Consumers have been snacking more in recent years to bridge the gaps between meals as they juggle longer work hours and commute times, hectic family schedules and all-around busier lives. And the trend shows no signs of slowing, further fueled by -- of all things -- the growing wellness movement. Health-minded people who view snacking as a healthy habit are eating smaller portions of foods more frequently throughout the day.
An eye-opening new study by the NPD research firm (Port Washington, NY) found that consumers with the "healthiest" lifestyles are the most frequent snackers. Another surprising finding is that fresh fruit is consumed more often than any sweet or salty snack food, making it the top snack choice of U.S. consumers, beating out chocolate, potato chips, nuts, cookies and other traditional snacking favorites. It's important to note, however, that while fruit is the top snack across all snack occasions -- as a meal and in-between meal snack -- salty snacks remain the top in-home and away-from-home snack for in-between meal snacking.
The findings in NPD's Snacking in America study -- which shed light on the behaviors, choices and motivations that drive snacking consumption -- can help vending operators better deliver the products their patrons want and capture a bigger market share in a competitive market that is currently dominated by snacks that originate from home.
"Our frequent snacking is a result of our hectic lifestyles, need for convenience, increasing desire to eat healthier foods, and simply to enjoy what we eat," said Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. "There is, however, a complexity to snacking behaviors based on demographics, 'needs states' and attitudes. Food manufacturers and retailers will need to align their business strategies with the appropriate consumer behaviors in order to capitalize on consumers' penchant for snacking."
THE BIG PICTURE
More than half of consumers (53%) reported that they snack more than twice a day, while 11% snack five or more times a day, according to NPD. Kids are the heaviest snackers, with 62% of those 2 to 12 years old snacking multiple times daily. Only 17% of consumers do not snack, while 30% consume only one snack a day.
A separate study by The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, WA-based research firm also found that snacking has reached new heights, so much so that today's Americans snack more than they eat traditional meals. The research firm, which said almost any food and beverage could be consumed as a snack, found that 52% of all eating occasions among U.S. consumers in 2012 were around snacking -- up from 49% in 2010.
Its findings suggest that Americans consume 2.35 snacks a day. Specifically, 41% eat two snacks a day, 24% eat three, 17% consume one, 13% eat four and 4% consume five or more.
A key finding in NPD's research -- counter to conventional views on snacking -- is that the more consumers snack, the healthier their eating behaviors. NPD found that consumers following the "healthiest diets" snack twice as often as those with "less healthy" eating habits. Women reportedly "outsnack" men, and their choices tend to skew toward better-for-you selections.
People considered to have the healthiest diets eat 36% more snack meals a year than the average consumer, according to NPD's "Snacking in America" report.
This compares with those with "moderately healthy" diets, who reportedly eat 1% fewer snack meals than the average consumer, and those with the "least healthy" diets, who eat 29% fewer.
The report also found those following a "most healthy" diet eat a wider variety of healthy snacks such as fruit, yogurt and bars.
Likewise, some 57% of respondents in the Hartman Group survey said it's important that snacks be healthy, despite the fact that chips and soda were the two most popular "snack foods" they said they consume.
"We are no longer as averse to snacking as we used to be. Instead, snacking may be viewed as one way to improve healthy eating habits," said NPD analyst Seifer.
WHY THEY BUY
Consumers in the NPD study ranked liking the taste of a snack as the leading motivator for making a selection. Their other motivations included hunger, having a craving, it being their favorite snack, the snack being simple and easy to eat, and it having a nutritious benefit.
The Hartman Group found that while 28% of consumers said they snack when they "want an indulgent treat," many said there's no particular driver for snacking. More than a quarter (27%) of respondents described snacking as an impulse, while 16% said they snack when they don't feel like preparing a meal, and 14% said they snack when they "feel stressed or anxious."
Some 57% of respondents said it's important that snacks be healthy, despite the fact that chips and soda were the two most popular snack foods they said they consume.
SWEET ON FRUIT
Fresh fruit is the top snack food consumed across all snack occasions -- as a meal and in-between meal snack, and is the fastest growing, as consumers focus on health and eating right, according to NPD's Snacking in America report. But it's currently least likely to be consumed on the go.
However, salty snacks -- which are the snacks most often purchased on impulse -- continue to be the top choice for both in-home and away-from-home in-between-meal snacking. After salty snacks, the most popular in-home, in-between-meal snacks are fruit, frozen novelties, cookies, candy and gum and crackers, according to the NPD study. The top away-from-home snack choices for between meals, after salty snacks, include frozen sweets, burgers, French fries, candy and donuts.
