How America turned into a nation of snackers

How America turned into a nation of snackers

America’s eating habits have always changed with the times. The Industrial Revolution ushered in the three-meals-a-day template. Packaging innovations at the dawn of the 20th century introduced snacks to the mainstream. Massive supermarkets gave consumers a seemingly endless array of bright, shiny items to choose from.

And during the pandemic, the major shift in how millions of Americans work opened up new snacking categories — that’s good news for snack sellers, but not for our health.

The US snack market grew from about $116.6 billion in 2017 to an estimated $150.6 billion in 2022, and is forecasted to grow to $169.6 billion in 2027, according to Euromonitor International, which includes fruit snacks, ice cream, cookies, snack bars, candy and tasty snacks in the category.

“Snacking today, it is pervasive,” said Sally Lyons Watt, executive vice president at the market research company IRI. “It’s a lifestyle.”

Not until recently, though.

From three square meals to snacks whenever

It may be the norm today, but historically, eating three meals a day was “certainly not standard,” said Ashley Rose Young, a food historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The practice came into vogue in the United States thanks to the Industrial Revolution, when factory schedules dictated workers’ eating patterns.

“You would want to have a meal prior to heading to work to fuel you through the day,” said Young. Then “there would be a midday break, to refuel your energy … and then a post-work meal.”

As meals grew standardized in the United States, new rules around eating emerged—and with them, new attitudes toward snacking.

A peanut stand on West 42nd Street in New York City, circa 1905.

In the 19th century, snacks like peanuts were sold by street vendors, and stigmatized for being associated with the working class and poor, Abigail Carroll explained in “Three Squares,” her 2013 book about American snacking and eating habits. “When meals — especially dinner — became more social, more mannerly, and more rigidly defined, snacking became transgressive,” she wrote.

But food sellers saw a business opportunity in snacks — if they could figure out a way to get them off the streets and into the home. To do that, they needed better packaging, something that would seal an item and keep it fresh.

Eventually, one set of entrepreneurs cracked the code, kicking the door open for the rest of the industry. Their product? CrackerJack.

Hit the mainstream snacks

Frederick and Louis Rueckheim, German brothers who lived in Chicago, developed the sweet popcorn and peanut snack. In 1896, they traveled with it from city to city sharing samples and spreading the word about the product, Carroll recounted. To keep Cracker Jack fresh longer, they worked with a man named Henry Eckstein, who developed a special wax lining for the bags it was sold in. In following years, companies like Nabisco and Kellogg built on that technology or adapted it for their own items, kicking the door open for others.

Cracker Jack's innovative packaging helped usher in a new era for snacks.

Over the years, other shifts in American culture and technology made snacking on-the-go even more attractive, noted Young, the food historian.

Microwaves, first introduced in 1955, allowed for a whole new type of packaged foods. And after World War II, more people started buying their groceries from mass retailers, rather than their neighborhood green grocer. “You have these huge supermarkets with shelves and shelves full of boxed snacks,” Young said, which contributed to the country’s snacking culture.

And once millennials started shopping for themselves, the trend accelerated further.

Snacking today

Boomers and Gen Xers tend to indulge in a snack in the afternoon or evening, said IRI’s Watt, who has been tracking snacking trends for decades. Millennials, however, also snack in the morning.

“Millennials really did start to change the way in which [people] eat,” said Watt. “You definitely started to see smaller meals and or snacks … being consumed throughout the day,” she said.

Then the pandemic hit, and another shift occurred, Watt noted: People started eating more late-night snacks.

That was partly because of how people spent their days during the pandemic. With kids stuck at home during traditional working hours, some parents put in more work hours at night and reach for snacks to refuel. Others developed new routines that included staying up later.

The option of a late-night treat without having to leave your home became newly available thanks to the sudden proliferation of 15-minute delivery services, which encouraged people to order an item or two when they had a sudden craving.

Now, as people return to the office and a more regular work schedule, they may be less interested in late-night snacking. But food sellers will likely keep trying to market food for that timeframe. “I don’t think they’re going to fall off and not be relevant,” said Watt.

Not all snacks are the same

So what does all this snacking mean for our health? It depends on what you consider a snack.

“Those who are picking whole fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean protein sources, or are conscious of the portion size of their snack — it can sometimes help them meet certain recommendations and guidelines,” said Jessica Bihuniak, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

But other items, like candy, soda or chips, with saturated fats, high sodium levels and added sugars, can create unhealthy habits. “Regular intake” of these types of items “can increase a preference for these types of foods, leading to a change in eating behaviors and diet quality,” according to the Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source, the school’s general guide to healthy eating .
Looking at ingredients and nutritional information can help consumers understand what, exactly, is in their snack.

Snack sellers offer so-called “better for you” options, which may have less sugar or come in smaller packs for portion control. For some, such alternatives can be very helpful when it comes to weight management, said Bihuniak, noting that people should be mindful of serving sizes because smaller packages may still have more than one serving.

When it comes to shelf-stable packaged goods—even those that claim that they’re better for you—consumers should read the nutritional information on the packages.

“They did something to it to make it shelf stable,” Bihuniak said. “The important part there is looking at food labels,” she said, and watching out for sodium content, added content and saturated fat. Your healthiest option, she said, is probably something that doesn’t come in a package at all, like a piece of fruit or a crunchy veggie.

It’s also worth noting that recent studies have found that all ultra-processed foods are linked to cancer and early death.

It’s less clear whether when or how often you eat matters. For some, it’s just easier to snack rather than carve out time for sit-down meals, Bihuniak said. But as long as you’re making the right food choices, “I think that’s completely fine.”

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