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Despite its reputation for contributing to the expansion of waistlines, snacking is a behavior that is entrenched in the daily routine of American lives, according to a recent report by The NPD Group, a market research company.
After experiencing a period of decline between 1996 and 2002, consumption of snacks has grown steadily and is forecasted to increase by 14 percent by 2017, according to "Snacking in America 2008," an NPD report.
"A generation ago most Americans believed they should avoid snacking entirely, but today snacking is more acceptable and is clearly the fourth meal of the day," says Harry Balzer, vice president at The NPD Group. "Twenty-one percent of all meals are snacks."
Although snacking behavior is common among people of all ages, NPD finds that consumption of snack-oriented convenience foods, which generally are eaten between meals as "snacks," but can be consumed along with meals or as a meal replacement, is growing among kids ages six to 12, but declining among adults 18 to 34 (showing greatest declines) and adults 55 and older. Snacking among younger children ages two to five also is declining.
By 2017, NPD projects kids under nine and adults ages 30 to 39 and 50 to 59 will account for the largest number of snack occasions.
"There is an aging curve that shows between-meal eating peaking at a very young age; although children in general remain the heaviest snackers," says Arnie Schwartz, who heads up the The NPD Group food and beverage business unit.
"On the other end of the age spectrum, between-meal eating shows growth after the age of around 60. Because this is where the population is heading, we would expect this behavior to just outpace population growth."
The time Americans snack is changing, as well, according to the NPD report. Most snacking still occurs in the evening at home, but evening snacking is declining. Morning snacking has shown the strongest growth, and snack foods replace more breakfast meals than other meals. Snacking in the afternoon continues, but remained stable.
The report also found that most snack-oriented convenience foods (e.g., potato chips) are eaten between meals, but these items are increasingly finding their way into meal times as accompaniments or replacements.
Among the reports findings: Fruit is the top food eaten between meals anywhere and consumption is up from five years ago, driven by more at-home consumption. Cookies, candy/gum, ice cream, and chips round out the top five items consumed between meals anywhere.
Most snack foods are purchased more than a day ahead. Just one in 10 are bought within 30 minutes of consumption.
"Regardless of age, lifestyle or health, snacking, whether mindful or mindless, is a component of our daily eating patterns," says Balzer. "Mom’s warning about spoiling our appetites with snacks is definitely going unheeded."