as a snack is a futile task.
“The key message is that while ‘snacking’ is playing a more important role in how people eat, don’t spend time defining what snacking is because foods will often fit in both snacks and meals—like yogurt, pasta, sandwiches and so on,” she said. “The opportunity comes from understanding different groups of consumers, when they are eating, what’s driving every occasion and then overlaying your brands on those needs and seeing what needs you are and aren’t meeting.”
She suggested that understanding a product in this context may lead manufacturers to consider formulation changes, smaller servings, or completely new product launches, in order to meet the evolving daily needs of consumers.
She added, “We change what drives our consumption every time we go to get something to eat. That’s why the whole thing is so interesting and insanely difficult to understand. Oh, yes, people say, healthy diet … a major concern of mine—except at night when I’m driven by comfort; or at a party when I’m driven by feeling like I deserve some fun; or when I’ve had a bad day at work when I’m driven by reward and so on. So it’s what drives the occasion. And it’s always multiple things.”