Everyone loves “a" snack and everyone loves “to" snack. “A" snack is a small amount of food eaten between meals. “To" snack or “snacking" is therefore the act of taking a small amount of food between meals. Most Americans (94 percent) snack at least once a day and many, even more. The habit is a fixture in the American diet, but it’s not as ritualistic as it is in England, for example, where it’s often tea and a small crumpet a couple times a day, or in Italy where it’s a cappuccino and a small pastry. In America, we tend to snack early and often, with many of us not having too much consciousness about what we eat, like a single daily looked-forward-to tea or coffee break. Let’s face it: there is not a typical American way to snack, but snack food is readily available everywhere—at movie theaters, sports stadiums, art museums, food stores, filling stations, shopping malls and even in libraries and bookstores. If not consumed at a “place," a snack is eaten on the go, quickly. It’s often larger, whiter and more caloric than it should be. Like meals, snacks should be portioned, healthy, refreshing, colorful, satisfying and thoughtful. The health and natural food industry can help by developing snacks that are healthier, smaller and tastier. Key messages and claims are also possible on snack labels, as long as they are compliant with U.S. general and nutrition labeling laws and health claim regulations.
One way to address how to develop improved snacking is to study the needs and wants of different life stages. Young children have different needs and wants for snacking than a teenager, who is different than an active working adult, and who is different than a senior. “What" they snack on should be just as important as having a snack in the first place, and the “what" of a snack should be closely tied to best fit life’s needs and wants. Nutritionists, food scientists, and the health and natural food industry still have many opportunities to change the way Americans snack, and marketers can sell and message snacks in a healthy and thoughtful way. It is important that regulations be respected as much as what goes into snack development, so the edibles are safe and healthy, designed for the right population, and compliant on the marketplace.
Young children over 12 months of age up to the age of 5 years are growing, have small stomachs and high-energy levels, and need help eating and cutting their food. During this time, it’s important they eat healthy meals and snacks, and learn good eating habits. Young children need food that can be picked up with their fingers or utensils that are easy to hold. To help them better enjoy the snacking experience, they typically prefer small servings and increasing diversification. Snacks should reinforce healthy attitudes and include a variety of foods. Bite-sized pieces of raw fruits and veggies, cheese cubes and milk-based fruit smoothies are all good. Carbohydrate-rich snacks like salted crackers or cookies are probably not the best approach for food developers.
When children are hungry, they will generally eat the snack placed before them, so now is the time to develop healthy snacks with fiber, including prebiotics, probiotics, immune-supporting nutrients such as vitamins A and C, and brain-boosting nutrients such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), zinc and choline. The format of a snack for children is important—one that is made to look and feel like an adult’s salted snack may not be the best developmental approach. If a snack is designed and marketed for young children less than 2 or 4 years of age, it’s important to know FDA’s labeling provisions specific for these types of foods.
Older children and adolescents through the teen years have similar, but different growth and development needs as their younger siblings. They are now making their own decisions about what they want; caregivers have less control, as appetites and growth patterns wax and wane over these years with the growth spurts. Snacks should be fun to eat and taste good, like popcorn mixed with nuts or portion-controlled (individual) all-fruit bars. Individual cups of low-fat yogurt with fruit or nuts are readily available and 10-year-olds generally love yogurt with “bells and whistles" that require them to have an interactive experience with the food itself or even the package. String cheese and almonds, a soft pretzel with hummus, a hard-boiled egg and dried fruit, and baked corn- or veggie chips with bean dip are all good options for food developers for this age category (children need good sources of calcium, vitamin D, protein, vitamin A and zinc for healthy growth and development).
Parents and caregivers are happy to find healthy options, especially for fussy or poor eaters. Multivitamin dietary supplements and foods fortified with key nutrients help to fill the gaps, and they can be developed to be tasty, visually appealing and innovative. Snacks can have as much good flavors and nutrients as can be developed with the help of external consultants or a company’s experts. Here too it is important to understand the differences and similarities in regulations involving labeling and claims between a dietary supplement and a fortified food. Conventional foods, including snacks and beverages, for example, may bear certain kinds of claims about structure or function of the body (so-called “structure/function" claims which are useful when foods are fortified with essential nutrients), as long as the claimed effect derives from the product’s taste, aroma or nutritive value. Dietary supplements also may have structure/function claims and claims about general well-being, but additional requirements exist when these claims are made. Listing and declaration of ingredients is also different between conventional foods and dietary supplements, so it’s important to be clear on the respective regulations.
Adults have different needs and wants. Adult lifestyles are generally active and hectic—60 is the new 40. This, despite 33.8 percent of the adult population now being considered obese. In 1997, it used to be 19.4 percent. Tradition or ritual in food and even in snacking matters for adults because it keeps a certain order to things and prevents overeating. Too much variety at this stage tends to make an adult eat more. As mentioned, in England, the “afternoon tea" with a little something sweet or savory is the only excuse to snack. In America, any time of the day is a good excuse to eat something sweet, salty, or soft and buttery; that’s not necessarily good. All the more reason for food developers to make a snack for adults that is tasty, crunchy, visually appealing and smells super good. Appealing to the senses (in addition to the all-important taste) is a useful objective.
If a snack must come between meals, it should be conscious and purposeful, satisfy hunger, and be worth the calories and nutrition. Such considerations must be present if the food industry is ever to help Americans reduce or maintain weight and reduce or eliminate the risk of lifestyle-related diseases. Just like children, an adult learning to actually enjoy a small handful of crunchy granola or another portion-controlled snack can be a challenge, but it is achievable with food developers’ and food marketers’ great talent. Just like the movie star who talked about “conscious uncoupling," snacks for most American adults should be about “conscious uneating."
Snacking for seniors is different still. Calories continue to drop throughout the adult years, and seniors need 20-percent fewer calories daily than when they were 20. Dietary supplements may have a special role here to fill in nutrient gaps due to poor eating habits from depression, poor health or reduced mobility. Snacks can become part of the more frequent smaller meals throughout the day and play a more integral role in seniors’ nutrition. Purchasing long-life foods such as dried fruit and nut butters is good for senior snacking and accessibility. Individual rice puddings and soups are also a good choice, as are fortified flavored beverages. When developing foods for seniors, think softer and warmer. A reduction of disease risk claim on a label can also be valuable, but it is important to know and use FDA’s authorized health claims on snack foods and dietary supplements. Specific criteria have to be met, and no claim can state or imply that a product is useful in treating, mitigating, curing or diagnosing a disease, or FDA will consider the product an unauthorized drug and noncompliant.
These principles are a combination of good development sense and knowing regulations; getting these right will increase the value and purpose of healthy snacking. Healthy and tasty snacks with good messages and claims will help to increase awareness of eating habits, and providing choices with healthy content and compliant labeling should be the goal of those who make and sell them.
Click the following link to see a related infographic illustrating snack product development across the generations.
Jeanne M. Hoskin, Ph.D., senior consultant, EAS Consulting, consults with domestic and international clients on special dietary use foods including foods for special medical purposes. She is an expert in CODEX and U.S. and global infant formula regulations, including cGMPs (current good manufacturing practices); dietary supplement health claims and food labeling, including health and function claims; and submission dossiers.