Post-Meal: Snacking as the Future of Eating

How our meals are downsizing and multiplying.

At the start of this year, US food company General Mills launched a new range of products that indicated the extent of a pervading trend in today’s food industry. From its Yoplait ‘Yogurt Dippers’ to its Nature Valley ‘Granola Cups’, each of these new products saw one of the company’s popular food brands be reimagined as a small, portable snack.

If current trends are to be believed, it is quite possible that the majority of our eating will soon take place through snacking. A study by Mintel in 2015 found that 94% of US adults snack at least once a day, and a further half of adults snack two to three times a day. Protein bars, cold-press juices, and packs of nuts are now being consumed as frequently and easily as morning coffees – and increasingly replacing our meals. According to NPD’s Generation Study ‘The Evolution of Eating’, annual consumption per capita of snack food at main meals is set to grow by 12 percent by 2024.

An explanation for this pluralisation of meals is the rise of time-poor lifestyles, which forbid people from having the required time to shop for, prepare, and cook food every day. A recent survey by YouGov found that one in eight people in the UK now avoid cooking from scratch, with around half (46%) stating their busy lifestyle simply doesn’t allow them the time to do it. This effect is being heightened further by the rising number of single households, where individuals are less motivated to cook, and where cooking for one can be both costly and inconvenient.

This rise of snacking can also be explained by the habits of the often-referenced millennials. Known for being short on time – the result of their always-on, work-life blurring lifestyles – many of this group are turning to healthy, quick bites as a means of replenishing their energy throughout the day. Around 39% of this group snack for this very reason, according to the same Mintel report.

The rise of meal replacements, which offer the nutrition of meals in one easy fix such as milkshake, show the extent of this functional snacking. Last year, Mintel also discovered that three in five US consumers now use such nutritional and performance drinks as replacements for meals.

Start-ups such as Huel and Soylent, which exist as powders or pre-mixed beverages, have gained popularity with these functional snackers. These brands, designed with minimal, no-nonsense packaging – an antithesis to the cosy look of the organic movement – appeal to on-the-move consumers who are solely interested in specific nutritional requirements. So functional is this kind of snacking that eating itself is reduced to its primary purpose of absorbing nutrients, while the pleasure of texture and taste take a back seat.

Taking an even more functional approach are a number of new snack brands that combine the convenience of meal replacements with specific cognitive-enhancements of ‘nootropics’. US-based Four Sigmatic, for example, has created a range of mushroom-based shakes and coffees that offer the pick-me-up of caffeine but with added brain-boosting benefits. Also in the US, start-up Nootrobox has launched a series of ‘chewable coffee’ sweets called Go Cubes that combined the caffeine-kick of coffee with nootropic ingredients that aim to reduce jitteriness and improve focus. With such specific benefits, these products go beyond meal supplementation, and instead supplement and provide fuel for the specific cognitive challenges that people face each day.

While the home-cooked, slap-up meal is, of course, unlikely to disappear anytime soon – there are simply too many cultural reasons preventing this – it does seem that our diets, particularly during time-poor moments, will contain a growing number of snacks. And for those snacks to really work, in addition to being small and portable, they must be fast, functional, and packaged without fuss.