Three Squares Go Full Circle


They may not be foraging berries or spearing buffalo, but consumers are revisiting their hunter-gatherer history through modern eating habits. A new kind of nomadic lifestyle — now called “mobile” and “on-the-go” — has led to shifting eating patterns, with sit-down family dinners often replaced by grazing and snacking throughout the day.

Colin Stewart, SVP at Jacksonville, Fla.-based sales and marketing consulting firm Acosta, agrees that hectic work and activity schedules are spurring the grazing movement. “The traditional approach to meal occasion is changing,” he notes. “Not only is it tough to find time to sit and have a meal, but we’ve learned that the healthy approach is to fuel our bodies throughout the day.”

The Hartman Group, a market research firm in Bellevue, Wash., calls this change “seismic.” According to the firm, only 10 percent of people follow a once-traditional three-square-meals-a-day habit, with snacking now comprising half of all eating occasions. The good news for food retailers: 80 percent of snacks are eaten at home, according to Hartman’s estimates.

Additional market research bears out this sea change. Chicago-based Technomic Inc. found that 77 percent of consumers snack at least once a day, with 51 percent reporting that they snack twice daily. About a third of consumers (31 percent) told Technomic that they’re snacking more frequently than they were just two years ago. Moreover, 45 percent are replacing one or two daily meals with a snack.

Likewise, Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen reports that today’s shoppers plan meals only hours in advance, looking for quick preparation and often replacing meals with snacks. In 2014, Nielsen conducted a Global Survey of Snacking, based on the changing nature of noshing here and abroad.

“Busy, on-the-go lifestyles often dictate a need for quick meals, and many opt for fast food that can be high in calories and low in health benefits,” says Susan Dunn, Nielsen’s EVP, global professional service. “There is a massive untapped opportunity to gain market share in the nutritious, portable and easy-to-eat meal alternative market, [which] snack manufacturers could fill.”

To be sure, snacking is big business: According to Nielsen, consumers worldwide spent $374 billion on snack foods between 2013 and 2014, an increase of 2 percent over the previous time frame.

With snack foods crowding out traditional meal ingredients on lunch and dinner plates, manufacturers and retailers are competing in a new and tighter way with other channels, from foodservice operations to drug stores to dollar stores. Within the grocery channel, there are opportunities to merchandise snacks for both between-meal consumption and as meal replacements.

Fresh Potential

“Snacking is no longer just an incidental eating occasion where a consumer impulsively purchases a low-cost packaged item such as a candy bar or bag of nuts,” affirms Eric Richard, education coordinator for the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, which recently released a report called “Engaging the Evolving Shopper: Serving the New American Appetites.” “It’s become a purposeful, rich cultural practice that now stretches beyond the center store snack aisles and into the fresh perimeter.”

Nielsen’s findings support the promotion (and cross-promotion) of snacks throughout the store. Last year, the number of unique deli prepared snack items increased nearly 10 percent, and in the produce section, items like snacking vegetables and fresh-cut fruit expanded by close to 20 percent each, according to Nielsen data.

With this significant change in eating behavior and food purchases, the resulting consumer clamor and industry competition have led to new product development, packaging and promotions to reach those nomadic but tech-savvy and discerning consumers.

“This cultural shift puts a new burden on U.S. food companies to create products that are fresh and healthy enough to eat regularly, plus tasty and interesting enough to compete with a host of restaurants, taco trucks, coffee shops and other food venues,” remarks Hartman CEO Laurie Demeritt. “To fully understand what consumers want, it is important to study the cultural forces underpinning what and how they eat.”

Portability, which spans products, portions, packaging and other related factors, is an obvious key feature of meal replacment snacks. According to Technomic, 60 percent of consumers cite portability as an important factor when choosing a snack.

One example of a newer snack product that was developed around portability is the P3 Portable Protein Pack, from Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods’ venerable Oscar Mayer brand.

“Consumers snack three times a day on average, and 75 percent of adults are looking to add more protein to their diets,” says Joe Fragnito, VP of marketing for Oscar Mayer. “The protein snacking category has a 7 percent growth rate, but meat is too often an afterthought, with all the yogurt, smoothies, bars and powders on the market.”

Philadelphia-based Dietz & Watson has since launched its protein-heavy Snacks on the Go line, combining meat, cheese and mini pretzels.

Demand for higher-protein snacks that can be consumed at traditional mealtimes has also been heeded by Ruiz Food Products Inc., of Dinuba, Calif. “Consumers know that protein helps them feel full longer, so they are reaching for high-protein foods, especially in the morning or for snacking occasions,” notes President and CEO Rachel Cullen.

Many manufacturers, in fact, are starting to see beyond the three-square-meal model and shifting into grazing mode. The Hillshire Brands Co., in Chicago, now part of Tyson Foods, has unveiled the Hillshire Snacking line, which includes kits with Italian-style meats, cheeses and crackers, as well as protein-centric items like grilled chicken bites with honey mustard sauce.

Interest in better-for-you snacks that include items deemed healthy, organic, and natural or free-from is also having an effect on snacking occasions and mealtimes. In its consumer studies, Technomic found that 50 percent of consumers say that healthfulness is very important when choosing a snack.

Meeting Demand

Food companies are accordingly bulking up their snack choices. Bridgewater, N.J.-based Applegate, for instance, recently teamed up with the Annie’s and Stonyfield Farms brands on a line of portable kits, Half Time, which can be consumed as on-the-go meal replacements or a convenient lunch. Varieties include Applegate antibiotic-free lunchmeat and rBGH-free cheese, Annie’s crackers and snacks, and a Stonyfield Organic YoKids Squeezer.

Meanwhile, meal replacement snacks borrow from such foodservice trends as small plates and big bites. The foodservice influence is also evident in co-branded grocery snacks like White Castle’s frozen sliders, Chili’s Chicken Tamale Bites and P.F. Chang’s vegetable mini egg rolls, among others.

The seguing of snacks into meals is a trend that market researchers believe will continue for some time to come. According to a recent study from The NPD Group, snack foods eaten at mealtimes will grow by about 5 percent over the next five years, or to 86.4 billion eatings in 2018.

“Snacking has become a purposeful, rich cultural practice that now stretches beyond the center store snack aisles and into the fresh perimeter.”
—Eric Richard, International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association

“The protein snacking category has a 7 percent growth rate, but meat is too often an afterthought.”
—Joe Fragnito, Oscar Mayer

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