The majority of the world’s population snacks to some degree, although frequency levels tend to be highest in developed regions like North America and Western Europe. This is mainly because many consumers in these parts of the world lead time-pressured lifestyles and have less time available for formal meals, as a result of which demand remains high for products which can be eaten on the go. 

In the past, convenience – rather than health – has typically been the main consumer driver when purchasing snacks. However, as more people across the world are making greater efforts to improve their diets, health has increased in importance. Up to a quarter of consumers in Europe and the US are now believed to be seeking out healthier snacks compared with a few years ago, and this percentage is expected to continue rising.

Although snacking patterns are fairly consistent throughout the world, penetration levels and consumer behaviour do differ according to region.

North America

Snacking is an extremely widespread and ingrained habit in the US, as might be expected given the country’s position as the world’s largest market for snack foods. At present, there are more than 240bn snacking occasions in the US every year (up from around 230bn in 2005), while an estimated 21% of all meals eaten in the country are snacks. According to a report issued by food industry consultants Technomic early in 2010, over 50% of the US population snacks at least once a day, while 21% claim to snack on a more frequent basis compared with 2008.

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By GlobalData

Children and the younger age groups remain the heaviest snackers in the US. However, a 2006 study from the NPD Group indicates that eating patterns in this sector continue to change, with snacking frequency among the 18-to-34- years-old age range having declined fairly sharply in the years leading up to the survey. In contrast, snacking amongst children aged between two- and five-years-old and the 50-to-59-years-old age bracket is forecast to increase in the years leading up to 2017. The next decade is also expected to witness a move towards more snacking in the early part of the day.

At present, around 98% of children in the US snack at least occasionally, compared with less than three-quarters (74%) in the late 1970s. Most US children snack on average three times a day, with over a quarter (27%) of their daily calories obtained from snack foods. Cereal bars appear to be increasingly popular, with up to 70% of US children now eating them regularly as snacks.

Despite the continued popularity of products such as salty snacks, pretzels, biscuits and confectionery, the frequency with which fresh fruit is being consumed as a snack is also increasing among US children. According to data from NPD, fresh fruit replaced cookies as the favourite snack for children aged six-years-old and under during 2009, mainly as a result of higher levels of consumption within the home. Although consumption of fresh fruit as a snack tends to decrease with age, the same source indicates that yoghurt is also making increasing inroads into the snacking arena. These trends suggest that opportunities exist for healthy snacks within the children’s market, especially since these products are likely to appeal to parents.

On a broader level, interest in healthier snacks amongst the US population continues to grow. According to Technomic, over a third (35%) of US consumers now claim to be choosing healthier options as snacks compared with 2008. This trend appears to be particularly prevalent amongst female consumers, with over 70% of women claiming to seek out healthier varieties of salty snacks, such as baked and whole grain products. A similarly high percentage of Americans aged between 18- and 24-years-old also claim to be interested in these types of snacks.

Much of the desire for healthier snacks is being driven by increasing awareness of the need to reduce the amount of salt consumed. More than 40% of US households are believed to consider their diets to be too high in sodium, with most people consuming up to two to three times the amount of salt which is considered healthy. Concern over excessive sodium intake is highest amongst older consumers, typically those aged over 55-years-old. This has led to reductions in the amount of salt found in processed foods such as snacks, although many people still feel that low-salt versions of popular snacks are lacking in taste.

Europe

Consumer penetration of snack foods remains very high across most of Europe, particularly in the westerly countries such as the UK, France and Germany. According to current estimates, snacking now accounts for over 40% of all eating occasions in Europe, a figure which has experienced a marginal increase during the course of the last decade. European consumers now eat on average 4.5 times per day, with the total number of snacking occasions within the region now amounting to more than 280bn.

Within Europe, the snacking habit is particularly well-established in the UK, where approximately 40bn snacking occasions take place every year. Around 40% of the UK population eats between meals on a regular basis.

