Distracted eating is something many know all too well. Someone has a bad day, wanders into the kitchen and all of a sudden, an entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies has disappeared. 

Whoops. There goes another “snaccident.” It was the quintessential coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic snacking, rife with tension, said Davey McHenry, senior vice president of operations for The Hartman Group. People were home and not sure what the next day would bring. 

“You’re not paying attention, and the next thing you know, it’s gone. ‘I’m stressed out. I’m frustrated. I’m snacking for comfort,’ ” Ms. McHenry said at SNAC International’s recent gathering, SNX. “At the beginning of the pandemic, things were uncertain, and we were stuck at home with limited options. We saw a lot of consumers returning to ways they had eaten as children because of that comfort. We had consumers who said, ‘I bought blue-box mac and cheese not for the kids but for myself because I needed something to make me feel better.’ ”

Americans are big on snacking. Half of the eating done in the United States today is based on snacks, said Melissa Abbott, vice president of retainer services for The Hartman Group. Snack makers are courting them by offering flavor innovations, limited-time offers (LTOs) and more.

“Our snacking really anchors us more so than in other cultures,” Ms. Abbott said. “It’s more culturally acceptable to snack anywhere at any time compared to other cultures. You will see people eating on the streets, in Home Depot, literally eating off the hot bar at a Whole Foods and then walking throughout the store and doing their shopping.”

People snack for many reasons and to fulfill a variety of needs. Ms. McHenry broke it down into four categories: nourishment, optimization, pleasure and distraction.

Consumers tend to start their days and weeks on a positive note, snacking for health and nourishment. This includes looking for foods that will give them sustained energy like a high-protein bar that has minimal sugar or a snack that provides healthy fats. Optimization is snacking to help boost energy, relieve anxiety or help with mental focus, such as a snack with ashwagandha. 

Ms. Abbott added that Americans are looking to snacking to help boost nutrition by mimicking meals.

“Our snacking is just as important as our mealtimes in American culture,” she said. “So we look to fill those gaps with nutrition whether it’s fiber, protein, good fats, healthy carbohydrates. We look to make sure our snacks are representative of those things that should be showing up at our mealtime.”

However, in a recent webinar, Sally Lyons Wyatt, IRI executive vice president and practice leader, said the firm’s research found that consumers are snapping up truly indulgent snacks.

“Everyone was telling me before the research, ‘I guarantee you, it’s all going to be about better for you/wellness,’ ” she said in the IRI webinar, “Seesaw State of US Snacking.” “Well, surprise. It was really all around rewarding, indulgence and treating that still continued in ’21 versus 2020. It really is showing that balancing act that consumers were doing in ’21 as well as ’20 between eating right but also treating and rewarding. And the treating and rewarding is really where we saw big growth. It doesn’t mean, however, that permissible indulgence and wellness didn’t grow from a dollar perspective. They did, but you can see they were losing from a unit perspective.”

Many large snack makers have found themselves in the winning column when it comes to recent sales. Hostess Brands Inc., Lenexa, Kan.; Frito-Lay North America, Plano, Texas; Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, Mich.; and Hershey Co., Derry Township, Pa., recently reported that their snack brands helped lift the companies financially with most brands citing innovation as a key driver of growth.

 “Our largest portfolio segment, the developed market snacks, continued to generate strong growth led by world-class brands like Pringles, Cheez-It and others,” Steven A. Cahillane, chairman and chief executive officer of Kellogg, said in a May 5 conference call with investment analysts. “And our emerging markets collectively sustained double-digit growth.”

In prepared remarks for its first quarter results, Frito-Lay said many of its large, trusted brands drove strong growth during the quarter, with Doritos, Lay’s, Ruffles and Cheetos each delivering double-digit net revenue growth.

“Variety pack offerings continued to grow net revenue at a strong double-digit rate as consumer demand for portion control, variety and convenience remains strong,” the statement said. “Frito-Lay also continued to extend its large, trusted brands while delivering consumer-centric flavor and texture innovation with Doritos Flamin’ Hot Cool Ranch and Lay’s Layers.”

This article is an excerpt from the June 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Snacks, click here.