The days of eating three large meals a day have gone the way of the butter churn.
Now, it’s all about grazing from morning to night, and often relying on foods traditionally thought of as snacks to power through a busy day, according to new analysis by the research firm NPD Group. Americans ate an estimated 386 billion ready-to-eat snack foods last year, up from 356.4 billion in 2011.
A granola bar, dried cranberries and yogurt are often a meal for Shamika Johnson of Akron, Ohio, who also has protein snacks and almonds to get her through her daily to-do list.
“I work. I’m busy. Sometimes, it’s easier to get snacks,” said the 27-year-old masseuse. “Half the time, I don’t have time to sit down for a meal. Combining a bunch of snacks gives me what I need nutritionally.”
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Whether you like chocolate bars, pretzels and dried fruits or string cheese, beef jerky and candy, here are four trend takeaways to munch on:
No candy for lunch, but …
Snacks are increasingly becoming part of Americans meals. We’re not talking about crushed potato chips on top of a casserole or raisins tossed into a salad. Snacks are no longer just munchables for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon pick-me-up, but the building blocks of meals.
“There’s a changed definition of what a meal is,” said David Portalatin, NPD’s national food and beverage analyst. “Today, I might have a piece of fruit and trail mix and call that lunch. In the past, we would’ve thought of that as exclusively snacks.”
The blurred line between snacks and the traditional trio of breakfast, lunch and dinner impacts what Americans choose to munch on, too. He pointed to breakfast sandwiches eaten as snacks, despite the first word of the food’s name.
Snacks: A tiny taste-tester
For some consumers, the small size of a packaged snack provides an opportunity to sample a new food or taste. It’s a way to do so without worrying about getting stuck with something they may not like, so there’s no guilt over wasted money with the remainder – assuming your food test ended with a spit take – ending up in the garbage can.
“They’re a low-risk way to try bold, new flavors,” said Portalatin. “We don’t have to commit to spending a lot of money. … I can experiment with that.”
Examples include açaí and various chili peppers.
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Chalk one up for health
As the divide between snacks and meals becomes more fluid, so does the definition of what’s good for you to snack on. In the past, snack foods were thought of more as indulgent, but with a national shift toward healthy eating, snacks have changed their game.
Not only are snacks become healthier – like nuts, seeds and cheese, versus a doughnut – they’re part of the movement that promotes grazing throughout the day.
“Today, they’re part of an overall wellness regimen, where we may want to have mini-meals across the day,” Portalatin said.
The economics of snacking
NPD’s research didn’t examine the price of snacking, but other experts say snack attacks are ambushing Americans’ wallets, too.
Snacks require more packaging. The costs come from the additional material needed to craft the packaging, the decreased efficiency of packing machines and the wear-and-tear on those pieces of equipment, which are moving more frequently to accommodate the smaller sizes, according to Duncan Darby, an associate professor of food, nutrition and packaging sciences at Clemson University.
“Those smaller packages are going to come at higher per ounce of food cost. It’s economies of scale,” he said, adding that for people grabbing snacks at convenience stores, there’s a higher mark-up, too.
Compare the price of a slim sleeve of nuts to a giant jar’s worth. For example, a 12-pack of 1.5-ounce bags of Blue Diamond Whole Natural Raw Almonds on Walmart’s website is $21 or just under $1.17 an ounce versus a 25-ounce bag of the same item, which is $11.68 or about 47 cents per ounce.
Darby explained that sometimes, it’s not about consumers failing to do the math, but about their wanting to save themselves the trouble of, say, scooping nuts out of a big container into small plastic bags to tote around.
It’s essentially a convenience tax.
“Snacks are a tad more expensive. I really don’t care,” said Johnson, the snacker from Ohio, who said she budgets for those higher food costs. “This is the 21st century. That’s how things are. … Snacks were fun, now they’re a reality. I need to have them to get through the day.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer