It’s time to re-examine our assumptions about consumer snacking habits and preferences. No longer are snacks just indulgent and impulsive purchases, or packaged treats just gathering dust on a shelf as the expiration date nears.

Insights from Datassential’s new Snacking Keynote Report support the notion that snacking is ingrained in consumer lifestyles. It has become a “fourth daypart” satisfying a consumer’s need for taste, variety, freshness, and value—not just for empty calories between meals or late at night.

Snacking has become so prevalent that 96% of nearly 800 consumers surveyed said they had a snack food the day before, and 93% said they even drank a beverage as a snack. Consumers average about three snack foods and beverages per day.

Nearly all operators offer snackable foods on their menus. But interestingly, slightly fewer than half position those foods as “snacks” rather than as sides, appetizers, or desserts.

 

Snacking: Who, What, When?

What do consumers want? Three in five people surveyed indicated they are likely to order packaged, salty snacks—such as chips, pretzels, and crackers—when they’re looking for a bite outside of mealtime. These products represent the most popular choice. More than half of consumers identified their other “go-to” snack categories as sweet options such as baked goods and frozen desserts; or savory items including fried appetizers and sides, or pizza by the slice.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Datassential found that what consumers say they’re likely to order at snack time—and then what they actually buy—are two very different things, especially when it comes to healthful eating.

Consumers surveyed for the Snacking Keynote Report were likely to vastly overrate their healthful snack consumption. For example, 37% of people claimed to snack daily on vegetables and 33% said the same about fruit. Yet when they tracked their actual eating habits from the previous day, only 4% had vegetables and 14% had fruit. There were similar disparities involving such items as cheese, salad, eggs, cereal, and nuts.

Conversely, when it comes to many indulgent categories, consumers’ actual snacking from the previous day was greater than their claimed daily habit. Again, this involves such items as soda, pizza, and salty, crunchy snacks. Interestingly, the disparity was greatest for French fries. Datassential found that 34% of surveyed consumers ate fries the previous day, compared with only 20% of the same population that admitted to daily snacking of fries.

There are other contradictions as well. Of the nearly 13,000 snacking occasions people reported in the survey, approximately 60% were planned. This suggests that it’s more a habitual eating pattern than an impulsive one. Nearly three-quarters of those snacks were procured from home, which suggests that snacking isn’t only about grabbing an on-the-go bite.

Nor is snacking just about eating between meals. Consumers snack multiple times per day, with the highest incidence occurring between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., which are prime hours for the dinner daypart.

Finally, even though snacks traditionally are shelf-stable offerings, surveyed consumers identify “freshness” as the most important attribute when buying snack foods and beverages at both retail grocery and restaurants.

This means foodservice operators and retailers could boost snack sales with more freshness cues that they’re able to honor. These would range from menu descriptors, such as “freshly baked” cookies, to clear date labeling on packaged snacks. It also would mean promoting the seasonality of fruits, vegetables, and certain beverages.