There is a shift under way in how consumers eat, said Melissa Abbott, vice-president of culinary insights for The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. She spoke Jan. 18 during the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and explained how snacking and single-serve trends will drive the specialty food business.

“Wellness and deliciousness go hand-in-hand,” she said.

Today’s consumers tend to keep healthful snacks convenient so they are not attempted to reach for empty calories when experiencing hunger pangs.

“Grazing has become an all-day activity for many,” Ms. Abbott said. “So it’s very important to not tell the consumer that a certain snack is for a specific daypart. Let the consumer decide when they will snack on a certain food.”

If they want a heat-and-eat rice bowl for breakfast, then so be it. Yogurt before bedtime, go right ahead.

“Snacking has evolved from merely an incidental eating behavior to a purposeful, rich, cultural practice,” Ms. Abbott said.

Hartman Group data show 80% of all snacking is purposeful, meaning it fulfills a physical, emotional, social or cultural desire. Only 20% all snacking is aimless, which is driven by an awareness of the availability of food rather than a need or desire. Today’s consumers are less about large, indulgent snacks, as well as snacking when bored or as a reward. Smaller, healthier options, often distinct and different, increasingly are appealing.

“Consumers are trying to be healthy, which is why they have greater expectations of foods positioned as snacks,” she said.

Reviewing the demographics shows a majority is participating in the rise of snacking. The reasons why often vary, however. For example, for the mother who sits down in the middle of the afternoon with some hummus and celery, snack time may be “me time,” right before the craziness of school pickup and the time for dinner and homework.

Energy and weight management continue to be two key aims of snacking today. Consumers have learned that snacking on foods that deliver nutrients is a more natural way to fuel the body throughout the day, rather than grabbing for a Red Bull, Ms. Abbott said.

She said the 100-calorie packs are no longer attractive because, too often, more than one was consumed. This caused guilt rather than satisfaction.

Today’s new snack foods increasingly are supported by health and wellness cues in portable, single-serve formats, with the idea of beverages as a snack exploding. Beverages may be satiating, nutritious and fun.

“Sipping for playful wellness has become a cultural norm,” Ms. Abbott said.

Consumers like to express themselves by the beverage they are walking around with. This is particularly true for millennials.

In general, millennials want to experiment with food, including snacks. This is why there’s an opportunity for specialty foods to compete in the snacking space.

“For millennials, global tastes cue fresher, less processed,” Ms. Abbott said. They also don’t pantry stock on traditional snacking staples. They like the idea of buying a small quantity. They like authentic foods made by people, not a manufacturing plant.

Other key takeaways from the presentation include:

  • At 50% of all eating occasions, snacks are no longer simply whimsical, throwaway or anomalous moments. They are an essential part of how consumers eat in modern food culture.

  • Snacks are bound by fewer rules than meals, and yet the lines between meals and snacks are blurring. Because snacks essentially may be anything, the competitive set for snacks is broadening.

  • Consumers eat whenever and however they want. About 90% of consumers are engaging in modern snacking, which is characterized by flexible rules and structure.

  • Consumers expect snacks to do more for them in terms of the physical, emotional, social and cultural experiences they offer.

  • The “physical” work that snacks do —from hunger abatement to nutritional support — are some of the leading drivers for snacking today.

  • The key attributes of today’s snacks are: fresh, less processed, sustained energy, going global and flexible formats.
This article originally appeared in Food Business News.