Some of the science behind our snacking habit

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

How an eating occasion is labelled influences other food choices an individual makes on the same day and may even affect satiety after eating, but today, there still is no clear cut definition of what a snack is. Pic: GettyImages/Choreograph
How an eating occasion is labelled influences other food choices an individual makes on the same day and may even affect satiety after eating, but today, there still is no clear cut definition of what a snack is. Pic: GettyImages/Choreograph

Related tags snackification Snacks

The ‘snackification’ trend is at an all-time high with 25% of Americans confessing to snacking multiple times a day and 40% even admitting to replace a traditional sit-down meal with a snack.

The industry has certainly motivated to capitalise on this behaviour, pumping almost $14 billion annually on advertising in the US,​ according to the Uconn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity analysis of Nielsen data. More than 80% of this advertising promotes sugar and fat-laden snacks, fast food, sugary drinks and candy, dwarfing the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s entire $1 billion budget for all chronic disease prevention and health promotion in 2017.

Why do we snack?

Research has found various motivations behind snacking; the most common reasons to answer a growling stomach between meals or for an energy boost to get through the day. Other reasons snackers reach for something comforting is to fulfil a craving, relive a tasty moment, overcome boredom, to find solace and get through an emotional event.

Snacking can also be influenced by social culture, food culture and socioeconomic status. For example, in Mexico, snacks are usually foods that children could consume by themselves and were convenient and easy to prepare. The French have an eating occasion called goûter​ between lunch and dinner; similarly, in the Philippines (merienda) ​and Mexico (almuerzo).

In food-insecure populations, snacking is adopted as a strategy to feed individuals who have limited or uncertain access at all times to enough food for an active, healthful life.

The 2020 Food & Health Survey​ from the International Food Information Council revealed several insights into how Americans snack.

About a quarter of Americans said they snacked several times throughout the day, with one-third divulging in at least one snack daily. 40% said they occasionally replaced meals by snacking – lunch being the meal that tended to be swapped out – and 25% conceded to skipping meals entirely.

Snacking has certainly been spurred on by the pandemic, with more people under the age of 35 and parents with children under 18 years reporting to snack more than usual.

What is a snack?

Although there is a growing number of better-for-you options on the market – driven by the increased awareness that food is directly related to wellness – a vast majority of the snacks have been associated with weight gain, as well as with a lower or higher diet quality.

A 2018 study published in Psychology & Behaviour says the term ‘snack food’ tends to connote energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods​ that are high in sugar, sodium, and/or saturated fat, like cakes, cookies, chips and other salty snacks, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Another study found that snacking contributes close to one-third of daily energy intake.​ Snacking makes up about 27% of a child’s daily calorie intake, which is concerning when more than 30% of children and adolescents are overweight or obese.​ Data from the 2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that American kids between the ages of two and 11 did not get enough fibre, calcium, vitamin D and potassium, but have high intakes of calories, carbos and sodium.

That said, the Psychology & Behaviour study’s authors said the evidence to support health benefits or detriments to eating a snack remains unclear,​ in part because relatively few well-designed studies that specifically focus on the impact of eating frequency on health have been conducted.

This was backed up by a study published in Advances in Nutrition noted there is no scientific consensus of what constitutes a snack,​ either as an eating occasion or as a snack food and therefore cannot clearly determine if the behaviour has a positive or negative impact on nutrition and health outcomes.

Make every bite count

Nonetheless, the authors noted that food-based dietary guidelines issued by health experts frequently refer to ‘desirable’ or ‘undesirable’ snack choices, generally advising to limit options that offer little nutrition but are high in saturated fats, sugar and sodium.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 are issued to help the public ‘make every bite count’​and to make choices that are rich in nutrition will contribute towards a healthy routine for many years to come.


The benefits of defining ‘snacks’

Authors: Hess JM, Slavin JL.

Physiology & Behavior 2018 Sep 1;193:284-7

Food Marketing

UCONN Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity Accessed Feb 8, 2020

Snack food, satiety, and weight

Authors: Njike VY, Smith TM, Shuval O, et al.

Advances in nutrition 2016 Sep;7(5):866-78

Snacking for a cause: nutritional insufficiencies and excesses of US children, a critical review of food consumption patterns and macronutrient and micronutrient intake of US children

Authors: Hess J, Slavin J

Nutrients 2014 Nov;6(11):4750-9

Potter M, Vlassopoulos A, Lehmann U.

Snacking recommendations worldwide: a scoping review

Authors: Potter M, Vlassopoulos A, Lehmann U

Advances in Nutrition 2018 Mar 1;9(2):86-98

What is a snack, why do we snack, and how can we choose better snacks? A review of the definitions of snacking, motivations to snack, contributions to dietary intake, and recommendations for improvement

Authors: Hess JM, Jonnalagadda SS, Slavin JL

Advances in Nutrition 2016 May;7(3):466-75

2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 9th Edition

Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture

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