Consumption of snacks is especially heavy amongst children and teenagers, with research from baby foods manufacturer Organix indicating that penetration of snacks amongst UK children stands at 99%. Over 60% of the UK population aged under 20 regularly snacks between meals (compared with around half in France and 40% in Spain), while many within this age range admit to eating six or more snacks per day.

Despite these figures, recent data indicates that more UK consumers are now favouring healthier options when snacking. According to PepsiCo, over 40% of consumers are actively seeking out more natural alternatives, such as nuts and fruit-based products, when snacking. Meanwhile, data released in March from YouGov SixthSense (a regular survey based on a panel of 300,000 consumers) found that over half (55%) of UK adults regularly snack on fresh fruit. This compares with 45% for biscuits and 43% for bagged salty snacks.

Separate studies have found that healthier snacking also appears to be increasing among UK children. According to a 2008 survey carried out for the Flour Advisory Bureau (FAB) and the Federation of Bakers (FoB), almost a third (32%) of children aged between 11- and 16-years-old regularly snack on fruit, a figure which rises to 54% for 4-to-11-year-olds. Although crisps, chocolate and biscuits remain popular as after-school snacks in particular, this data indicates that healthier snacks are slowly gaining greater acceptance amongst UK children. However, the same study also found that around a quarter of parents still struggled to persuade their children to eat healthier snack foods.

The Far East

Consumers in countries such as Japan and China have traditionally followed rather strict eating habits, and are thus less inclined to skip meals in favour of snacking. However, this situation is now changing, especially amongst the growing urban population in China, where people have less time or inclination for formal mealtimes. As is the case in many other parts of the world, consumption of snacks in the Far East is generally highest amongst younger sections of the population.

The wide variety of products available in markets such as Japan and China has also led to very distinct eating patterns as far as snack foods are concerned. Western-style snacks (such as potato crisps) tend to be purchased on impulse for consumption between meals, usually by people within the higher-income groups. In contrast, what might be termed ‘traditional’ snacks (a sector which includes products such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit and seafood-based varieties) are more likely to form part of meals, or are eaten during social occasions.

Australia

Snacking is a very well-established habit amongst Australian consumers, especially those aged between 25- and 59-years-old. A 2008 survey of more than 700 adults commissioned for the Australian company Fantastic Snacks found that 94% of people snack between meals at least once a week. The snacking habit is most pronounced between lunch and dinner (when 74% of respondents claimed to eat snacks), although 58% also are snack foods after dinner. A sizeable 85% of female respondents admitted to snacking in the afternoons, compared with 77% of men.

Health does not appear to represent a major consideration for many Australians, since 41% claimed never to feel guilty about snacking on less healthy foods. A further 23% of respondents felt guilty on an occasional basis. The desire to seek out healthier snacks appears to be more pronounced amongst women, since 62% of female respondents claimed to feel some guilt when eating unhealthy products, compared with only 36% of their male counterparts.

The changing role of snacking

The consumer perception of snack foods appears to be changing across the world, in particular where they fit into the daily diet. According to NPD, although 60% of snacks eaten in the US are consumed between meals, more are now being eaten with or instead of meals. Snacks are therefore being consumed on a wider variety of occasions, thereby creating new opportunities for manufacturers.

In places such as the US and Western Europe, consumers are now equally likely to snack in the mornings as they are in the afternoon or evening. Although most snacking occasions still occur later in the day (with school home time representing the peak snacking time for UK children, for example), people are increasingly substituting snack foods for breakfast. This has been illustrated by the rapid growth in demand for cereal and energy bars, as well as the emergence of terms like ‘deskfasting’ (i.e. office workers eating breakfast at their desks). Breakfast remains the daily meal most likely to be replaced with snacks.

Another notable trend is the increasing tendency to consume snack foods as accompaniments to main meals. Varieties of ethnic recipe snacks (such as tortilla chips and prawn crackers) now form an integral part of home-prepared meals, due to the desire to more closely replicate the restaurant experience. Snack foods have also benefited from the greater frequency with which people are entertaining and socialising in the home, a trend accelerated by the recent economic downturn. It is mainly for this reason that demand for snack foods packaged in bigger packs suited for sharing continues to increase.