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The snack shake-up

Americans want more nutrition, but are retooled old favorites really any better?

April 30, 2007|Regina Nuzzo | Special to The Times

NO longer satisfied by three meals a day, Americans have become accustomed to noshing whenever hunger hits.

On any given day, about a quarter of Americans skip breakfast and 1 in 8 skip lunch, but 90% treat themselves to a snack, according to the International Deli-Dairy-Bakery Assn. In 2002, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 86% of Americans admit to eating between meals on any given day. On average, Americans eat about two snacks daily -- a frequency mostly unchanged since the first CDC survey in 1971.

Although Americans are consuming about the same weight of snacks daily (about 21 ounces, including snack beverages) as they did three decades ago, the number of snack calories has increased significantly over the last three decades, according to the CDC surveys. In 1971, a typical snack was about 185 calories; in 2002, it was 234.

Now, however, snackers may be having second thoughts. Although bored cubicle workers may not be ready to give up the midmorning vending machine visit, they seem increasingly aware of the caloric toll.

About three-quarters of American shoppers are now trying to eat more healthfully, according to a recent survey by Information Resources Inc., a market analysis research group. About two-thirds are trying to replace high-calorie snacks with healthier options or eat snacks with more nutritional value. And 57% are flat-out trying to snack less often.

These trends have certainly caught the eye of the snack food industry, even being called "growing concerns" in a state of the industry report at Snaxpo, the annual meeting of the Snack Food Assn. in March.

So food manufacturers, always responsive to society's needs (or, more accurately, the changing marketplace), are scrambling to expand into the fastest-growing niche in the snack market: healthful snacks.

Well, not-so-unhealthful snacks.

No longer just the stuff of hippie health food stores, new better-for-you snacks are likely to be comforting favorites -- or familiar variations thereof -- rejiggered and repackaged to reflect the latest health concerns. Trans-fat free. Whole-grain goodness. Or fortified with flavanols.

But be forewarned: Some nutritionists question whether the new snacks will actually make consumers healthier. Unnecessary calories are unnecessary calories -- whether they're "free of trans fats," made with "real fruit juice" or stuffed with vitamins most people get plenty of anyway.

"Some of the new product developments are probably good, but others are all for show," says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "The industry is good at making things appear more beneficial than they are."

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Birth of the grazer

In the 1960s and '70s, researchers became interested in why heavier animals tend to eat less frequently, says David Levitsky, professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. Several studies found that eating smaller, more frequent meals seemed to bring about improvements in glucose tolerance, cholesterol levels and obesity -- in rats.

For humans, the benefits of meal-grazing turned out to be less clear in studies conducted throughout the 1970s and '80s. But that didn't stop an eager public from touting an enticing, if oversimplified, conclusion: Eating all day is good for you. Subtleties of the original research were often lost by the time the message hit the streets. "Popularizing the research helps to sell a lot of diet books," Levitsky says.

Today, there's still no scientific consensus about the wisdom of spreading meals throughout the day. "The science that suggests eating small meals is advantageous is somewhat old," Brownell says. "That doesn't mean the conclusions are wrong. It just means there has not been a lot of work on it lately."

Without strong counter-advice, then, we continued to nosh. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey reports that Americans get about 21% of their daily calories solely from snack beverages and foods.

In 2005, Americans spent about $61.4 billion on snack foods -- up $3.6 billion over the previous five years, according to a report by Packaged Facts, a publishing division of MarketResearch.com.

And according to the Snaxpo report, snack sales overall increased by 3.2% in 2006 over the previous year.

Snacks in "healthy" categories -- a wide range that includes granola bars and better-for-you versions of standard favorites -- led the increase with a 6.4% jump. Overall, "indulgent" snacks were fairly sluggish by comparison with 2% growth. Cookies and ice cream were even further behind, and doughnut sales dropped by 2%.

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Apples-and-Cheetos comparison

But healthier doesn't mean healthful.

"Adding nutrients to junk food is all about marketing," says Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. "Nutritionally modified junk food is better than regular junk food, but it's not going to turn cookies into apples."

Nor does healthier mean tastier.

Snack-food aficionado Jeremy Selwyn, former newspaper food editor and creator of Taquitos.net -- home to more than 3,470 snack food reviews -- says he's seen some pretty unappetizing snack trends come and go. "People might buy them once, but they couldn't keep it up."

In the end, consumers may agree. Good intentions aside, about two-thirds of people surveyed for the Information Resources report said they were more likely to eat what tastes good rather than what's good for them.

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