Expanding the Definition of Snacks

We once could have defined the four basic food groups of the snack universe as"sugar, salt, fat and fast." That definition is expanding while the boundaries are disappearing.

By John K. Ashby

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The definition of "snack" is changing faster than ever — and for the better, nutritionally. For decades the snack archetype was the potato chip, with crackers, cookies and candy hovering close. But the marketplace has changed and, as in any survival of the fittest situation, snacks are evolving. Ironically, they are evolving toward that which is fittest.

As the nutritional profile of a large segment of the snack market improves, the public health impact of these nutritional improvements by large food players is not to be taken lightly either, because these are changes in the formulations of a class of products commanding an enormous share of the market. The removal/reduction of trans fats is perhaps the most noticeable major change in the way snacks are being formulated and reformulated.

Trans ~ ition

Much of the impetus toward creating healthier snacks came out of — and was in many ways enabled by — the impending trans fat labeling requirement. Whether caused or enabled, the result is the same: Virtually all research data show the labeling and reduced use of trans fats can be expected to improve the cardiovascular impact of snacks on consumers.

A STAR IS BORN

The history of modern snacks may have begun in 1853 — as an act of spite. History has it that Cornelius Vanderbilt did not like the fried potatoes he was served because they were too thick, so he sent them back to the kitchen. The chef, George Crum, was incensed by the criticism. Crum took some potatoes, sliced them as thin as he could, fried them and sent them out â€" to great acclaim. Over a century and a half later, the potato chip is still the king of snacks.
Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas, holds a 60 percent share of the core salty snack food market, with sales totaling over $13 billion annually. The company took a jump ahead of the pack, garnering good publicity along the way by completing a conversion to zero grams of trans fats in their Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos snack brands. Lay's, Ruffles, Fritos and Rold Gold Pretzels always contained zero grams of trans fat, which now makes their entire line of branded snacks zero-trans products. Also in 2003, Frito-Lay was the first company to change the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of packaging to include a trans fat content line. This was done well in advance of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's 2006 mandate. The other big players are not far behind.

One interesting murmur in the snack manufacturing world that hasn't received enough attention is the use of fully hydrogenated oils that do not create trans configurations. Specifically, it is noteworthy that such hydrogenated fats could be an option for replacement of trans or other types of partially hydrogenated fats while achieving the "0 trans fats" goal.

This trial balloon raises conflicting issues of fat chemistry, metabolism and overall efficacy that have yet to be sorted out. However, the fact that it comes up for discussion indicates there are segments of the industry interested in finding something for their hydrogenation facilities to do as trans fats fall from favor.

What's in a Name?

Along with changes in snack formulations come significant changes in the way products are being packaged, labeled and marketed.

Frito-Lay, again showing initiative, developed a special identifying label for its health-oriented products â€" the "Smart Snack Ribbon." The criteria a Frito-Lay snack food must meet to display this ribbon were developed by Kenneth Cooper, M.D. at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas. Cooper is the fitness and exercise pioneer who brought aerobics to world popularity with his landmark 1968 book, Aerobics.

Cooper has spearheaded efforts to shift the medical industry from disease treatment to disease prevention, especially through exercise. With the Frito-Lay initiative he is working toward improving the health of consumers through developing and endorsing this set of criteria for snack foods. To comply, a 1-oz. serving must contain 150 calories or less, with less than 35 percent of calories from total fat, less than 7 percent of calories from saturated fat, no trans fat and 240 mg or less of sodium.

Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., also implemented its own "Health and Wellness Initiative." With respect to snack labeling, Kraft's 100-calorie packages promote the exact opposite behavior of "super sizing." The goal is to help to emphasize reasonable portion sizes, in discreet and obvious ways. Simply put, if you want more than 100 calories, you have to open another package.

Kraft Foods, by many accounts the second largest U.S. food and beverage company, reports $9 billion annual sales in the snack category. It has committed to changing the way it reports nutrition information. The biggest change is providing total package nutrition information if the package contains less than two servings. If the snack package is expected sometimes to be eaten by one person and sometimes shared, then nutrition information is provided for both the entire package and for a single serving.

This addresses expressed consumer dissatisfaction with misleading serving sizes designed to make the product look better rather than reflect the common amount of a food consumers actually consume. The goal is to make it easier for the consumer to get valid nutrition information. Additionally, Kraft is revising all its packaging to include nutrition information for products in countries where no nutrition labeling is required.

General Mills Inc., Minneapolis, as widely reported last fall, has committed to making all its cereals from whole grains. While this will certainly lead to the consumption of more whole grains, it will also validate for children (and adults, for that matter) the message that whole grain foods taste great.

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