Several studies have shown a long-term increase in snacking, but the reasons for grabbing a bite or beverage have shifted over the past year. With the full force of the COVID-19 health crisis weighing on consumers, it's clear that emotions are playing an even greater role in their choices.
"Snacking habits can tend to be a little bit more malleable than other kinds of traditional habits," said Brad Schwan, vice president of category marketing for Archer Daniels Midland. The ingredients provider has been reviewing different sources of data to get an understanding of how snacking behavior has been affected by the pandemic.
In a recent review of the research, a few notable shifts jump out. While the number of times consumers snack throughout the day has remained steady, the overall volume has grown, according to an October 2020 survey by The Hartman Group cited by ADM. Meanwhile, 35% of consumers said they were snacking more often, and 20% have changed how they snack from the previous year.
A need for nourishment — through food that supports sustenance, wellness and health needs — triggered more than half of snacking occasions. But some of the reasons people are snacking have shifted. Distraction played a role in 40% of snacking occasions, up 8 points from the 2019 survey.
In 2020, 43% of consumers said they snacked to cope with boredom or frustration — up 7 points from a 2016 survey. And 55% said they snacked for comfort, a 9-point increase in that same timeframe.
"That's one of those drivers snacking does for consumers: It provides a variety of benefits, but one of them is the ability to manage their perceived stress and help with their mood and kind of provide this emotional comfort," said Schwan.
While an increase in snacking might seem to be a net negative from a nutrition standpoint, there has been a longer-term shift in the concept of the eating occasion.
"Snacking used to be, three decades ago, seen as something that was to be avoided, and seen as something that was in many ways for kids," said Schwan. "And we've seen a multidecade evolution in the snacking category to a place where consumer attitudes are super different, and they see snacking as something that can contribute to a healthy way of life."
In the 2020 Hartman survey, 25% of consumers reported choosing more healthy snacks since the pandemic, although this varies greatly depending on age.
Baby boomers are more reliant on three square meals a day. "They're less inclined to use snacking as a conscious strategy to achieve their health goals," Schwan said. They also do not seem especially motivated by emotional drivers for snacking like stress or boredom, or even drivers such as nourishment and optimization — eating to support physical and mental alertness — compared to other age groups, according to the Hartman research.
Generation X is "highly oriented to snacking for nourishment," Schwan said. While known to indulge, this age group believes in snacks as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Millennials are not only a large part of the workforce but are also often caring for young children. "Flexibility is pretty important to this particular group," Schwan said. "You start to see more and more snacking to cope with stress, or to [meet] some of what we call 'the optimization needs' — so managing alertness, managing focus starts to show up a bit more for millennials."
Sixty percent of millennials said they snack to cope with stress, compared to only 23% of baby boomers. And households with children under the age of 18 are most likely to turn to snacking to manage alertness and focus.
Gen Z consumers tend to snack for comfort, with 72% citing this as a driver, compared to only 42% of baby boomers. They are also tied with millennials in stress-driven snacking. "There is among this age cohort just a general higher level of stress and anxiety," Schwan said.
A nutritional opening
One of the few positive effects of the pandemic has been to raise the importance of nutrition among consumers in terms of their health and well being, said Dr. Janice Rueda, vice president, Nutrition Science Business Development for ADM. According to the Hartman survey, 50% of consumers said they were seeking out more fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks, 37% were looking more often for low-sugar or -salt options, and another 37% were choosing nutritious snacks more frequently.
"We know in nutrition research that it's really hard to get people to change their habits," Rueda said. "And so we're seeing these changes in snacking habits as people go to make healthier choices to improve their overall physical health."
ADM believes the snacking motivators of nourishment and optimization are going to be the most enduring after the pandemic. This provides food manufacturers with a wide opening — especially in meeting the needs of millennial parents. A recent study by IFIC found that 31% of parents said their child's nutrition improved during the pandemic because they could focus on healthier eating, make more meals at home and monitor their eating habits.
"We're seeing a conscious effort among parents to choose snacks that are made with higher-quality food ingredients like beans and peas, for example, in extruded snacks," said Rueda. "So rather than just being like a starch-based piece that is colored to look like a vegetable color … we're seeing now these snacks are made with key ingredients and they're going to be a little bit more nutritious, higher fiber."
High-protein, plant-based options from brands such as Hippeas, which is building a product platform around chickpeas, Outstanding Foods — maker of plant-based pork rinds and puffs — and pea-based snack maker PeaTos are part of this new generation of better-for-you snacks. Large players such as PepsiCo, which recently signed a deal with Beyond Meat to develop snacks made from plant-based protein, are also embracing the space.
"You ask people what nutrients are you looking to add to your diet — number one and two right now are fiber and protein,” said Schwan. "And those are things that snacks as a category is a wonderful space to deliver."
Rueda sees opportunity in incorporating whole food ingredients into snacks, such as whole grains or beans or pulses. She also noted the importance of flavors and colors in formulating snacks with whole food ingredients like whole grains.
"A lot of times there's a lot of bitter notes, off notes and kids don't like them, but there's a real opportunity to use flavor to build on those in a positive way and create memorable, desirable experiences for consumers, and then taking that use of flavor one step further to address consumer needs for using food to conquer mood," she said.
For example, using flavors such as chamomile and lavender as a flavor top note on a cookie icing or other bakery product for a late-date snack can help replicate the soothing feeling that a consumer might get from drinking a cup of tea.
"There's a whole lot of opportunity to combine the benefits of whole food ingredients to promote nutrition, and then, coupled with that emphasis on exciting new flavors, to make it more desirable," Rueda said.