For eating, read snacking?

Snacking is replacing traditional mealtimes, food industry analysts say. Is the natural products sector immune from – or part of – the trend? Jim Manson reports

“Snacking is the future of eating.” So pronounced the CEO of a firm of US analysts that advises some of the biggest snack brands in the world. “You and I will continue to snack more and sit down to a meal less,” added Gary Stibel to drive home his point.

You and I might feel a little bit uncomfortable about this prospect. We’re meant to be reconnecting with our food, re-discovering the pleasures of eating together — aren’t we? In our heads we are, but in our actions we’re probably doing what everyone else is: grabbing breakfast on the way into work, downing a mid-morning energy bar, and pulling into a lay-by for a late lunch in front of the dashboard.

Meal replacements

There’s little doubt that our eating habits are changing. ‘Eating occasions’ during the day are increasing and our eating style is more informal. And according to food research experts Wixon, there is a portion of the population which has completely stopped eating three meals day and switched to five or six small snacks – with enormous implications for the food and drinks industry.

Indicating the pace of change, the recent Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report showed that 28 per cent of 18-24-year olds and 25 per cent of 25-34-year olds say they are snacking more than they were just two years ago.

But these are the same young consumers bombarded with messages about staying healthy and maintaining performance. So, while their lifestyles demand that they eat on go, they don’t want to be making nutritional compromises. And that’s the space that switched-on natural and organic brands are taking ownership of.

Chart toppers

Eli Sarre at organic and Fairtrade wholesaler Essential Trading says that more and more snack products are appearing in its Top 100 Sellers. “It’s not something you used to see – it shows how behaviour and tastes are changing.” Up to a point, at least. “What’s interesting is that some of the biggest selling products are the traditional favourites. Our flapjack range is our single biggest selling snack food. And that hardy perennial the Sesame Snap is as popular as ever.” But Sarre says a number of new trends are coming through, such as raw and snacks with various free-from attributes.

As the natural snacks sector becomes ever more crowded new entrants are having to do more to stand out. Co-founder of natural fruit snack brand Clearly Scrumptious, Rick Wadsworth, knew that his products would have to offer – and convey – a seriously pleasurable eating experience to attract attention and win repeat purchases. Wadsworth says that getting the size of the product right was also important. “We wanted a lightweight snack that delivered on flavour and nutrition, but didn’t give health-conscious people the feeling that they had eaten too much.”

“We wanted a lightweight snack that delivered on flavour and nutrition, but didn’t give health-conscious people the feeling that they had eaten too much.”

Dietary driver

At Haslmere Health Steph Smith has seen the store’s snack offer steadily grow over the last few years – and she thinks she knows what is driving the upward trend. “The key selling point for the snack foods we sell is that they offer some kind of added health, nutritional or allergy benefit – the same things that people are looking for in the other food products we sell. Almost all of our customers have some kind of special diet interest or condition.”

Smith says that for optimum sales, snacks should be positioned near the checkout. “It’s prime selling space – almost anything here sells. And despite sometimes carrying quite high price points, price rarely seems to be an obstacle to a sale – which is sometimes a surprise to me!”

Puffed up

Lucy Gatwood, marketing manager at Bristol retailer The Better Food Company, says the store is selective about the snack products it stocks. “We don’t sell crap snacks, not to put too fine a point on it! And we apply the same selection criteria as we would for any other category. We recently turned down a potato snack product when we discovered that British potatoes were being sent to America to be puffed up – literally – and then sent back!”

Latest graze

One of the trends that The Better Food Company is right on top of is the ‘grazing box’. “We do a whole range of grazing boxes with felafel, hummus, seeds, fruit etc, and a range of salad pots. We make these on site ourselves so we can be sure about the quality of ingredients and the nutritional value. In many ways this type of eating is replacing the old sandwich-based lunch. We’d say it represents a healthier style of out-of-home eating – and one that reflects and meets our customers’ health, nutritional and ethical choices.”