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What You Need to Know About Modern-Day Snacking


BELLEVUE, Wash. — Two of the most central questions surrounding modern-day snacking are: How did we get here? and What’s next?  

"Snacking is not just an interesting phenomenon of consumer behavior … but it really is crucial demand space for product and marketing development and strategic portfolio planning," Tamara Barnett, vice president of strategic insights for the Hartman Group, said during a recent webcast that shared information from the firm's latest snacking report, Future of Snacking 2016

According to the executive, the "modern era of snackified eating has fully emerged."

Back in 2013, results from the Hartman Group's Modern Eating Study revealed that the traditional three-meals-a-day consumption had begun to dissolve and give way to new forms of eating. Today, the firm's findings show that 91 percent of consumers snack multiple times throughout the day. Of these consumers, 8 percent forego meals altogether in favor of all-day snacking.

"Snacking no longer complements what we do in our meal eating, but many times, it is the foundation of the way we eat," stated Barnett.

Shifts in lifestyle, culture and values have led to this increase in snacking. Direct results of these shifts include: the upending of traditional, daily food rituals; change in wellness and culinary trends; and growing accessibility to food and food types.

Today, a net total of 50 percent of all eating occasions are snacking, according to the Future of Snacking 2016 report. 


The boundary between what comprises a meal vs. a snack has evolved over the years and is increasingly blurry. With 21 percent of consumers snacking more than they were five years ago, they say anything can be a snack, including leftovers (cited by 38 percent of consumers).

"In turn, the structure of meals is changing, creating new gray spaces," noted Barnett. For instance, 50 percent of "mini meal" eaters say the occasion replaced a traditional breakfast, lunch or dinner, while 20 percent say the occasion is in addition to a meal.

Associations with meals today are: normative daypart occasions that mark the beginning and end of the day; being shared (ideally) with other people; and satisfying a balance of nutrition, calories and quantity. On the other hand, snacks have fewer cultural underpinnings. Snacks are seen as in-between meal fillers; not required for nutritional balance; happening fluidly; and an individualized and personalized experience. 

At the core of snacking is the question of why. Hartman Group found that snack consumption occurs based on three key attributes:

1. Nourishment — Meets needs for daily sustenance, long-term wellness and health management for 56 percent of consumers.
2. Pleasure — Fulfills emotional desire for enjoyment, craving and comfort for 49 percent of consumers.​
3. Optimization — Satisfies physical and mental performance demands for 34 percent of consumers.

Snacking tends to increase as the day progresses, when there is a greater desire to indulge rather than exercise restraint, the researcher found. Nearly one quarter of consumers (23 percent) partake in an early morning snack even before having breakfast. After lunch, 43 percent are indulging in an afternoon pick-me-up, and 26 percent satisfy a late-night indulgence before bed.

Food and beverage choices also reflect how snacking drivers change throughout the day. For early and mid-morning snacks, consumers are searching for nourishment and prefer coffee (30 percent) and fruit/fruit snacks (16 percent). In the afternoon, consumers look for optimization with fruit/fruit snacks (14 percent), and salty snacks like chips or popcorn (13 percent) and crackers (11 percent). Pleasure-seeking consumers indulge mostly in sweet snacks like candy, cake or ice cream (23 percent) for their after-dinner and evening snacking quest.


Consumers are resourceful when it comes to where they make their snack purchases, They keep a working geography of primary and secondary stores based on need, proximity, loyalty/trust, budget, and the snacking occasion itself.

The top five retailers meeting specific snacking needs are:

  • Snack Generalists (traditional grocery). Despite attrition, grocery remains the most enduring channel for routine snack shopping.
  • Snack Destinations (convenience, dollar, drug). Such destinations are uniquely positioned to satisfy snack occasions more so than needs.
  • Snack Pantry Stockers (mass, supercenter, club). These channels orient to large stock-up purchases and allow for one-stop shopping of snacks and beyond.
  • Snack Innovators (natural/specialty). This channel provides unique, playful and globally inspired items that have a health and quality connection.​
  • Snack Specialists (online subscription services). This small but diversified channel specializes in snack exploration.

This breakdown provides some coherence to the "messiness of snacking," according to Barnett. 

"When you look at snacking only by daypart, who, when, where and why, you can get mired in the endless number of permutations of snacking occasions that there are," she said. "This framework takes the plethora of snacking and ultimately resonates with one or more of these drivers. ... These drivers represent a thematic shift in food value that have influenced snacking. ... They also underlay the framework for challenges and opportunities for manufacturers and retailers."

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