The Problem with How America Snacks Today

(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

Walk into any grocery store and you’ll witness the stunning proliferation of new snack products — from Beanitos and Lentil Chips to Halfpops and Coco-Roons. It’s a remarkable transformation of the grocery landscape, as Americans are now spending more on snacks than on regular grocery foods. Sales of nuts, nutritional bars, and meat snacks like jerky are growing at 2.5, 4.3, and 6.2 times the rate of overall grocery spending respectively, according to data from Nielsen.

Is the ever-widening snack landscape, and our reliance on it, a good thing — or problematic? Our packaged snack options are often healthier than the snacks of yore, which is great, but the language we have around when we snack and what constitutes a snack raises some questions about how and why we snack so much more, and how it affects our waistlines and our wallets.

So let me let you in on the little secret of snacking in America today: We have our work ethic to blame.

The State of Snacking in America

Not only are there more packaged, labeled snacks on offer at the grocery store, but what we’re defining as a snack is also expanding. Consider, for instance, “second breakfast,” or, as it’s sometimes called, “snackfast.” This is what we eat when we get hungry because we haven’t eaten enough food for breakfast. Instead, breakfast has become an amalgamation of packaged, portable, single-serving items spread across the first half of the day.

More shocking, however, is what we call a snack today, and how snacks are counted in our daily calorie tallies. Consumer insights research finds that many people consider a burrito to be a snack because it doesn’t come with sides or a dessert, which would constitute a “meal.”

Another incredible conclusion from recent NPD Group data: The menu item that Americans most frequently order as an afternoon snack is a burger. Now, a burger is many different things, but I think we can agree “snack” is not one of them.

Why Is Snacking Growing? (And Should We Care?)

(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

As the intensity, pace, and workload in schools and workplaces have risen, exacerbated by the “always-on” culture of social media and remote employees, Americans have developed a lot of anxiety about their energy levels.

We know that our schedules will be jam-packed and carried out at warp speed. Mere passengers, we will be swept along the tracks, inevitably facing repeated derailment (buzzing texts!) and a siege of bombs (chiming emails!). Our sentences will be punctuated by how “insane” things are, how “slammed” we feel every minute, perennially “in the weeds,” “in the trenches,” or in whatever ecosystem we feel is most apt to portray ourselves as drowning.

With no certainty that we’ll surface in time to squeeze in lunch or make it out of the office before 7 p.m., it’s only natural to think, Snacks to the rescue, or bust. (I’m as guilty as the next person: I ate a pack of almonds a few paragraphs ago, and I’m thinking about grabbing a KIND bar from the cupboard. You know, for insurance.)

One might think of snacking as a relatively harmless trend. So, we eat more almonds and energy bars, you might say. Why should we care? But I do believe, after much time spent looking at trends and the history of American cooking and eating, that the new normalization of snacking has concerning implications for both our physical and financial well-being.

3 Problems with America’s New Snack Focus

1. Calorie consumption is up — way up.

Some people forgo the traditional three square meals in favor of more frequent, smaller amounts throughout the day. That style of eating, known as “grazing,” is encouraged by some nutritionists and health professionals who endorse it for boosting metabolism, keeping blood sugar steady, and avoiding the overcompensation that can happen after feeling very hungry.

(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

But the jury is out on whether this is truly the best approach, in part because it’s not so easy to be so disciplined. In reality, countless consumers merely add snacks to meals they would have eaten anyway.

One big result of snacking? We eat more total food than before. Between 1978 and 1996, calories consumed from dinner decreased 37 percent and increased 16 percent from breakfast, 21 percent from lunch, and 101 percent from snacks. You can do the math to see that this nets out in the positive.

Calories consumed from dinner decreased 37 percent and increased 16 percent from breakfast, 21 percent from lunch, and 101 percent from snacks.

Between 1970 and 2010, the average daily calorie intake in the United States increased by 505, and snacks are a culprit we perhaps do not realize.

2. Snack spending outstrips spending on whole foods.

Data from Nielsen has revealed that the growth of Americans’ spending on snack foods has been significantly outpacing the growth of our spending on whole foods such as produce and dairy.

Sales of meat snacks, for instance, rose over 11 percent throughout 2014 at the same time that regular grocery spending rose just under 2 percent. Comprised of jerky and sticks, meat snacks are now a $2.8 billion category. (For context, Americans spend about $27.5 billion each year on salty snacks, including chips, crackers, and pretzels, which rose about 5 percent that year.)

Sales of nutritional bars increased about 8 percent. It is estimated that for KIND bars alone, their sales surged from $15 million in 2008 to $120 million in 2012, and more than tripled in the years following. Talk about a swift invasion!

3. We’re eating more packaged foods.

Encouragingly, plain ol’ fruit has become a more common snack. This suggests that snacks present an opportunity to log an extra serving or two per day of something that’s really good for us.

But fruit is up against some stiff competition. Remember “snackfast” and all the new mini packaged products vaguely suitable for morning consumption? A recent New York Times article found that “No food elicited a greater difference of opinion between experts and the public than granola bars. About 70 percent of Americans called [them] healthy, but less than 30 percent of nutritionists did.”

Consider, too, the debut of breakfast pastries that dance dangerously close to the dessert line. Frosted Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tarts and Quaker Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Breakfast Cookies come to mind, to name just a few.

And remember walking into your local grocery store to face that flood of new snack products? There’s an astounding number of ways that fruits and vegetables have been freeze-dried and dehydrated and puréed and molded into portable forms. No washing, peeling, or slicing required.

* * *

(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

I’m not suggesting we go back to washing clothes by hand or spending all day getting the stove hot, but it’s worth thinking about how convenience changes the way we act — and the way we eat. It’s not a straight one-for-one trade.

Before automatic washing machines, people just washed their clothes and sheets less often; we lived with a little more dirt in our lives. Before vacuum cleaners, we just let the rugs go a little longer before smacking the dust out of them over a balcony. But the greater availability of convenient foods doesn’t just save us time and get us back to work or on to whatever else we want to do — it leads us to eat more because the foods are there and they’re easy.

If it’s midafternoon and I’m only a tad bit hungry, I’m not likely to go into the kitchen, pull out some ingredients and prepare myself a nice sandwich. That seems like a whole ordeal, and I’m not that hungry. I can probably wait until dinner. But there’s a bag of trail mix in my drawer, and all I have to do is pull it out and eat it.

And I do.

The sheer volume of bars and nut packs and fruit leathers and crisps filling our food environments has, over the past generation, shaped our sense that snacking all the time is normal — and that food can and should be eaten all the time, any time. But that illusion of normalcy blinds us to an unsettling realization: Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re all participating in a radical social experiment.

What are your thoughts on snacking? Dangerous habit or modern eating evolution?

About Sophie Egan

(Image credit: Sophie Egan)

Sophie Egan is the author of the book Devoured: How What We Eat Defines Who We Are (William Morrow/HarperCollins), recently released in paperback. Based in San Francisco, Sophie has written about food and health for publications such as The New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, WIRED, and Sunset magazine. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @SophieEganM.

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