One of the reasons that fruit holds the top snack spot is that it's eaten throughout the day, and is thus included on more snack occasions than other choices. During the two-year period ending March 2012, fresh fruit was consumed as a snack on 10 more snack occasions a year than chocolate, the next top snack food, and 25 more occasions a year than potato chips, the third-most popular snack food, according to NPD.
NPD's snack research found that fresh fruit ranks No. 1 in five of the six need states that drive consumption -- health and weight, hunger satiety, convenience, routine/habit, and satisfying a craving.
Another factor contributing to the popularity of fresh fruit is that it is a favorite snack among all ages, according to NPD. Consumers 65 and older eat the most fruit, followed by children under 12. Teens ages 13 to 17 eat the least fruit, but their consumption increases as they get older. Another aspect of fruit consumers, other than age, is the type of snackers they are. Healthier snack consumers snack more often between meals and eat a wider variety of healthy snacks, and fruit is the top go-to snack for these consumers.
"Taking the who, what, when, and where of fresh fruit consumption into account, the point to be made is that fresh fruit is a top-of-mind snack with most consumers," said NPD's Seifer. "Among the opportunities this trend presents to producers and produce retailers to market and merchandise fruit around the activities during which it is most likely to be eaten, usage can be expanded with packaging innovation and promotions for on-the-go activities when it's least likely to be consumed."
Morning snacks are reportedly driving the strongest growth in the category, when nutrition seems to be a greater motivator, according to NPD. In-home morning snacking has shown the strongest growth in recent years, with an increase of 22 morning snacks a person since 2002.
Together, the morning meal and snack occasion are the top foods eaten. Over a two-year period ending Feb. 2012, 19% of consumers said they ate breakfast and at least one morning snack, up from 16% in 2004.
The morning hours between 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. are considered to be a clearly defined breakfast meal time; selections are primarily motivated by what's readily available and quick and easy to eat, with cold cereal and bread among the top items consumed, according to NPD. But there are also two separate and distinct morning snack occasions: an early one focused on nutrition and health and a later one to satiate appetite until lunch.
Morning snacks tend to be chosen for portability and to satisfy the consumers' taste need, according to the research. Fruit is the number one morning snack category both in and away from home.
While snacking is evolving from a late-night nibble to a morning fuel source, evenings remain the most common daypart for at-home snacking, according to NPD.
The Hartman Group found that consumers snack most often later in the day. More than half of consumers reported snacking between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. (56%) and/or between 5 p.m. and midnight (51%). Additionally, 34% said they snack between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m.; 31% between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; and 17% between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m.
HOME VS. AWAY
A majority of snack foods (81%) is sourced from home and is either consumed at home or carried to eat at work or school, according to NPD's data. Supermarkets are the source of half of all snacks, and superstores like Target and Walmart and club stores also command a large share of snack purchases.
Snacking is a planned behavior, according to the study, with nearly two-thirds of snack foods purchased more than 24 hours before consumption. And more than 90% of American households contain traditional salty snacks, such as chips and pretzels.
Consumers reported that they most often snack during leisure activities, with watching TV topping the list. Only 10% of snacks are consumed at work or school, according to NPD's data.
The Hartman Group found away-from-home consumption to represent a larger share of the snack market than NPD's figures, with 3 of 10 consumers polled saying that they most often eat snacks at home. However, similar to NPD, only 12% of those polled by Hartman reported snacking at work, and 7% said they snack "on the go."
IN-BETWEEN MEAL SNACKING
While much of the talk about snacking has been that busy consumers are "grazing" more and eating snacks as meal replacements rather than eating defined meals, NPD research suggests that consumers are less likely to skip their breakfast, lunch and dinner mealtimes today than they were five years ago. But they often describe these meals as "mini-meals."
The Snacking in America report found that although Americans still carve out main meal times, the number of items they eat at each main meal has declined over time, and consumers snack between meals often.
Dinner is the only meal occasion that consumers consider to be a full or complete meal, rather than a mini meal, according to the snacking report. However, the average American today has only 4.1 food and beverage items at dinner, compared with 5.3 items in 1985.
Snacking is filling the gaps between traditional main meals, according to NPD. Today, 20% or one out of every five in- and away-from-home eating occasions in the U.S. is a snack. In comparison, breakfast accounts for 28% of eating occasions, dinner for 27% and lunch for 25%. (Those percentages do not include skipped meals.) More than half of Americans (53%) are snacking two or three times a day. Many, for example, report multiple eating occasions during the morning.
While vending operators tend to see wide-ranging consumer snacking preferences and patterns based on demographics, geographic region and a host of other factors, gaining insight into the broad trends driving the category's growth can go a long way in satisfying patrons and increasing sales.
In-Home and Away-from-Home Meals by Occasion
% of meals
Top Snack Foods Consumed by Snack Origin
Charts: The NPD Group/NET and CREST services, year ending Feb 2012