We’re becoming a nation of snackers. That, at least, seems to be the takeaway from a recent Wall Street Journal article that reports that the percentage of Americans who snack at least three times a day has nearly tripled over the last several decades, from 20 percent in the 1990s to 56 percent in 2010 (the latest data available). The number was just 10 percent in the late 1970s.
You might think that that goes a long way toward explaining our ever-expanding waistlines, but it’s not so clear as that. For many Americans, a snack isn’t a supplement to the traditional three square meals a day; snacks are those meals.
Among the bevy of rat-a-tat stats typical of your average WSJ trend article are these culled from a study by a consumer research firm last year: Nearly half of Americans (48 percent) say they skip meals at least three times a week, while 63 percent decide what to eat less than an hour before sitting down.
The Journal calls it a “snack revolution” and cites several factors: “The rise in single-person households, the increase in baby boomers with empty nests, and the increasingly hectic lives of two-career families,” in which shuttling kids to Little League practice, dance recitals, gymnastics, and the like after work trumps family dinnertime.
As you’d expect, the food industry is acting quickly to capitalize on the food-as-nothing-more-than-fuel craze. Whereas once upon a time, a bowl of cold cereal and milk may have seemed a sad substitute for a good old-fashioned, hot-and-hearty breakfast, it seems today Americans don’t even think they have time to stop to listen to the snap, crackle, and pop. Cereal maker Kellogg reports a 3.1 percent drop in overall sales last quarter as it tries to bring more “on the go” breakfast products to market.
Likewise, the Journal reports that the snack division of General Mills saw sales rise 6 percent over the last year, while sales in its “meals” division (which includes stalwart brands such as Hamburger Helper and Old El Paso) shrank by 4 percent. Over the past five years, sales of potato chips, snack bars, and nuts have all spiked. General Mills has even launched an online delivery service for snacks, Nibblr, through which “subscribers” get regular delivery of snack boxes via the U.S. Postal Service that include a dizzying array of quirkily named crunch mixes studded with dried fruit: My Ipanema Love, Oh My Thai, Yogurt-Na Love It.
While the Journal article focuses on big food’s reaction to our nation’s collective snack attack, fast-food chains have also been keen to satisfy our 24-7 cravings. “Every daypart is a snack daypart,” exhorted research and consulting firm Technomic last fall, using the industry jargon “daypart” for what most of us would simply call the time of day, while another firm, Baum + Whiteman, identified the “snackification of America” as one of its top restaurant trends last year.
This has not only given us a flurry of menu options that clearly identify themselves as snack-worthy (e.g., SnackWraps at McDonald’s) but also a proliferation of “bites” (from chicken bites to pancake bites) and “dollar” and “value” menus, which industry commentators have pointed out essentially read as “snack” menus to customers, particularly millennials.
The Journal reports that, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there’s no real scientific consensus on whether it’s healthier to eat three meals a day or to snack throughout. That would seem to make sense. If you spend your day grazing on things like nuts and fruit and low-fat yogurt, you’re liable to be healthier than if you stuff your face with Egg McMuffins, pizza, and pretty much whatever’s on the menu at the Cheesecake Factory for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
But gathering to eat a solid meal has always been about more than just the food. According to the Family Dinner Project, which bills itself as “a start-up grassroots movement of food, fun, and conversation about things that matter,” regularly sitting down to dinner as a family has been linked through scientific studies to lower rates of everything from substance abuse and depression to obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents. Some of the findings are surprising. “Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading,” the Family Dinner Project website reports.
More than that, it seems our collective move toward a “grab-and-go” snack culture pushes us even further away from developing a healthy connection with what we eat. When we equate food with fuel and expect meals to take no more time (or less time) than it takes to fill up our cars, we buy into the notion of food as commodity—the cheaper and more convenient the better—which has saddled us with everything from the environmental destruction associated with industrial agriculture and factory farming to the profusion of processed food that, when you come down to it, is at the heart of our national health crisis.