3 key characteristics make a snack a snack

It’s official: Snacks are everywhere, all the time. But snacking behaviors follow some fairly predictable (or at least predictably unpredictable) rules. These three characteristics are redefining snacktime in 2024.

Nick Collias, Contributing writer

May 31, 2024

3 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Snacks are the least social meals. Consumers are more likely to eat them alone and not share. Hands off!
  • One snack per day is no longer the norm ... It’s more like three.
  • Snacks are tied less to specific times of day than to actual hunger cues, creating opportunity for indulgent flavors.

Snacks may be the food category that comes with the fewest preconceptions. Far more than those familiar breakfast eggs or cereal, lunch sandwiches or a packed dinner plate, a snack can look a million different ways — and even that can change at every eating occasion.

Julien Delarue, Ph.D., a sensory scientist at the University of California Davis, explained, “It could be a piece of fruit, a protein bar, a processed food — really, a ‘snack’ could mean anything.” Similarly, nothing limits where a snack can be eaten, whether at home in front of the TV, at work or at the gym.

Despite these liberties, that doesn’t mean these munchies don’t follow any rules. Three attributes of snack foods should be considered when developing or perfecting new products.

1. People are more likely to eat a snack when they are alone.

A snack needs to fit into consumers’ highly personalized lifestyles and schedules. This means it’s also the food they’re most likely to eat with no one else around.

“There are some exceptions to this, but most of the time you eat a snack when you’re alone,” Delarue maintained. “It’s also not a meal that you share. The presence of others has a very important effect on what and how you eat, and what you choose to eat — and with snacks, you often lose this component.”

And this trend is growing. According to the Hartman Group’s “Future of Snacking 2024” report, 73% of Gen Z consumers revealed they snack alone either all of the time or fairly often. For Baby Boomers, snacks remain a slightly more social affair, with only 55% snacking alone.

2. Snacks aren’t just a one-shot deal.

When those Gen Z consumers said they snack alone “fairly often,” they meant it. Over half of individuals between the ages of 18-44 told Circana in 2023 that they snack three or more times each day.

That’s a dramatic departure from the old “three square meals and a healthy snack” model. And the time frame for each of those snacks can be tough to predict. The “Future of Snacking” report compared the snacking popularity of early morning, mid-morning, mid-afternoon, afternoon and late night, and found them to be remarkably similar. Mid-afternoon snacks are still the most common, but only by a few percentage points. And the second most popular is actually after dinner.

That’s a lot of snacks — and a lot of opportunities to present young snackers with specific flavors and textures to match up with their highly personal cravings.

3. Snacks are indelibly tied to hunger.

What makes you reach for that mid-afternoon nosh? It’s not necessarily because the clock struck “snacktime.” More likely, you’re getting a strong physical signal that you can’t ignore.

“One thing that makes a snack very special is that people eat it mostly because they're actually hungry,” Delarue stated. “Sure, you could claim that people always eat when they are hungry, but I don't think that's always completely true. Whereas other types of foods that eat as part of a meal are more culturally embedded, a snack really serves this primary purpose to feel good.”

Snacks that strike the right balance of satiety and satisfaction will continue to power the $4 billion protein snack market. Increasingly, winning products may need to pair indulgent flavor with high-satiety formats — Doritos-flavored jerky, anyone?

Sure, consumers want to indulge, but they also want to feel full between meals … or at least until their next snack.

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Contributing writer

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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