BELLEVUE, Wash. – U.S. consumers now snack more, eat alone more and grab more food on the fly. The reason behind this trend is a seismic shift in food culture: People are more fascinated by what they eat, yet less inclined to cook it, according to researcher The Hartman Group.
"This cultural shift puts a new burden on U.S. food companies to create products that are fresh and healthy enough to eat regularly, plus tasty and interesting enough to compete with a host of restaurants, taco trucks, coffee shops and other food venues," said Laurie Demeritt, CEO of The Hartman Group. "To fully understand what consumers want, it is important to study the cultural forces underpinning what and how they eat."
For example, while busy lifestyles are contributing to a shift from traditional meals to snacking -- which now makes up approximately half of all eating occasions -- consumers don't necessarily put more cultural weight on snacks than they used to.
The Hartman Group's 2013 report, Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors, highlighted several key drivers for snacking:
- 73 percent of snacking is physically driven. This includes 44 percent as hunger abatement, 15 percent as nutritional support and 12 percent as bursts of energy to combat lethargy.
- 36 percent of snacking is emotionally driven. This includes 23 percent as "time markers" to create structure in the day, 13 percent as boredom alleviation and 6 percent as reward, encouragement or temporary alleviation of discipline.
- 28 percent of snacking is socially or culturally driven. This includes people bonding around food without committing to a full meal, as well as those discovering new cuisines and flavors.
These figures do not add up to 100 percent due to overlap, but the above drivers do not overlap with aimless snacking, which makes up 27 percent of all snacking -- boosted by the constant availability of food and beverages. Aware that food is always nearby, people eat even when other drivers are absent, according to The Hartman Group.
In addition, aimless snacking is often underreported because consumers forget about it or re-categorize it as "purposeful" — and this has major implications for obesity and other health and cultural issues.
Eating alone is also on the rise, with 47 percent of all eating occasions now taking place with a single person eating alone, many of whom live in multi-person households. Consumers enjoy eating alone because it gives them time to catch up on work, reading and television programs, and nourish themselves without having to wait for family members who are going in all different directions.
Finally, "immediate consumption" is increasing. This occasion goes beyond restaurant meals to include food bought on the go that is often eaten at home. It stems from a variety of changes in lifestyle and values, including the diffusion of food management within families; less food planning because of busy schedules; and individuals — including children — wanting to customize their own meals. As a result, people grab whatever looks good just before they eat it.