April 2016: The Future of Food

Snack Food Society


Snacks are everywhere—and increasingly being consumed at any time of day or night. On every continent in the world, snacks can be found in the aisles and near the checkout counters not only of grocery stores, supermarkets, and convenience stores, but also of department stores, home improvement stores, restaurants, and bookstores.

Snacks can be eaten at home, in public spaces, in malls, or in the office (often from bowls filled with goodies). Consumers worldwide are noshing morning, noon, and night—and in between, too. Estimates of the global snack market range from $374 billion to $560 billion, with the size of the market depending on how “snack” is defined.

And the definition is steadily expanding. Once thought to encompass only such traditional snack foods as fresh fruit, cookies, candy, chips, pretzels, and the like, what constitutes “snacks” is being redefined to include innovative variations on these traditional snack items, as well as beverages, vegetables, small (or half) sandwiches, and mini-meals.

For most people, a “snack” now consists of any food that’s relatively small (in size and/ or calories) and ideally portable (so it can be eaten on the run) that either complements or replaces a meal.2 Among increasingly health-conscious consumers, it should also be nutritious—but that’s not essential to every consumer. Using this definition, almost anything can be a snack: from soup to nuts, cheese to chips, carrots to sandwiches, and fruit to yogurt or smoothies. And increasingly, snacks are not just supplementing, but entirely replacing meals.

This Global Lifestyles brief examines some of the drivers behind the steady growth of snacking and the snack food market around the globe, and identifies trends in snacking behavior and snack foods. It also details some of the business implications likely to result from the continued growth of the global snack society.


A number of different factors are driving the global expansion of snacking not just as a supplement to meals but as a substitute for them.

  • Demographic shifts. Worldwide, more people are living in single-person households, and more older consumers are living on their own. In the US, for example, single-person households account for 27.5% of all households—up from 17.2% in 1970.4 And globally, the number of one-person households jumped 30% between 2001 and 2011.5 Living alone makes many consumers reluctant to put in the effort often required to make a full meal. In another important shift, the number of two-career couples, many of them with children, is also rising. Nearly half of all US couples—as well as two-thirds of UK couples and about 70% of Canadian couples—have two incomes.6 This makes it more difficult for many couples to find the time to plan and share meals regularly.
  • Millennial eating habits. Millennials are one of the driving forces behind the snacking trend.7 A 2013 survey found that nearly half (48.2%) of Millennials eat three or more snacks per day—more than twice the share of boomers (23.6%). Indeed, more than 25% of Millennials eat four or more snacks daily— and more than 10% eat five or more.8 And the snacking of Millennials is continuing to rise. In a 2012 survey, more than half (53.7%) of those who said they snacked more than they did two years earlier were adults age 18 to 34.9
  • Time pressure. Time pressure puts a premium on convenience and portability in food, just as it does for other purchases.10 Most people live more active, mobile, on-the-go lifestyles than even a decade or two ago, making it increasingly necessary to consume quick meals on the run. Non-stop lifestyles are making it more and more difficult to sit down to a meal (whether individually or as a family), much less to plan, shop, and cook a meal. This trend is not confined to adults either, as children have a growing number of time commitments—everything from school, sports, and music to volunteering. As a result, people are sitting down and eating traditional meals around a table less often.
  • Indulgence. Despite—or perhaps because of—the trend toward healthier eating, people have a tendency to give themselves permission to indulge in small pleasures: to say to themselves, “You deserve this.” Snacks, which by definition are small indulgences, fit well with the tendency of consumers to want to treat themselves.


Nielsen’s 2014 global survey found that the fastest-growing snacks differ from region to region of the world.

  • In both the Middle East (up 25% from a year earlier) and the US (15%), meat snacks showed the most growth.
  • In Latin America, crackers, rice cakes, and pita chips were up 21%.
  • In Europe, dips (including salsa) grew 6.8%.
  • In the Asia-Pacific region, dairy snacks (yogurt, cheese, pudding, etc.) rose 6.4%.

Expanding the snack repertoire

Consumers throughout the world have a wide—and expanding— repertoire of snack foods. The 2014 Nielsen survey found that, when asked to choose just one snack food, fresh fruit (18%) is a top snack pick in most countries—followed closely by chocolate (15%). Beyond fruit and chocolate, however, snack preferences vary widely. The next six most popular snack items (yogurts, breads/ sandwiches, cheese, chips/ crisps, vegetables, and ice cream/ gelato) were all the favorites of between 4% and 6% of global consumers.

Consumers are increasingly seeking healthier snack options— foods they can eat any time of day without guilt.

Most consumers, however, don’t confine themselves to choosing just one type of snack. Rather than sticking exclusively to their favorite snacks, a majority of consumers sample a variety of snacks.

Nielsen respondents said that during the previous 30 days, they had eaten: chocolate (64%), fruit (62%), vegetables (52%), cookies or biscuits (51%), bread or sandwiches (50%), yogurts (50%), cheese (46%), chips or crisps (44%), nuts or seeds (41%), gum (33%), ice cream or gelato (33%), popcorn (29%), crackers or crisp breads (28%), cereal (27%), dumplings (26%), and instant noodles (26%).


  • The rapid increase in snacking worldwide represents a significant avenue of growth for all packaged-food companies— and, in fact, all food companies and food-service providers. Those that do not provide snack offerings should consider downsizing and/ or repackaging current offerings and launching new marketing campaigns that reposition them as perfect for snacking. (The magic number in calories seems to be around 200.) Snack foods must deliver on the essential virtues of small size, portability, convenience, and tastiness, but those that can also offer additional virtues (such as nutrition, healthfulness, fun) will distinguish themselves from the competition.
  • Consumers are eating more and more often, at unusual hours throughout the day. This new pattern opens up new opportunities for restaurants and other food-service providers willing to stay open outside traditional mealtime hours.
  • Restaurants and food-service professionals that have not already done so should consider expanding the variety of snack offerings on their menus. The number of restaurant menus that showcase snack foods has risen 170% between 2010 and 2014.59 Offering a greater selection of appetizers, à la carte side dishes, nachos, tapas, and other small and sharable dishes will likely appeal to the expanding population of snack lovers.